It was early in the morning — very early if you add in the fact that it was a weekend. We had changed gates three times already, hordes of people racing across the terminal as if those who got there first and claimed their space would also get to New York first. By the time I got there, dragging my suitcase, coffee and paper, virtually every seat in the "lounge" area was taken. And then I saw it: one seat. No suitcase in front of it, no handbag on top of it, a pleasant-looking woman in the next chair, a place to park for the next delay.
I sat down.
She looked at me like I was out of my mind.
"My husband is sitting there," she said, not smiling, not friendly, but more like, "Of course I have a husband sitting next to me. What did you think?"
"That seat is taken" would have sufficed, before I sat down and settled my bag and arranged my coffee on the nearby table. Even the person sitting on her other side looked up to see who had done something wrong. I skulked away.
Eventually, I found an empty seat, actually two empty seats, with another woman planted in the middle. Now I was being careful. "Is anyone sitting there?" I asked, before assuming that she was actually traveling without a husband or, worse, didn't have one. At least she smiled. "Be my guest," she said, pointing to one of the two seats. "My husband is sitting on my other side."
Maybe it's because I've been feeling so overwhelmed lately, with my daughter getting ready to leave for college, so many friends sick, and so much pressure and sadness around me, but all of a sudden I looked around that lounge and it felt like I was the only person there over the age of 27 who was facing the world alone. Lonely doesn't begin to describe it.
Don't get me wrong. I'm grateful for what I have, kinnehora (keep that evil eye away). In recent weeks, I've been trying to help two friends with metastatic cancer, another whose father is declining because of Alzheimer's and another who ran into a brick wall in dealing with an insurance company that refused to approve the surgery she needed until yours truly jumped into the fight. All of them have partners and spouses, but that hardly protects them against the pain, fear and helplessness that come with illness.
I've also been to the wake of a friend who had a beautiful wife, three beautiful children and horrible cancer.
I was talking to a friend who is supposed to know about such things (she is, by profession, a therapist after all) — about the day that is coming soon when my daughter will pack up at least some of her things and go off to college. When I went to college, I never came back. Everyone tells me that it's different these days, that rent is more expensive and kids tend to be more connected, and that going to college doesn't necessarily mean they're gone forever the way we were.
I am happy for my daughter, but I can't help feeling like a part of my life, the happiest part, is ending. My friend told me about the day when her son left. She, who knew about such things, had prepared herself and was one of those busy bees who never sits still and has never faced depression, sat without moving in a room without lights all day long, overcome by her sadness. Then her husband came home and turned on the lights, and they went out to dinner and on with their lives.
It was fine, she tells me hopefully, even though the only part that registers with me is the part about the husband coming home and turning on the lights, and her having a life with another person she loves to go on with.
My daughter leaves in a few weeks. My son is three years behind her. I already know that three years is nothing, that they will pass in a heartbeat. And then it will be just me. Just one. Me and the dogs. And they don't travel.
Half of all marriages end in divorce. The world is full of people who never married or whose marriages failed or whose husbands or wives are gone now. Some of them find someone new as soon as they are alone. Truth be told, some of them find someone new before they are alone. But for women of a certain age, women who spend the mid-years raising kids only to find that the men their age are now dating women closer in age to our children, it just is what it is. We do our best. And if such a woman sits down next to you in a crowded airport lounge, traveling alone, carrying her luggage and her coffee and her paper, maybe you could just smile and say have a nice day.
To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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