The lady with the sad eyes

I’m abroad for a conference and I come down for breakfast. I take a deliciously looking huge croissant and see that  someone is frying eggs so I make my way there. Surprisingly, the cook is a very young girl, who slightly resembles my elder son’s ex girlfriend so I immediately feel a wave of empathy towards her. She looks so pretty in her white cap, so concentrated, so busy, cooking several eggs at the same time, some fried, and some scrambled…I cannot fail to notice how professional she looks, and at the same time so poised, so serene, so focused. She is doing her job as if it were the most important thing in the world, and anyone can see she is frying eggs with a passion for detail that shows she really enjoys what she is doing. And that feels good. When she hands me my plate with two perfectly fried eggs I give her my best smile, hoping it will convey my appreciation for the way she is cooking breakfast for so many people at the same time  – without any visible stress!

I sit down. I’m sharing a table with a colleague I met briefly last year at the Copenhagen conference, a Danish lady who is a lawyer. She is very nice and kind but today she has a sad look in her eyes. We talk about trivialities and I say I’ll be returning home today as I have tons of things to do back home, and suddenly she tells me – and I clearly feel she needs to talk about it- that she has no one waiting for her at home, as her children are grown up and long gone and her husband has passed away a year ago.

My heart goes out to her and I listen while she tells me she and her husband used to travel a lot and accompany each other on their respective business travels. How often he had come to these conferences with her, she recalls. They shared a lifetime together, and she feels very, very lonely without him. Having to work helps, of course, but the loneliness of her house when she arrives in the evening is very hard to bear.

Alongside with the memories she is sharing with me she keeps saying she knows she has to move on and to find new interests in life, but I can see this is not proving to be easy. When I ask about her women friends – as women are incredibly supportive of each other, especially on these occasions- she says yes, she has her friends of course, but as her husband was ill for a few years her friends accuse her of having neglected them a bit…still, she smiles and says she is now getting back together with them more often. She also tells me, somewhat poignantly, that her 85 year old brother in law, also a widower, sometimes comes to visit and keep her company and even helps cut the front lawn! It´s my turn to smile and say he must be in great shape and she says yes, he is a very active person and full of life. Then she adds, bitterly, that one of her husband’s colleagues was very nasty to her immediately after her husband’s death, telling her very rudely that she would soon find someone else! How insensitive, I thought.

She goes on to tell me she loves to spend time looking at old photos of her life with her husband, mentioning they had met at a time when she was a very young judge, and he was an older one who began by helping her in the beginning of her career and eventually fell in love with her. And she with him, and they went on to get married and raise a family. And live – for what she says I think happily – ever after until death parted them.

Her eyes light up as she recalls her memories of happier days, but inevitably she has to come back to the present. I can see that, however sad, she is determined to go on with her life, to continue her work, to see her friends, to travel…

When we leave the dining room I’m thinking of how bravely women deal with loss. I know quite a few ladies who have lived through very happy marriages and suffered pain when they lost their husbands, such as my stepmother Ilda and Aunt Sara, my friend Luisa’s mother. Both had very loving, supportive husbands who were the love of their lives; Ilda lived with my father for thirty years and Aunt Sara was married for almost forty. They were heartbroken after the loss of their husbands and their lives would never be the same again, but still they reacted bravely, not abandoning themselves to grief and fighting to find a new purpose in life. Ilda found it in her family and friends, and many cultural activities, and Aunt Sara also in her family, children and grand children, as well as in her friends. Both of them travel frequently with their friends and keep very active lives, going to the gym and having full agendas. Only a few weeks ago Ilda called me after a great week spent at the Azores islands and Aunt Sara will be travelling back to Mozambique with her son (who will go in a business trip) after more than forty years away. They have not yielded to grief, they have been brave and I admire them for that.

As I enter the conference room I sincerely wish that my colleague, the lady with the sad eyes, may also get over her grief and find joy in this new life she has ahead of her. She will certainly miss her husband very much, and her life will never be the same, but she may be reconciled with her loss and still find contentment as others have in the same sad circumstances.

I look forward to seeing her at next year’s conference and I hope she will be a little less sad then.