As do many couples with young children, Sam and I had a standing Saturday evening “date night.” This weekly respite saved our sanity more than once, especially after we found the wonderful Madeleine. She was pretty and kind and gentle, and the boys adored her. She was organized and careful, and the kitchen was spotless when we got home. We adored her, too. Maddy was a junior in high school when she first started watching the boys, but she was incredibly mature and preeminently reliable. From the first night she tucked them into their pajamas and read stacks of board books to them until the very sad day she left us to go away to college, she only canceled on three Saturday nights: her debutante ball, her senior prom and the day her mother died.
We didn’t even know her mother was sick. A cousin called us Saturday afternoon to let us know that she was terribly sorry but Maddy would not be able to watch the boys that evening. We were stunned, heavy-hearted and embarrassed. How could we not have known? And how did she have the wherewithal to make sure her cousin called? It turns out her mother had been ill with cancer for some time, and that we – precisely because of our ignorance – provided a sanctuary for her during what was a difficult and emotional time. She was a blessing to us, but we were a blessing to her, too.
Sometime after she had gone away to school and after Sam’s death, I happened to run into the wonderful Maddy at the Post Office. I asked how school was going, and she told me she had decided to transfer back to a local college. She asked how the family was doing, and I told her that Sam had died. We made sure we had each other’s current phone numbers, and soon afterward, Maddy was watching the boys again, sometimes while I was working, often when I was going to book group, and occasionally for a Saturday evening date night with a certain handsome widower.
I can’t remember if I cried in the Post Office the day we reconnected, although it’s entirely likely, but I distinctly remember thinking that this chance meeting was not a coincidence. Maddy’s presence in our lives – before and after Sam’s suicide – feels like a gift. Not only had she known the boys from the time when the so-called baby was, in fact, a baby, but she knew their father. And she knew from experience that Sam was a good and kind man, a perspective that his sons so appreciated hearing. She also knew what it was like to lose a parent at a young age, and there is much comfort to be had in the companionship of a heart that understands.
To this day, we hardly ever refer to her as simply Maddy, she is “the wonderful Maddy.” She has earned her degree and completed a credential program, she is married and has moved, but we stay in touch. We will forever hold a special place in our hearts for the wonderful Maddy, and I will always be grateful that I saw her in the Post Office that day.
A few weeks ago, toward the middle of December, I found myself standing in line at the local Post Office with a package in my hands, surrounded by folks with packages and boxes of holiday cards to mail, and needless to say, I was not alone. The young woman in front of me was initially discouraged by the length of the line, but, she confided, she was actually enjoying the time to herself. Her toddler son was home with her husband, and she would rather bide her time in line than go back home to order stamps online. She reached into her purse for a picture of the young Nicholas and realized she had left her phone in the car. She dashed out to retrieve her phone, but she didn’t need to rush. We hadn’t budged by the time she returned to her place. We were there for the duration.
Nicholas is adorable, of course, and his mother shares a story of his latest adventure and mischief. She frets about his sleeping, confessing that her mother-in-law doesn’t approve of their parenting approach. It’s amazing what people will share with complete strangers, bonded as we are by the mutual experience of waiting in line for stamps. She is exhausted, but happy. I smile and encourage her, remembering those sleepless nights with a fondness that wasn’t quite so vibrant at the time, thinking about how teenagers keep us parents awake at night for entirely different reasons. I don’t say this out loud. I marvel that parents ever sleep soundly again after that first baby arrives.
She asks whether I have children, and I am, of course, pleased to reciprocate by relating tales of my own brood of four sons. She asks their ages and what the college graduate does now, and then she admits that she’s thinking about when to have another baby and asks what the spacing of my children was like when all four of them were little. It seems a benign question, but this business of striking up a conversation with a stranger can be treacherous. I rarely lead with the conversation-stopping, “I was widowed when I was 39 and my sons were 6 and 8 at the time,” but questions like hers are almost impossible to answer without divulging this little bit of history. I didn’t give birth to all four sons, as she has assumed, although I wished for an epidural more than once as my then-teenaged boys and I navigated the early days of our relationship. I honestly don’t know what it would have been like to have all four as babies, because we didn’t come together as a family in that way.
Her face falls as she takes in this idea of a young parent’s death, a widow, and children left without a father. She recovers quickly, because she already knows that my story doesn’t end there, but she seems unsettled, as though she just remembered she urgently needs to get back to Nicholas.
Today I am in the Post Office mailing a care package to my college boy, and I notice a toddler discovering her power. While her father is standing to the side, filling out the forms for Certified Mail with Return Receipt Requested, she is systematically catching the eye of every person who walks through the door and then smiling. To a person, they respond in kind. She is delighted. When she catches my eye, I do the same.
I hope she will continue to use this superpower of hers, this ability to connect and bring joy, that she will remember that she can turn a stranger into a friendly face with her own warm smile, and that she will be awed by the fact that our relationships are linked together in ways that we cannot imagine.
Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And on your trip to the Post Office.