I went to see a show and sat alone, amongst strangers.
As I shuffled through the row to get to my seat, I found myself hoping against hope for an empty seat beside me, not because I wanted to use the physical space, but because it would afford me an illusion of privacy, it would mean that there wouldn’t be a human being, a stranger, literally rubbing elbows with me.
But as I arrived at my seat I saw that my hopes were to remain unfulfilled. A lady in her senior years with an accent sat, solitary herself, in the seat beside mine. She welcomed me, and expressed her excitement about the upcoming show, and I merely smiled in reply, effectively and, I hope, politely, cutting of any potential for further conversation.
After all, I didn’t know her. Why would I engage in conversation with a complete stranger? It’s not as though we had a mutual acquaintance, I could see no reason to be anything more than polite.
Finally, the lights grew dim. I watched the first act of the show, laughing aloud, as did she. When intermission arrived, I thought that she’d filter out to the lobby like the majority of the audience. But she did not. She remained seated beside me, and commented on how funny the show was.
And at first I just smiled back. But then I decided to answer. I simply said, ‘yes, it really is’.
And she left it at that. I could have too. But now, I was engaged. The silence no longer felt comfortable. So I asked her a vague question about whether she had seen a musical by that company before. And we began to talk.
As it turned out, she was a lovely, kind, and fascinating woman. She had travelled the world with a friend when she was my age, and worked as a bartender in South Africa for a year and a half in the 70s. She goes on adventures with friends that she has kept from grade school, and they still seem to get into the same scrapes that they used to. In fact, just that day she had travelled in with a group from Quebec to see the show.
As she asked me a bit about myself, I noticed that I was growing uncomfortable. I had mentioned that I recently moved from Vancouver, and she asked why I was there in the first place. I told her that I had been studying opera performance, which prompted her to ask if I would be performing in Ottawa at all.
Rather than explain what led to my having to leave Vancouver and the program, to say that I live with chronic illness, that I am not currently performing and I don’t know what the future will bring, but I certainly hope to sing again in whatever capacity – I heard myself reshaping the truth.
I said that I had been injured. That I had received a concussion, and wasn’t currently able to perform, but that I was working to get back to it.
And it was not strictly a lie. I had been concussed, and that did dramatically worsen my medical condition.
But it felt like a lie. And it felt especially like a lie, because earlier that day I had talked with a friend about how so much of the world seems to be unaware of the reality of chronic illness. Or, more specifically, the reality that there are people in this world who get sick and don’t get better, and it can take years to come up with a reason why. And even then, there may be no treatment.
I wasn’t aware that a person could drift through medical uncertainty before I myself was thrust in the midst of no man’s land. I was aware of illness, but I had always experienced it as a relatively definite thing. Either you had a condition, or not. There were tests and names, and symptoms to expect. I certainly wasn’t aware of how common it was to remain undiagnosed, or have the title of a vague syndrome with no plan for treatment.
And in our conversation my friend and I hunted for who to blame for this lack of awareness, coming up empty. It seemed to be perpetuated by a cycle of fear and discomfort, with no obvious instigator.
But as I heard myself avoid the truth, the complete truth, I felt a small measure of guilt settle onto my shoulders.
Small, because this woman had been a complete stranger to me only moments ago. I would probably never see her again, and did not owe her any part of me. I was simply making friendly conversation.
And I had been honest about the concussion. The crux of my story was the same, just in a more user friendly package. Injuries are easier to understand, less overwhelming, less unnerving, than a longterm, inexplicable, unavoidable condition.
But the guilt was still there. I felt like I had taken the easy way out, and it felt wrong.
Of course, there is probably a valid reason that I avoided bringing it up. Multiple, I would imagine.
I was afraid of making her uncomfortable. I didn’t want to put a damper on the conversation. I didn’t want to think about it right then. I didn’t want to deal with her expressing pity for me. And so many more.
It is not my fault that illness is painted as something that detracts. Something a bit shameful, not polite conversation. It is not my fault that it can make situations awkward and that many people worry over what to say.
But it is my choice whether I talk about it, or not.
And if I want to stop feeling uncomfortable about something that is here to stay, then the subject has to become less taboo. And if I want the subject to become less taboo, then I have to talk about it, and not just to the people who already know me, who I already trust.
A little later in the conversation, I came clean to the lady sitting next to me. I told her that I had been dealing with a pre-existing condition, before the concussion, and that I was still grappling with it, but doing much better.
She didn’t withdraw. She didn’t react negatively at all. She asked a little bit about how I had managed for so long by myself. And then we watched the second half of the show.
And after we both gave a standing ovation and gathered our things, she told me she would think about me. She told me she was sure I would do great things. Because I already had.
In the end, this woman wasn’t a stranger. She wasn’t some unknown creature to be wary of, that I could try to generalize about, that I should try to shut out.
She was just another person, out to see a show. As was I.
And now we know a bit more about each other.
And I think we are both the better for it.