Girlhood. Momhood. Lifehood.
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Say Anything

January 21st, 2010

Last Friday morning my husband and the kids dropped me off at the Amtrak station just outside of Boston. I kissed them goodbye, headed to the self check-in kiosk, grabbed a coffee, and boarded the 8:31am train that would take me south to a small town in PA to visit my dear pal “Pauline.” The 5-hour ride of solitude that bookends the weekend is always a treasured part of the trip.

Once I settled in, I did a little writing, flipped through a magazine, then just stared out the window taking in the view of passing towns. Somewhere around Connecticut, a couple in about their mid-50’s boarded the train and took the seats behind me. It was obvious from the get-go that the wife was tightly wound, and that she was not the friendliest person on the planet. She immediately got on her cell phone, planning some sort of rehearsal for an upcoming music performance.

Her husband walked by with a big violin case, looking for a place to store it on the crowded luggage racks. She continued to bark orders about who needed to be where for rehearsals and who would meet them at Penn Station in New York. It was then that I made a mental note to sit in the quiet car on the trip back.


I escaped to my iPod and stared out the window. After a while I got hungry, ditched the iPod and pulled out my homemade sandwich. It was nearly noon as we drew close to New York. Behind me the unpleasant rants continued…

“We’ll be there in 10 minutes! Make sure our bags are all in the right place!” She barked to her husband. “Where is your briefcase?!” I couldn’t make out his mumbled responses. “I can’t believe you can’t find it!!”

Geez. This woman just doesn’t stop.

Then the man stood up quickly, knocking my seat forward and he moved swiftly down the car. He turned and paced back toward his seat, “I can’t find my violin. Where is my violin?!” His brow was furrowed. He was visibly upset.

“What do you mean?!” she answered sharply. He quickly strode up and down the car again, his long coat fanning out as he did so, scanning the luggage rack, eyes frantic. And again she barked from behind me, “What do you mean?! You put it away right when we got on the train! Go get it!”

He just stood in the aisle. “I can’t find it! I just don’t know what’s going on! I can’t find it! I don’t know what’s happening!!”

I felt really bad for him. I wondered if I should offer to help him find it. My gut told me this was not just a normal case of misplaced luggage on a crowded train. Something was wrong. This poor man was really confused. I guessed that maybe he was in the throes of some early dementia, or early stage Alzheimer’s disease.

He must have found the violin because he came back to his seat, knocking me forward again as he sat down abruptly.

She spat out, “Why couldn’t you find your violin! You are scaring me! This is ridiculous! We’ll have to get this checked out! What is going on with you?!” She kept at him for several more minutes. I sat in my seat. I started to fume. I felt so sorry for him as she yelled as if he were a child having a tantrum. It was awful to listen to. What a total witch this woman was.

I knew we were getting close to their stop now…maybe I should say something to her. Defend this confused man with the violin. And what if he does have Alzheimer’s and this woman would be the one caring for him?! How horrible will she treat him down the road?!

Yes. I decided I needed to say something – put her in her place. But what? And do I just turn around and ream her out in front of him? My mind raced. At least if it went sour they’d be getting off the train soon. My heart pounded in my chest as I tried to sort out what to do. I thought about my grandfather and his battle with Alzheimer’s and how awful it was to see him slip away from himself and from us. This woman behind me, no matter how mean she was, was also scared – but she was taking it out on him. And she certainly wasn’t shy about it.

As the train drew closer still to New York, I could see the skyline. This is the city where I started out right after college as a naïve, small town girl. A total fish out of water. I thought about a boss who told me I was too quiet. I had been so intimidated working at a big ad agency with big ticket clients. “I know you have things to contribute,” she’d advised, “But you’re too quiet. You need to speak up in those meetings. Show them you’re thinking. It doesn’t have to be the perfect thing, just say SOMETHING.”

I sat tensely in my seat, arms folded tightly across my chest and my moral dilemma. I only had a little time before they got off this train forever.

I saw her husband walking down the car again. He must have gone to the café car. He had a bag of potato chips in his hand.

“What are you doing with those chips?” She demanded. “You don’t need those! You aren’t putting those in your bag! No way! What are you thinking? What is going on with you? Why did you get those?”

Oh I couldn’t take this woman anymore.

My anger was now throbbing in my ears. The husband got up yet again and headed past me to the far end of the car. Maybe he was throwing out the chips.

Now was my chance.

I stood straight up, turned around and leaned forward, hands on the top of my seat, knee resting on my own seat to brace myself. I was now face to face with her. And I had NO IDEA what I was going to say.

“Excuse me,” I said in a pleasant voice. My eyes locked on her as she sat in her seat.

“Yes?” She said, looking up from her Blackberry. She had black curly hair and she was well put together…nice makeup, nice coat, professional.

“Is that your husband?” I asked in a pleasant, even tone.

She nodded.” Yes.” Her face was questioning, open.

“Well,” I said, as my jaw tensed, and my eyes narrowed, “I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation with your husband for the last half hour and how you’ve been completely berating him.”

A look of complete surprise flashed across her face and then she quickly lowered her eyes to her phone. She was gripping it tightly with both hands. Out of the corner of my eye I could see that everyone within earshot was looking at me. I stayed focused on her.

“I probably have no business saying something to you…,” I started, but she cut me off – “Well,” she spat, nervously shaking her head back and forth, eyes still down, “You should just turn arou—.” I shook my head no. ”But, I will.” I said defiantly.

I honestly can’t remember exactly what I said next because the adrenaline was pumping so hard but here’s what I think I said…“Your husband is obviously going through something and he’s scared and the way you are treating him is completely unacceptable.”

She just shook her head, her curls shaking against her face, her lips pursed tight.

“After hearing you berate him, I can tell you that as scared and frustrated as you might be, he is a lot more scared than you are.”

And then I let it all hang out.

“I’ve been a volunteer for the Alzheimer’s Association for the last 8 years. And I KNOW that he is scared and confused and you are making it so much worse. He needs you to help him, not yell at him! Just think about that!”

And with that, I whipped my head around and slid back down in my seat and froze.

Oh. My. God. What did I just do?!?!

All at once I felt triumphant, brave, sad, shocked at myself and embarrassed.

What the heck did I just say? I don’t even know! Did all those other people on the train hear me? Would she come back at me with a tirade of her own? I sat like a statue in my seat, staring straight ahead, cheeks flushed. Waiting. There was silence behind me.

Just moments later her husband came back to his seat. In hushed tones she started speaking to him. And she was being much, much nicer to him already, perhaps out of fear of what the crazy lady in front of her would do next. After what seemed like forever, but was just minutes, we pulled into Penn Station. As they exited the car the woman went to great lengths not to make eye contact with me.

Hmmpf,” I thought. She’d better keep walking. My heart rate was finally coming down.

I watched through the window as the couple rode up the escalator from the platform, the man with his violin by his side, oblivious to the whole confrontation.

Phew. They are gone.

I was relieved to realize the car was nearly empty now except for the woman next to me wearing earphones the whole time. I slid down further in my seat and tried to relax. Then I felt a big wave of sadness. I hoped that my unrehearsed, inappropriate and very public, yet passionate intervention may help that man in some way. Maybe his wife would take what I said to heart, even just a little tiny bit. Or maybe she would just write me off as a nosy stranger. Or maybe uttering the word “Alzheimer’s” had completely freaked her out and now I had made the whole thing worse. I guess I’ll never know.

I do feel proud of what I did in some ways, for standing up for someone who needed it. But then again, who do I think I am, getting in the face of total stranger like that? What if she had just hauled off and punched me? But I just knew it was one of those moments that I would regret forever if I had just sat there, doing or saying nothing. I’m also guessing that not many people stand up to this woman – first and foremost her husband – so maybe that was part of the appeal, and perhaps my speech was completely self-serving. Maybe I used it as a way to get back at every mean person or bully I never had the guts to stand up to. Maybe that naïve, intimidated advertising assistant within me just wanted to prove she was long gone.

I do believe, though, that a higher power must have put me in Row 7 and that couple to Row 8 in that car, on that particular train, on that particular day for a reason.

I hope that man gets some answers and gets the help he needs. And I hope that his wife will show him some compassion. I hope he continues to play the violin for a very long time.

I don’t know how to play any musical instruments. I’ve never had much of an aptitude for it. But the man with the violin taught me that I do, apparently, have a voice.

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