During my solo trip to the mountains, I had a chance (or perhaps, not so chance) encounter. Hoping to benefit from the healing waters, I rented a car and drove to the site of the oldest established hot spring in the park.
I had been in the shallowest and shadiest spot of one of the two hot spring pools for at least an hour, trying to enjoy the water despite the blaring heat of the sun. The splash of nearby water drew my attention to Edith, a elderly woman, her hands clenched tight around the railing on my left. She slowly lowered herself onto the submerged step beside me. I think I may have started speaking first, sharing my dislike of the excessive heat and asking where she was from. A small farming community, she said, and that she was here with her husband to celebrate their 59th wedding anniversary. I congratulated her, commenting that it made me feel happy to know that such a wonderful milestone can still be achieved these days. She wasted no time telling me that it was hard work, that there had been much pain and many challenges throughout the years. At that point, her sharing became intense and intimate almost immediately. She started to tell me about the loss of her baby daughter, about how all the doctors were unable to tell her why it happened. She asked incredulously, “and you know what it was?” She paused for maximum effect. “It was because I had Lupus!” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, but instead of slipping into shocked silence, I practically jumped on her words and exclaimed, “I have Lupus, too!” as though we were two young girls gossiping about a shirt we both had.
From there, she shared how she had suffered a stroke and how, due to a delayed ambulance and lack of immediate care at the hospital, she had been written off as a vegetable by her doctor. Her doctor had taken her husband aside and said, “put her in a home, she will never be the same again.” In my own head, I immediately recalled a similar statement made by my own physicians four years ago during the brain trauma I experienced, a warning to my family and friends: “She will not be the same person you knew.” Edith’s husband scoffed at the doctor and took her home immediately, eventually helping her to learn to walk, feed herself and function as she did before through love and prayer. She looked at me and smiled, “well, I’m here, aren’t I?” I smiled and thought, “so am I.”
By this time, it was as though the heat, the dull murmur of swimmers and lapping water had ceased, that it was just Edith and I and this strange surge of emotions that told me I was experiencing something, for a lack of a better word, special. We then talked of many things, relationships, of how she lost two of her other children as adults, how she is estranged from her remaining daughter. I marvelled at her strength and resilience. She paused. “Do you have a bible?” I fumbled my words, unsure if she would judge me knowing that I was not as religious as she. I lied and said no. I did have one, my parents’ bible, the one that I don’t remember writing and drawing on when I was sick. “I was raised Roman Catholic, but…” I started to say, ready to share how I had fallen out of faith because of my feelings on gay rights as a teenager, but she stopped me. “It doesn’t matter what religion you are,” she said, “the bible isn’t religion. The bible is just Jesus.” She proceeded to quote scripture, most of which I don’t remember, but my emotions were boiling over at this point, listening to this stranger trying to give me hope and comfort in the way she knew how.
She asked me if I would go with her to the second, hotter pool before I left. I agreed, walking slightly ahead of her and her husband, who quietly and chivalrously offered Edith his arm. She leaned into him, half whispering, “she has Lupus, too. It’s no accident that we met.” After that, I had the pool attendant take our picture and I left in a haze, driving back to my hotel feeling a bit confused, but also feeling oddly comforted.
In essence, the encounter spoke to me in the following ways:
You are not alone.
You will be okay.
And perhaps it sounds strange that I would feel the need to go away on my own in order to feel as though I’m not alone, but in truth, that was the very thing that happened.