"A mother never dies," the man said to me. "A mother never dies."
His name is John. We met on the subway, five days before Mother's Day. I was taking the C train uptown, and luckily the stifling hot, crowded train partially emptied out at 42nd Street. The seats were still packed, but you didn't have to hug yourself tight while you clutched the rail.
Before I knew his name, John offered me his seat. I used to be the kind of fearful feminist who thought turning down any help was a good thing. Now I remain a proud feminist, but I've learned enough about men to accept true chivalry for what it is: a meaningful ritual that can be examined, and refused, but gently. So I told him that I preferred to stand, not because I didn't want to be beholden to him, but because I actually like to stand. I even have a standing desk.
John was a little worn around the edges...fifty-something, wearing the uniform of a working man's government agency. He was a thin man with large liquid eyes that were exaggerated by the thickness of his glasses.
I noticed the flowers. He had a series of bags perched on his lap and between his calves, with green leaves peeking out, and I asked him what kind of flowers they were.
"They're silk," he said. They were the kind of silk flowers that looked real, down to brown blemishes and discolored leaves. He explained that he used to have a green thumb, but that he seemed to have lost it. But he loved flowers. I asked him if his apartment had light. He said no. I just moved back to New York a few days ago, and one of the things I remember is how little light some of the apartments have. John said that when he went into plant stores, he always asked if the plants would grow with scant light. And the clerks always promised they would. And then they died.
I have to explain here that, as we talked about plants, I'd made a decision about this man. I didn't know his name, but I recognized his gesture. He was offering me a genuine gift. I did not choose to accept his gift (of the seat) in the form in which he offered it, but I offered my conversation instead.
So as we went uptown, we talked about his plants, and then he asked, "What are you doing for Mother's Day?" I explained that my sister and I were not going home to Baltimore, which we often did for the holiday, because we'd see our mother the next weekend.
He took a moment and said, "Your mother is still alive. You're lucky." He told me that his mother had died in his arms four years ago. He told me how much he loved her. And then he said, "A mother never dies."
I asked him what his mother's name was. For the sake of his privacy, I will say her name is Essie.
The train cleared out even more. He motioned for me to sit beside him. I did. He hung his head, trying to disguise his tears. Like most of us who ride the trains burdened with bags like pack mules, he bunched his purchases up between his knees and on his lap, and the bags provided a bit of cover for his emotions.
He looked up at me and, ashamed of his tears, said, "I'm sorry."
"It's healthy," I said. "I don't think people cry enough."
I've cried in the office, on planes, and on the street. I don't do it often, but when the spirit hits you (and for me it's often when I think of my grandmother) then the worst thing to do is to stifle your pain. Tears are the rain that washes the oil out of the gutter. They are the downpour that comes when you are outside with no umbrella, wearing your best outfit. If you can get over the fact that your clothes are soaked, and that you can't hide, you might enjoy the caress of the water.
I believe that for most of us, grief is a process that slows but never ends. Buddhist teachings urge us to renounce our attachments, including grief. But there's a story I like about a monk who teaches freedom from attachment to all of his students. Then his son dies. He cries deeply in front of his students. "But why are you crying?" one of them asks. He said, "I am a bad student." He could not hold to his own teachings.
But that's not a failure. It's just life. John will probably hold Essie's death in his heart until he dies. That's life. He will always have her love. That too is just life.
Life includes reconciliation. Like most strong-willed women, I had issues with my strong-willed mother. And then, I learned to live with them. I didn't get over them, exactly, but she and I became two adults who love and accept each other, as opposed to a mother and daughter fighting over power.
Strangers may not present the challenge of personal history, but they do raise questions of trust. John and I didn't exchange names until we had talked about love and loss. We were lucky. Many of us today live our lives physically surrounded by people, but remain fundamentally alone. Seminal books like "Bowling Alone" and recent studies about psychology and the internet say we are trapped in isolation and alienation. I do think we are separated, but I don't think we have to be.
I don't trust everyone, but I think I have a pretty good radar. During the '90s and early zeroes, I lived in New York for ten years. I can count on one hand the number of times a stranger here has acted dangerous or hostile. (I'm not talking about your average grumpy cab driver, mind you.) I don't believe people are fundamentally good. Good and harm are two sides of human nature. But I do believe you can choose to extend the goodness within you, and you will often get it in return.
On that note, somebody at a party said to me once, "You can recognize a spiritual warrior by her smile." I smiled even wider and said "namaste." It's a greeting that means, "The divine in me recognizes the divine in you." The woman returned the greeting.
It turns out that she has a son who is autistic. He cannot speak, but miraculously (for the brain and heart are wonderful things), he can write...and writes poetry. She's put it together into a book. She and her husband are definitely spiritual warriors.
I don't claim the title of spiritual warrior. I'm just a woman who's fascinated by people, and who thrives on having these moments of connection. I'm constantly amazed by the cycle of life, and I'm willing to claim my own journey and walk my own path.
Today, my path brought me to John, who looked up at me as I was leaving the subway car and smiled a grateful smile. I returned it, and waved as I stepped off the train.
To John, and "Essie": Happy Mother's Day. A mother never dies. And our hearts never need reject true connection, whether it's offered by a relative or a stranger.