Saturday, August 3, 2013


In a house near to ours lives a very sweet old woman who I will call “Vivian.” Vivian must be in her mid-eighties and like most people her age, she doesn’t get around easily anymore. Nevertheless, Vivian is still famous to the neighborhood kids as the “chip lady” – for Halloween, she distributes small bags of chips instead of candy. Aside from last Halloween when I was too nervous to eat, I have enjoyed my other Halloweens in the neighborhood with a bag or two of Doritos that I stole from Teddy’s trick-or-treat bag.

Including Halloweens, I’ve only spoken to Vivian maybe ten or twelve times. But I’ve realized that one conversation at just the right time can mean more than a thousand instances of small talk.

* * *

Almost exactly one year ago, Vivian called me on our home line. I didn't recognize her name on the caller ID, which was probably because until then, I didn't even know Vivian's last name. 

Vivian's call came during that terrible time where “Blocked” on the caller ID meant Dana-Farber and Dana-Farber meant more news about my diagnosis. It was maybe the most terrifying time of all and it’s taken me almost a year to be able to see “Blocked” on my phone and not want to throw up.

Vivian talks slowly, and the kids had turned the house into a carnival so I could barely hear her as she tried to tell me something; something about having read my first blog in the local newspaper and about how she wanted to talk to me.

I have no idea what made me walk straight over to her house. It could have been some magical pull, or just the instinct to want to find a quieter space. Either way, I told Brian I had to go by Vivian's house and I scooted out. I knocked on Vivian’s door and after about five minutes of sporadic movement inside, she greeted me.

While there are serious holes to my memories of that time, there are also pictures so vivid that I can smell, hear, taste, and feel them. Sitting in Vivian’s kitchen was one of those times.

When we sat down, Vivian took my hand. I have a bit of a personal space issue and I really don’t even like when my leg touches other people's legs when I’m smooshed between them on the train. But I didn’t mind Vivian holding my hand. It made me feel safe.

I don’t remember how the conversation flowed but I remember as clear as the day a few things that Vivian said to me. I remember her telling me that she had cancer many years ago; that her doctors “gutted her like a chicken” to get the cancer out. That her husband died soon after, in her mind, due to the stress of it all; that I should make sure that Brian is doing OK.

I remember her telling me that my hair will grow back. And I remember her pulling off her wig. I like to think I’m pretty observant but I was absolutely shocked to see Vivian’s baldish head. I had no clue she wore a wig, although I had always thought her hair looked fabulous.

Mine didn’t really grow back, but yours will, she promised me. I was still a few months away from losing my hair, and I didn’t care much about it to begin with. But I cared very much about Vivian's honesty, her vulnerability, her empathy, and her kindness.

Then Vivian said something I remember almost every single time I drive or walk or chase the kids past her house. She told me that I was going to live. You will live. I smiled, to thank her. You will live. I started to cry, because I heard her that time and her words took a heavy weight off my shoulders. I just know it. The moment was so precious that it was almost surreal.

On the way out, I saw a photo of Vivian’s grandson perched on a small table by her front door. I immediately recognized him as a boy I had taught my very last year at Canton High School. I wasn't just being nice when I told Vivian how much I had enjoyed teaching her grandson. I’ll never forget that kid, who really isn't even a kid anymore. He was an amazing magician and on my last day at CHS, he and his friend orchestrated a magic show in the auditorium for me. That magic meant more to me than I could possibly express. And there was a wonderful irony in the fact that the whole experience with Vivian had felt so very magical before I even knew that she and I already had a connection.

I haven’t seen Vivian since, except, of course, for Halloween. I really should go say hello to her and thank her for giving me the gift of believing that I will be OK every time that I pass by her house. 

To be continued...

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