People like to talk to me. I don’t know if I have a certain presence about me or if my face seems particularly inviting, but people young and old, strange and familiar have always liked telling me things. Sometimes that means I have a discussion about this week’s weather or rush hour traffic on Nicholasville Road that spans an elevator ride from the lobby to the eighth floor. Sometimes that means a two minute trip to the dry cleaners turns into a 20 minute conversation about Miss Chandra’s three-month-old grandchild.
The chats are often cheerful. Our UPS delivery man sharing a joke he heard yesterday. The panini artist at the College of Pharmacy lunch counter complimenting my shoes and bragging about a recent splurge of her own.
Other times the conversations are more serious. A son with a brain tumor. A girlfriend of 7 years turning down a sparkling ring.
Regardless of place or subject matter, I always stay an listen. It is often inconvenient—people make me late all the time, I forget important things I was doing because I am sidetracked by these tales, and my moods are drastically effected by the things I take in. But I can’t help myself. It’s almost as if I need to listen just as badly as they need to get it off their chests.
My new husband doesn’t understand this. Actually, I’d venture to say it drives him a bit crazy.
On our recent Mediterranean vacation, Elliott was driven off the top deck and down to our dark cabin deep in the bowels of the ship just to escape an elderly Italian couple who picked me out of 2,836 people and sat down on the lounge chair next to mine to discuss their fifty years of “amare and matrimonio.”
A Mexican band played Italian music as we sat anchored in the Ionian Sea off the coast of Greece; couples danced between deck chairs, not even bothering to assemble a dance floor; the sun set quietly over the water. And Benedetto and his lovely wife Eleanora recounted five decades together. What are your secrets?, I wanted to know.
“E simplice,” Benedetto said. “I treat her like she is the most speciale person in the world. Why marry someone if they just treat you like you’re a persona comune?”
Special, he said. It’s that simple. No one wants to be treated like just an ordinary person.
This is why her husband is “insostituibile,” Eleanora says. Irreplaceable.
Benedetto tells the story of their wedding day. He remembers her dress and her smile, the flowers she wore in her hair. “I asked myself that morning,” he said, “‘ would we have things to speak about for the next fifty years?’ The answer was yes, so we married.” Friendship above love, he said. “I always knew I’d love her forever. That was never in question. But could we stay friends? Marriage is about friendship above all else.”
People like to talk to me. It often interrupts my day, interferes in a quiet moment or barges into my personal agenda. Elliott wants to know why I always listen: because I get just as much out of it as they do.
It’s 45 degrees and raining tonight at home and I’m missing the balmy Greek Isles as I make my way through the halls of the hospital to visit my mother.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” an older woman stops me in the hall, “can you tell me how to get to room 5227?”
“I can’t tell you exactly, but I can walk you there.”
And so we set off. “I’m sorry,” she apologizes, “I get lost every time I’m here.”
“It’s no problem,” I tell her. “No one should know their way around a hospital.”
“You know where you’re going,” she observes and I shrug.
“I’m good with directions,” I lie.
We make it to the first bend in the hallway before she starts talking. I smile to myself and the predictability of it all. Well, her husband, John, got a new car, and her granddaughter, Rainy, hurt her shoulder, but the chiropractor says he is sure it’s her neck instead, and on their recent family vacation to Tunica, their hotel room looked out over a cotton field so they got to watch farmers bail cotton all week …
I listen and I file her stories away with the rest of them, who knows when I may need to recall them some day. I spend three hours sitting at the foot of my mom’s hospital bed tonight, talking about our recent vacation, catching her up on neighborhood and family gossip, and discussing plans for upcoming holidays. Three hours of me talking while she eats dinner, while she tries to find something to watch on TV, while her IV bags are switched in and out. And Mom just listens.
Elliott doesn’t understand, but it is more “simplice” than he thinks: everyone needs someone who will listen. Whether it is to a joke or to a story of hardship or triumph or just to the mundane recount of their day. They want someone to talk to. After all, it’s a long road to wisdom, but it’s a short one to being ignored.