On Special Strangers

June 22nd, 2017 1 comment

A little over four years ago, a very pregnant woman walked into the offices of a weekly shipping newspaper. She had an interview with the editor, a woman looking to retire, after 30-odd years as a journalist. The pregnant one was almost 40, the editor did not like to reveal her age, though her endless devotion to her career and her fight with cancer may have given it away, if it wasn’t for her mischievous smile, and the jokes she made every time the preggo ran to pee during the interview.

The pregnant woman was offered the job; a few months of training and she’d eventually take over as editor of the Athens bureau. She didn’t really believe it, she was thinking the older woman was just being nice, knowing that she’d never take it, even though she never had children of her own, and devoted her life to journalism.

After the official interview, the older woman suggested they go for a drink, she gathered up her stuff, left the rest of the staff with directions for the rest of the afternoon, and took preggo for a glass of wine at a bar down the street. They talked and talked, about things that two strangers don’t usually discuss, the younger woman had a cigarette, the older one chased the snakes of smoke with her nose, joking about her cancer-ridden lungs.

“I really want this job.” preggo said. “But I don’t know if I can leave a newborn at home to chase shipowners and their stories. I want to be a mom. But I want to have a career and this is the best chance I’ll ever get.”

“I can’t help you make that choice.”

The younger looked into the eyes of the older, trying to read what was behind that sentence, but found nothing. There was no answer, no pity, there was no secret knowledge, there was no regret.

Eventually they hugged and went their separate ways.

That night, the future stay-at-home mom sat on her kitchen counter, legs spread to let her massive belly breathe, and cried. She cried for what she knew she was giving up, she cried for the amazing person that touched her life for a mere three hours, she cried for what she was never going to have, and for what she soon would have.

Cancer finally won, as it tends to do, a few weeks ago, a little over a year after the older woman finally decided to retire.  The younger woman went to the memorial service, having seen her only twice in her life–once at the scene described, and again at a dinner a year or so later–for no reason other than wanting to say goodbye to an almost-stranger who helped her make a decision that women all over the world are faced with,  by saying nothing. That day, she showed her who she could become, but did not judge who she would be. It was at an Anglican church, unlike any funeral, wake or memorial that she’d ever been to, people kept getting up between hymns and prayers, telling stories, recalling memories, talking about her smile, her passion, her wisdom, her impeccable career. She wanted to get up and tell her story, but felt that she didn’t really belong, almost feeling privileged to keep her few hours with this woman to herself.

Rest in peace, Gillian Whittaker. I am sure that I am not the only almost-stranger whose life you have touched. It was an honor.


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One comment

Thank you for this, Maria. You capture the essence of Gill – which is perhaps harder for us who knew her for longer.

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