Stephanie fidgets restlessly in her seat, biting mindlessly at her fingernails. Rolling green pastures pass by outside the train window, but she doesn’t even register them. Instead, her mind is busy trying to remember any remark from her family doctor that may explain the sudden invitation to visit her mother on such short notice. The news was best shared face to face, her mother had explained.
The train’s sudden clunky jostle and announcement of the approaching stop rouses Stephanie from her deep, harrowing thoughts. She blinks; surprised to see the train was already at Tito. In only twenty minutes they would be pulling up to Picerno, and she'll have to face one of the hardest moments of her life. With the loss of her father only two years ago to cancer, she wasn’t ready to process what her mother may be facing – cancer as well? Or perhaps an affliction of the brain like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, ALS or -
“Excuse me, do you mind if I sit here?” Stephanie looks up and finds a kindly older woman warmly smiling down at her.
“Yes, of course.” Stephanie places her hastily packed bag on the floor. Soon enough, what remains of her fingernails are back in her mouth, as she fails to recall what exactly that one cousin, twice removed – whatever that means - had suffered from.
“Is everything all right, hon?” Stephanie looks up, in to a pair of discerning blue eyes. “I don’t mean to intrude, but you seem rather concerned about something. I’ve been told I’m a mighty good listener if you want to spill your troubles to an old woman.”
Stephanie opens her mouth to politely decline, but then stops herself. There was something so calm and authentic about this woman’s face, and she was worried her head may implode if she kept her thoughts bottled in.
“Uh, yeah, that would be really nice, thank you. I’m Stephanie by the way.”
“And I’m Susie, nice to meet you Stephanie – what’s on your mind?”
“My mother’s dying!” Stephanie blurts out. She slaps her hand over her freewheeling mouth, shocked at the words that escaped.
Susie doesn’t say anything, instead placing her hand on Stephanie’s shoulder and gently nodding encouragement for Stephanie to continue.
“I mean, maybe, I don’t know. She has important personal news to share, face to face, and that can only mean bad things.”
“Okay, well dear.” Susie pauses, and turns to face Stephanie more directly. She gathers her thoughts for a few moments, and then quietly, but firmly says, “the important thing is – she called you. Whatever she may be facing, she cherishes you deeply and wants you by her side. She knows you can handle what lies ahead.”
Stephanie doesn’t say anything, but places her hand on top of Susie’s own and squeezes. They sit silently for a few moments. As Stephanie turns her gaze to the landscape passing outside the window, she notices a tear rolling down her face in the reflection. Gently sweeping it away and turning back to Susie, she realizes she knows nothing about this compassionate stranger at her side.
“How about you? I hope you’re on your way to a relaxing weekend away.” Stephanie asks.
“Oh, I’m just heading to meet my love. Can you believe it took me sixty years to finally meet the love of my life?” Susie chuckles, and smiles softly. “Life really is full of surprises. After my husband passed five years ago I thought that was it, I was ready to head in to love retirement.”
Just then, the train began to slow down and Stephanie could see the ‘Picerno’ sign approaching. A small burst of butterflies hit her stomach. She closes her eyes and takes a few deep breaths as the train pulls in to the station. She opens her eyes to see that Susie has stood up, and was starting to gather her bags.
“Looks like we’re getting off at the same stop”, Stephanie remarks, and she’s glad for it. As ready as she now felt, Susie was a calming presence at her side.
“It’s kismet!” Susie exclaims, raising her arms over her head. The sudden gesture catches Stephanie off-guard, and she can’t help but burst in to laughter. She never would have believed how much a single stranger could change her mood, and in such a short period of time.
“If you don’t mind, Susie, that is, if you’re not in a hurry – oh, gosh, you know what” Stephanie starts stammering before Susie cuts her off.
“Do you want me to walk with you to meet your mother?” Susie asks gently. “Of course I will.”
Stephanie nods sheepishly back at her, and then follows Susie to the exit. They step off the platform with Susie grabbing a firm hold of Stephanie’s arm, linking them together. She gestures to Stephanie to lead the way as she keeps her focus solely on Stephanie’s face.
“Remember, hon, you are strong and loved. Whatever it is your mother is going to tell you - you can handle it. You will fight it together. Love is strong.” Stephanie thought she heard a catch in Susie’s voice – but before she could turn to Susie, she spots her mother leaning against the railing a few train-car lengths away.
Squeezing Susie’s linked arm, Stephanie takes a deep breath. Suddenly, it was as if she was moving underwater. The noise of the train station fades out as the frenzy around her seems to dissipate in to the background. All she can hear is the sound of her footsteps, and her own heart pumping out blood at an accelerating rate. With another deep breath, she urges herself to appear calm, and confidently takes the last few steps towards her smiling mother.
Suddenly, that smile breaks apart in to raucous laughter. Stephanie is perplexed for a moment, before concern begins to deluge her thoughts: it must be an affliction of the mind after all! She feels her stomach fall out. Just as she is sure she can’t hold back a cascade of tears, she hears Susie start to chuckle beside her.
As Stephanie turns, shocked, to face Susie, and than her mother, the striking reality of her mom’s big news begins to dawn on her. The tears she had managed to hold back began to fall – but with a purposeful sense of elation.
“Well, love", Susie manages to say softly as her giggles subside, "when you said you had a surprise for me, I never imagined it would be this wonderful.”