That morning I headed out from the hostel on my bike, passing by the picnic table where Ruth was sitting in the sun.
“Sit with me for a while, Connie,” Ruth said from her perch.
I leaned the bike against the table and sat down. Ruth was eighty-three, a Canadian staying at the hostel while her apartment was being renovated. She’d told us when we talked around the kitchen table that she’d started staying in hostels during the fifties. She’d done a lot of traveling over the years since she’d never had children and was divorced.
“Nice day for you to ride your bike,” she said. “I used to love to ride but I can’t since I had my knee replacement. Lots of things change when you get old.”
She’d hung the sheets on the clothesline, and the steady breeze that was constant off the St. Lawrence River that flowed in front of the Tibbett’s Point Lighthouse Hostel, whipped the sheets. We watched as if waiting for them to dry. Then Ruth continued.
“I got some sad news today. My friend died. She suffered with Alzheimer’s,” Ruth said, and shook her head, looking down at the grass. “You just don’t know how things are going to go when you get to this point in life. At least you have children.”
There was nothing I could say, no cheerful remark that would change anything.
This was the exact situation that I knew that I, like many people, avoided because of not knowing what to say. It’s hard to witness someone’s pain and not be able to do anything. We want to fix things and sometimes we can’t.
We sat there in silence. Being present was what I could offer.
Eventually she changed the subject, moving to something brighter.
“Where are you going on your next journey?” she asked.
“I’m not sure, Ruth. But like you, I’m sure I’ll be thinking about it by the time I’m leaving New York, catching my flight back to North Carolina.”
She smiled and nodded in agreement.
“You should get to Europe. They have some fabulous hostels there,” she said. “Go before it’s too late. I’ve stayed in hostels in many countries, but now those days are over.”
I’ve thought of that conversation many times over the years. I was glad that I had those moments with Ruth, even though it was hard to listen to her pain, to the reality she presented about the passage of time.
I think of my discomfort in situations where I fear that I will have no way to fix the situation. But now, as I consider this, it assumes that it’s about me, about my ability to make something happen. It takes control away from that person and gives it to me.
They don’t need me to control the situation. What is needed from me is to be presnt. To sit with them for a while. The presence of another person, in itself, reassuring, that they are not physically alone, even though they may be alone in their situation.
I don’t need to say anything. Many times I’ve overvalued words and undervalued supportive silence. Whether it’s a person in my path during my solo journey, like Ruth, or visiting with my mother at the nursing home, or listening to a friend share a struggle, sitting with someone and being completely available to them is invaluable.
I will always be glad I accepted Ruth’s invitation to, “Sit with me for a while.”
How About You?
How do you deal with listening to difficult topics?
How can you be present for someone who needs you?