It was Sunday morning and I was walking through the Berkeley Rose Garden with my husband and son. I saw a woman sitting on a bench with a journal resting in the palm of her hand. She was wrapped in warm clothing from head to toe, despite the sunny weather.
Her head was bald and her face was pale and sullen. I could tell from afar she was very sick.
My son was a few feet ahead and I worried that he might, in his five-year-old innocence, say something like, “Mommy, why is she bald?” I hurried to catch up with him to avoid an uncomfortable situation.
Instead of focusing on the woman on the bench, however, my son began to whine, “Why are we walking this way? I want to go back to the slide.”
I caught the woman’s eye and we both smiled at one another, both of us hearing his displeasure.
I took in her face. Her hair was completely gone, even her eyebrows. Her eyes were bloodshot and she looked very tired — sad and tired. She had a pen in one hand and I could see she had been writing in her little journal with blue paper.
“It’s a beautiful day,” I said, hoping my smile would contribute in some small way to making her feel better.
“It is indeed,” her voice was hoarse and I could tell it was hard for her to speak. “You know, there is a hidden creek down at the bottom of the hill.”
She looked at my son and motioned toward the path. I appreciated her effort to keep him entertained.
“Mommy, she has a frog in her throat,” he said, looking up at me.
“She does, honey. I don’t think she feels very well.”
“Oh,” he said, skipping off to our new adventure.
We made our way down the hill to the running water and all the while I thought about the woman on the bench. I thought about how hard it must be to sit alone and contemplate your life while going through something like chemotherapy. I thought about how lucky I was to be walking in a rose garden with my husband and son on a Sunday without too many cares in the world.
A feeling of calm filled me and I began to walk more slowly. I wondered, what was she thinking about on that bench? What answers was she trying to find? What profound things does someone facing a perhaps fatal disease think about?
I stopped to smell the roses by color. I took a few pictures of flowers I thought were beautiful. Something about seeing that woman on the bench reminded me I needed to breathe, take in my surroundings, and look around more. Like she was doing.
My husband and son were walking ahead. I saw them share a few words with her as they passed.
I was in front of her now and my heart sank. Her eyes were full of tears, and several more were running down her cheek.
But then she looked up at me and smiled , her blue eyes stark against her pale skin. “Thank you for the joy you just gave me,” she said between deep, heavy breaths.
My heart burst with so much emotion that my mind could stop only long enough for me to lay my hand down on her knee and simply say, “You are welcome,” before I went on.
It’s been several days now since our brief encounter with the sick woman on the bench surrounded by tiers of roses. A part of me wants to find her and let her know that she gave us joy as well. How in her eyes I saw pure gratitude — something that is so rare in random encounters.
I learned something from you that day, dear Woman on the Bench. Your presence shifted my focus and opened my eyes to everything that was before me: the roses, the view, my family — and you. You showed us the power of engaging with strangers. You reminded me to take the time to experience kindness and gratitude with everyone, and for that I am grateful