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By Don Tassone
Betsy Mitchell heard her doorbell ring. She twitched and sunk lower in the sofa. Could be someone selling candy bars or those Jehovah’s Witnesses, she thought.
She set her cup of tea down on a coaster on the coffee table, slowly got up from her armchair, her knees creaking, and peeked around the doorway, through the living room to the front door. Through the slim pane of leaded glass alongside the door, she could make out the figure of someone standing on the porch. The visitor tried to peer in through the sidelight. Melinda!
“Well, hello!” Betsy said, opening the door. “What a treat to see you here.”
“Hi, Mom,” Melinda said, stepping up into the foyer and giving her a hug. “Where have you been? I’ve been calling all afternoon.”
“I’m sorry, dear. I guess I was out in the garden.”
“Didn’t you have your cell phone with you?”
“No, honey. I guess left it in the house.”
“You really need to start carrying that cell phone with you, Mom. That’s why we bought it for you, you know.”
“I know, honey, and I appreciate it. I really am keeping it with me most of the time. I just happened not to bring it with me this afternoon. I’ll do better.”
It was a white lie. Betsy didn’t want to tell her daughter the real reason she hadn’t been carrying her cell phone was that she was afraid to use it. Reports about a link between cell phones and brain cancer worried her.
“Would you like something to drink?” Betsy asked, in part to change the subject.
“Sure, I’d love a Diet Coke if you have one.”
“Diet Coke?” she said, as they walked into the kitchen. “Aren’t you afraid of all those chemicals?”
“Not really, Mom. I think the sugar’s a lot worse for you.”
“Maybe you’re right,” Betsy said. “Would you like to sit in the family room or stay in the kitchen?”
“Let’s just sit here in the kitchen,” Melinda said.
“Okay. Have a seat at the table. I’ll get your soft drink. By the way, why were you trying to call me this afternoon? Is everything okay?”
“Everything’s fine with us,” Melinda said. “I was calling to talk about you.”
“Here you go,” Betsy said, as she handed her daughter a glass of Diet Coke, which she reluctantly kept for guests. “Just a minute, dear. Let me get my tea.”
Betsy went into the family room, retrieved the cup of herbal tea she had been drinking and sat down at the small, square, oak table next to Melinda. She had brought two coasters from the family room with her. She put one under her cup and slid the other over to Melinda.
“Okay,” Betsy said, sitting down. “I’m all set now.”
“Mom, I’m a little concerned about you,” Melinda said, shifting in her chair. “So is Tim. You seem, well, you seem to be so afraid these days.”
“What do you mean, dear?” Betsy said, sipping her tea.
“Well, I don’t want to sound dramatic. But you just seem so anxious anymore and, well, so afraid of everything. Think about what you just said about my Diet Coke. It’s just a soft drink, Mom. I know that’s a little thing, but it seems so many things scare you these days, and you seem more and more withdrawn. You hardly ever leave the house anymore. I don't mean to barge in here and tell you how to live. But I love you, Mom, and I want you to be happy. That’s all. I just want you to be happy,” she said, gently placing her hand on her mother’s.
Betsy had a sad look in her eyes, as if she could cry.
“I’m okay,” she said, taking another sip of tea and looking away.
Betsy put her cup down.
“You’re right,” she said softly, looking at her daughter. “I am afraid. I’m afraid of a lot of things these days. But it’s a scary world, and I, well, I just wish your father were here.”
“I wish he were too, Mom. I miss him so much, and I can only imagine how lonely you must be. But here you are, and I’m concerned for your well-being.”
“To tell you the truth, so am I,” Betsy said. “My life has become heavy. I don’t want it to be this way, but I don’t know what to do.”
“Mom, I’ve been talking with Tim about this and a couple of friends too. I have an idea.”
“Yes. I have someone I’d like you to see. He’s a psychiatrist. His name is Irv Schneider. I’ve met him socially, but I don’t know him well. I have a couple of friends who see him, though. They think he’s wonderful. They say he’s smart, and he has a great way with people. I think you should see him. Would you be open to that, Mom?”
“If you think he can help me, yes,” she said.
“Good,” Melinda said, sounding relieved. “I’ll be happy to make an appointment for you, if you like.”
As her mother’s health care power of attorney, Melinda made most of her medical appointments these days.
“Yes, dear. That would be fine.”
“Good,” Melinda said. “I’ll try to get you in to see him next week, if that’s okay.”
“Yes. Where is his office?”
“Oh. How will I get there?”
Betsy hadn’t driven a car in nearly two years.
“Here’s what I was thinking. I drop Sophia off at pre-school at 8:00 every morning. There’s a bus stop right next to her school. I could pick you up on our way to school. What would you think of taking the bus downtown after I drop her off and before I head to work? I could try to make you an appointment for mid-morning. You could see Dr. Schneider, then grab lunch somewhere and catch the bus back. I would be waiting for you at Sophia’s school. What do you think? Would that be okay?”
“That sounds wonderful, honey. I’m just sorry I have to put you to so much trouble.”
“It’s no trouble at all, Mom. I’m just glad you’re open to this. I have a feeling Dr. Schneider is going to be able to help you.”
“I hope you’re right,” Betsy said, smiling and patting her daughter’s hand.
Melinda left just before 5:00. Betsy went back into the family room and turned on the TV, just in time to catch “The Five” on Fox News. She tuned into Fox News shows nearly every evening, usually for several hours. Tonight, she decided to watch “The Five,” make herself some dinner, then catch Martha MacCallum and maybe Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity after that.
As the TV came on, there was a commercial for gold coins, “the safest way to protect your wealth in these uncertain economic times.”
Ted had never made much money, and the little they’d been able to save might have to last Betsy a long time. Maybe I should convert some of our savings to gold, she thought. That way, if the economy collapses and there’s a run on the banks, I’ll still have money.
She grabbed a pad and a pen and was about to write down the number to call when the commercial ended. Now there was a commercial for ready-to-eat foods in case of an emergency. Images of tornadoes, floods and armed men flashed across the screen. Betsy had been worrying about her food security too. What if there were a blizzard or the country were invaded? Having some of these ready-to-eat meals on hand seemed like a good idea. This time, she wrote down the toll-free number before the commercial ended.
Now “The Five” was on. Tonight’s roundtable would begin with a look at the latest murder committed by an “illegal alien” in San Francisco, a sanctuary city and home of Nancy Pelosi.
“When will the Democrats see the light and begin to help make America safe again?” asked Greg.
The panel went on to talk about the Democrats wanting to push American toward socialism, about the rise in attacks by Muslim extremists against Christians and Jews all around the world and the high murder rate in Chicago, another sanctuary city.
The story about the Muslim extremists was especially concerning to Betsy. She had heard from a neighbor that a Muslim family was looking at a house on their block. She knew most Muslims living in the US were peaceful, but she’d grown suspicious of all Muslims anyway, not knowing which of them might be extremists. What if one of her new neighbors was a member of ISIS?
By the time “The Five” was over, Betsy was shaking. She turned off the TV, went into the kitchen and put two pots of water on the stove. She was going to have pasta, organic pasta, tonight.
She diced carrots she had dug up from her garden that afternoon and slid them down the cutting board into one of the pots of water. Then she cut into thin slices several cherry tomatoes she had picked from her garden.
She would be using extra virgin olive oil, organically grown, as her sauce for the pasta tonight and topping it with the diced carrots, sliced tomatoes and romano cheese, which she would grate.
When it came to foods, “all-natural” and “organic” were Betsy’s watchwords. That’s the main reason she maintained a large garden. She grew all her own vegetables and ate them fresh.
Betsy poured herself a glass of filtered water from a pitcher she kept in the refrigerator. She never drank water directly from the tap anymore.
She sat at her kitchen table and ate dinner while reading a new book, a memoir called Wholly Unraveled. By 6:00, she was back in the family room, watching Fox. News alerts about a fouled “dirty bomb” plot in New York made her even more anxious.
She watched until 10:00, then headed upstairs to bed, where she slept between hypoallergenic sheets with an air purifier running all night. She had a nightmare about being killed by a drunk driver.
Melinda picked Betsy up in her driveway at 7:30.
“Is this airbag on?” Betsy asked.
“Yes, Mom, it is.”
“You can never be too careful, you know.”
Melinda backed out of the driveway and into the street.
“Watch for cars,” Betsy said. “They fly by here anymore.”
“I’ll keep watch, Mom. You’re safe with me. I’ve never had an accident, you know.”
“I know, honey. It’s just that—“
“I know, Mom. It’s okay.”
Betsy slipped her left hand under her left leg and gripped the handle in her arm rest with her right hand the whole way to Sophia’s school. She didn’t talk because she didn’t want to distract Melinda. At intersections, she closed her eyes.
When they got to school, Betsy let out a loud sigh. She was so relieved to be standing on firm ground again.
She and Melinda both gave Sophia a kiss and a hug, and she ran to the door of the school with the other kids. Betsy was glad to see there were a couple of teachers standing guard.
“Well, Mom, your bus stop is right across the street,” Melinda said. “Remember your appointment with Dr. Schneider is at 11:00. So you’ll probably have a little time beforehand.”
“I’ll be fine, honey. I might grab something at Starbucks.”
“That sounds good. And you’ll have lunch before you head back?”
“Yes, dear. Don’t worry about me. I’ll see you back here about 2:30.”
“Okay, Mom. I hope you have a good session with Dr. Schneider,” Melinda said, giving her mother a hug.
“Me too,” Betsy said.
Melinda got back in her car and drove away. Betsy waited for the walk sign, then crossed the street, looking both ways the whole time. She sat down on a bench. The bus arrived, right on time, a few minutes later.
With stops, the bus ride downtown took just under an hour. Betsy got off about a block from Dr. Schneider’s office. She knew there was a Starbucks around the corner and walked there to kill time before her appointment.
“What may we make for you this morning?” the perky, tattooed young lady said from behind the counter.
“I’d like some herbal tea, please,” Betsy said.
“Certainly. Any special flavor?”
“No. As long as it’s organic.”
“All our teas are organic, ma’am.”
“That’s good. Well, do you something with mint?”
“We have a honey citrus mint, but that’s a green tea, so it has a little caffeine.”
“No caffeine,” Betsy said, shaking her head.
“How about our peach tranquility herbal tea? No caffeine.”
“That sounds good,” Betsy said.
As the young lady turned around to prepare the tea, Betsy thought about the peach trees her father grew in their back yard when she was growing up. She remembered one year when insects infested the trees. Her father sprayed them with a chemical, which he used every year after that. Her mother washed the peaches and assured Betsy they were fine to eat, but Betsy was always wary after that.
“Did you say that tea is organic?” she called to the young lady behind the counter.
She turned around.
As Betsy sat sipping her tea, the aroma of coffee hung thick in the air. She loved coffee. She used to drink it every day. But that was before a long string of bad news about the ill effects of coffee drinking, from heart problems to cancer. Betsy hadn’t had a cup of coffee, or anything with caffeine, for nearly 20 years. Now surrounded by the rich, earthy fragrance of arabica beans being ground and brewed, she really missed it.
At 10:30, Betsy left and walked to Dr. Schneider’s office around the corner. His office was on the second floor of a tall office building. She went into the lobby and looked for a door for the stairs. She preferred taking the stairs over riding in an elevator. She was afraid the elevator would break down and she would be stuck between floors. She’d also seen a movie years ago where the elevator cable snapped, sending the car crashing into the basement. Since then, unless she had to go more than five floors, she always took the stairs.
Betsy found Dr. Schneider’s office, signed in and filled out a form. There was a large aquarium on a long table against one wall of the waiting room with many colorful, tropical fish swimming and darting around. It reminded Betsy of the ocean. She hated the ocean. She was deathly afraid of sharks and never went into the water.
She looked up at the clock. It was 10:59. She wondered if Dr. Schneider was running late. If he’s late, and I get out of here late, I might not have enough time for lunch.
Just then, a man appeared at the doorway to the waiting room.
“Mrs. Mitchell?” he said, smiling.
He didn’t look like a psychiatrist, at least not how Betsy had always pictured one. She expected him to look clinical, nerdy and frumpy. Instead, he was young — around 40, she guessed — handsome, trim and fashionably dressed.
“Yes,” Betsy said, getting up and walking over to him.
“I’m Dr. Schneider.”
He extended his hand, and she took it.
“It’s nice to meet you,” he said.
Betsy liked his easy way. He put her at ease.
“Please, come in,” he said, holding the door for her.
She stepped inside and looked around. Lamps gave the room a warm glow. The floor was wood, and there was a large area rug in the center of the room. Two comfortable-looking armchairs faced each other, each with a small end table next to it.
“Please sit wherever you like,” Schneider said.
“It’s funny, but I thought there’d be a couch,” Betsy said.
“Ah, yes,” he said. “Many of my new patients say that, but I find chairs are much better for having conversations.”
“I would tend to agree.”
“Please take your pick,” he said, gesturing toward the two armchairs.
She stepped over to the blue one and sat down. He sat in the gray one across from her. He had a small writing tablet and a pen, which he placed on the end table next to his chair.
“So shall I call you Mrs. Mitchell or Betsy?” he asked.
“I think I prefer Betsy.”
“All right, Betsy. So how are you feeling?”
“Well, that’s good. So why are you here today?”
She looked at him and smiled.
“I’m not sure,” she said.
“When your daughter made this appointment for you, she said you’ve become fearful and that your fears have grown worse since your husband died.”
“Yes, I suppose that’s true,” she said.
“When did your husband die?”
“About two years ago.”
“I am sorry for your loss.”
He reached over and picked up his pen and writing tablet.
“What do you fear, Betsy?”
She pursed her lips and breathed in through her nose.
“To be honest, doctor, just about everything anymore.”
“Can you give me an example?”
She paused and thought for a moment.
“Well, this morning, when my daughter was giving me a ride to the bus stop, I was afraid.”
“Getting into an accident.”
“Were you in a car accident this morning?”
“No, but whenever I get into a car, I think of Ted, my husband. He died in a car accident.”
“So you think that because your husband died in a car accident you’ll be killed in a car accident too?”
“I think it’s a real possibility.”
“I see,” he said, jotting a note on his tablet.
“What other fears do you have, Betsy?”
“Oh, there are lots of things really.”
Betsy gave him a long list of examples of the things that made her anxious and fearful, from pesticides to sharks. Dr. Schneider nodded as he made notes. She kept waiting for him to say something, but he just listened, and so she kept talking, giving him more examples of the things that frightened her.
When she finished, he asked, “How long have these things made you feel fearful?”
“Well, in some cases, for as long as I can remember,” she said. “And others, more recently. I wasn’t afraid to ride in cars until Ted’s accident, for example.”
“I see,” he said. “Let me ask you something. Have you ever actually been harmed by any of the things that make you fearful?”
“No, I guess not,” she said quietly. “Not really.”
“Betsy, when one of these things makes you fearful, how do you feel?”
“How do I feel?”
“I mean when you think about the possibility of eating foods with pesticides, for example, how does that make you feel?”
“Can you tell me what that feels like?”
“It feels awful. When I think about going outdoors without sunscreen, for example, I immediately think about getting skin cancer. I used to love going out in the sun, doctor. When I was a girl, I would play outside all day in the summer. It was one of the great joys of my life. Now the sun frightens me, and all I want to do is stay inside. I’ve grown to hate the sunshine, and when I think about that, I feel sad.”
“I understand,” he said. “Betsy, what you just shared with me is very helpful. If it’s okay with you, I’d like you to give me a few other examples of the things that are causing you fear these days and what that feels like. I’m trying to get an understanding of your concerns and the effect these concerns are having on you. So if that sounds okay, please continue.”
“Of course,” she said.
Betsy gave Dr. Schneider half a dozen more examples and tried to describe how her fears about these things made her feel and how her feelings were affecting her everyday life. No longer driving a car, for example, or answering her phone.
The more she shared, the more Betsy realized just how dramatically her life had changed, especially since Ted died. Her life had become so insular and lonely, and she never talked about these things with anyone, especially her children, whom she did not want to burden. But just then, it felt good to share these things with Dr. Schneider. She wasn’t sure if he could help her, but she was glad she had come to see him today.
She saw him glance at his watch.
“Oh, my,” she said. “I’ve lost track of time.”
“It’s okay, Betsy,” he said, putting his pen and writing tablet on the end table next to him. “We still have about five minutes. You’ve given me a lot of good information today. Thank you. In the time we have left, I thought we could talk about our next steps.”
“That sounds good,” she said.
“Well, first, whether we continue these sessions is entirely your choice. But I really hope we will continue.”
“I do too, doctor. I’d like to see you again.”
“Very good. Why don’t we make another appointment for about two weeks from now?”
“Great. Next time, I’d like to ask you about your family, starting with the one you grew up in. I just want to get a more complete understanding of you, of your whole story, before I offer a diagnosis and we talk about the best path forward. Does that sound okay?”
“Certainly,” she said.
She liked his calm, patient manner and the way he listened. She trusted him. She had grown wary of people, wary of the world, and it felt good to trust someone.
They both stood up. As he walked her to the door, Dr. Schneider said, “Betsy, I have a favorite quote I’d like to share as food for thought for our next session. It’s by Mark Twain.”
“I love reading Twain,” she said. “Go ahead.”
“Twain wrote, ‘I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.’”
She looked at him and smiled.
“Thank you, doctor,” she said, extending her hand.
“Thank you, Betsy,” he said, taking it. “I’ll see you again in two weeks.”
“I’ll look forward to it,” she said.
“So how was your appointment?” Melinda asked as Betsy got into the car.
“It was great,” she said.
“Dr. Schneider is a very good listener.”
“I’ve heard that about him. Are you going to see him again?”
“Yes, in two weeks.”
“That’s great, Mom. I’ll be happy to give you a ride to bus again.”
“I would appreciate that, and I appreciate you suggesting I see Dr. Schneider. I have a feeling he’s going to be able to help me.”
As they were driving down Betsy’s street, she noticed a for sale sign up in her neighbor’s yard, two doors down. It was the Richardsons. Phyllis and Gene had lived there for 30 years. Betsy had known them that whole time. Now their kids were grown and gone, and Gene was retired. Betsy hadn’t seen Phyllis in a while. She supposed they were ready to downsize.
Maybe I should downsize. The very idea of moving out of her house filled her with trepidation, and she put the idea out of her mind.
Two weeks later, Betsy went to see Dr. Schneider again. This time, she talked about her childhood. He asked a few questions, but mainly listened and took notes.
Two weeks later, they met again. This time, Betsy talked about her own family, about raising kids, about her marriage and about Ted’s tragic death. Again, Dr. Schneider mainly listened.
They met again two weeks later. This time, Betsy talked about her daily life. She talked about how small and scary her world had become and how she wished things were different.
“Different in what way?” he asked.
“I wish I were happy again,” she said. “I have not felt happiness, true happiness, in a long time.”
“What’s keeping you from being happy, Betsy?”
“I don’t know, doctor,” she said with tears in her eyes. “Can you help me?”
“Here,” he said, handing her a tissue.
“I’m sorry,” she said, feeling embarrassed.
“It’s okay,” he said. “Betsy, I have so appreciated everything you’ve shared with me these past few sessions. Now I’d like to share my diagnosis and talk with you about a treatment plan, which we’ll develop together. Does that sound okay?”
“Yes,” she said, wiping her eyes. “That sounds wonderful.”
“Betsy, if you’d allow me to digress for just a moment, I’d like to briefly share something from my own life.”
“Of course,” she said.
Dr. Schneider set aside his pen and writing tablet.
“Thank you,” he said. “When I was a kid, I knew several people who were, as we said then, mentally ill. I was very close to one of them. I didn’t understand why these people were the way they were. They made me uncomfortable but, at the same time, I remember wishing there was something I could do to help them. Nobody, it seemed, was helping them, and I saw the awful effects of that, close up. As I grew up, I decided I wanted to dedicate my life to helping people with mental illness. I had heard about psychiatry, and I decided to become a psychiatrist because we are real doctors. We can prescribe drugs, for example. And so I began practicing psychiatry, right here, about 12 years ago. I went into it with every intention of not only helping people, but fixing them, like a doctor treats an infection, for example. But what I’ve learned is that I can’t really fix anyone. Oh, I can prescribe drugs, which are sometimes helpful. But drugs can’t fix the problems I see. I don’t think any drug is going to fix your problems, Betsy. Nothing I can give you or tell you is going to make you feel comfortable driving again, for example. But I do think there is a good path forward for you.”
“You do?” she asked.
“Yes, I do. First, though, I’d like to share my diagnosis with you.”
“All the things you fear might happen to you, Betsy, are real. They do exist. Sadly, cars do crash, and exposure to some chemicals does cause cancer. Now, none of these things has actually happened to you, but that doesn’t mean your fears are not real. They are real. They’re a part of your life, and I think the first step you need to take is to accept that. Then you can begin to see how these fears are hurting you and how that hurt is being caused not by cars or pesticides or the sun, but by you, and you can then begin to let go of your suffering by letting go of your fears.”
She sat listening to him and nodding her head. It all sounded so simple, but it made so much sense.
“Let me stop there for a moment, Betsy,” he said. “Does it sound like I’m in the ballpark?”
“Yes, doctor,” she said. “Very much so.”
“Good. If that’s the case, then let me suggest a simple exercise between now and our next session. Think rationally about your fears. Give them a little space. Then begin to think about your life as it actually is. Begin to think about the things and the people you appreciate in your life. Try to see them just as they are, right at that moment, right before you. Then just draw a breath.”
She waited for him to say something else, to make some other recommendation. But he just looked at her. Then he smiled and raised his eyebrows, as if to say, “Well, what do you think?”
“I think I can do that, doctor,” she said.
“Good. Let’s plan to meet again in two weeks and, next time, let’s talk about your path forward. Okay?”
“That sounds good,” she said.
They got up, and he walked her to the door.
“Betsy, the first time we met, I shared a favorite quote with you. If it’s okay, I’d like to share one more.”
“It’s by Marcel Proust. He wrote, ‘The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.’”
“That’s beautiful,” she said. “Thank you for sharing that and for helping me begin to see that.”
As Melinda was driving Betsy home, Betsy noticed the for sale sign in the Richardson’s front yard had changed to a sold sign.
She had meant to stop over and talk with Phyllis. She hoped they hadn’t moved yet, that there would still be time to say goodbye.
The next morning, Betsy baked some chocolate brownies and brought them down to the Richardsons as a going-away gift. It was a sunny day, and she put on her wide brim straw hat to protect her face from the sun.
She walked up the steps to the Richardsons' front porch and knocked softly on the door. She had an aversion to ringing doorbells. She always felt they were too loud.
The door opened, but it was not Phyllis. Instead, a small, young, Middle Eastern-looking woman wearing a head scarf was standing there.
“May I help you?” she asked in a heavy, if lovely, accent.
“Good morning,” Betsy said. “I was looking for Phyllis Richardson.”
“I’m sorry,” said the woman. “The Richardsons have moved away, just a few days ago. We have just moved in. I am Shakila Siddiqui.”
“I see,” said Betsy. “My name is Betsy Mitchell. I’m your neighbor. I live two doors down.”
Betsy extended her hand. Shakila took it.
“It’s nice to meet you. May I call you Betsy?”
“Yes, please do.”
Just then, Betsy remembered the plate of brownies she was holding.
“I made these brownies this morning,” she said. “They’re chocolate. I brought them down as a going-away gift for the Richardsons, but obviously I’m a little late. May I give them to you as a housewarming gift?”
“That would be lovely,” Shakila said. “Thank you. My daughter, Zia, loves chocolate brownies. She’s at school now, pre-school actually. But I know she will enjoy one when she gets home.”
“How old is your daughter?” Betsy asked.
“She is four. Her name is Zia.”
“My granddaughter is also in pre-school. Where does your daughter go to school?”
“She goes to Woodward.”
“So does Sophia, my granddaughter!”
“I’ll ask Zia if she knows your Sophia when she gets home.”
Shakila was standing in the doorway, looking down slightly at Betsy, who was standing on the porch.
“Would you like to come in?” Shakila asked.
“Well, maybe just for a minute.”
Normally, Betsy would not have been so eager to enter a stranger’s house, but she was curious, and a bit concerned, about this new neighbor and thought it might be a good idea to take a quick look around.
“Let me put these brownies in the kitchen,” Shakila said. “Please have a seat in the family room, if you can find one. Sorry, we are still unpacking, as you can see.”
“That’s quite all right.”
Betsy stepped into the family room and walked over to the fireplace to check out a framed photograph on the mantle. In the picture, she saw Shakila sitting next to a good-looking, bespectacled young man on a wooden bench with the Disney castle in the background. Shakila was holding a tiny, smiling girl, dressed as a princess, on her lap.
“I see you have found my family,” Shakila said as she stepped into the room.
“Is this Zia?” Betsy asked.
“Zia. What a lovely name. What does it mean?”
“In Pakistan, where we are from, it means light. And with Zia, it fits for she is the light in our lives.”
“How beautiful,” Betsy said. “And this must be your husband.”
“Yes, that is Fahad.”
“And you say you’re from Pakistan?”
“Yes. Fahad and I came here five years ago. We lived in New Jersey. We liked it but decided it was not the best place to raise a family. We’d like to have more children. At any rate, we decided to move here because Fahad took a job teaching biochemistry at the university. We’ve been living in an apartment while we were looking for a house. We feel blessed to have found this place.”
“I see,” said Betsy. “So your husband teaches biochemistry.”
“Yes. We are both biochemists by training. We met as student at university in Punjab.”
Biochemists. Betsy wondered what they did with degrees in biochemistry. Germ warfare ran through her mind.
“So what brought you to the US?” she asked.
“We both had opportunities to work for pharmaceutical companies out east, helping develop new therapies for rare diseases. We really enjoyed our work, but Fahad loves teaching, and I’ve decided to step off my career track and be a stay-at-home mom, at least for now. We love this country and have applied for citizenship. Zia, of course, is already a citizen.”
“Well, I’m glad you’re here,” Betsy said.
“What about you, Betsy? Do you have a family?”
“Yes, we have three children, all grown, and one granddaughter, so far.”
“And your children? Do they all live nearby?”
“No, only our daughter Melinda lives here,” Betsy said with a forced smile.
“Let’s have a seat,” Shakila said, sitting down in an armchair and extending her hand toward the sofa.
“Thank you,” Betsy said, sitting down. “Our other daughter, Jessica, lives in California, and our son, Josh, lives in New York. They’re both married, but they don’t have children just yet. I see Melinda pretty often, but I don’t see Jessica or Josh nearly as often as I’d like.”
“I see. And how about your husband?”
Betsy looked at her and blinked.
“Ted died two years ago in a traffic accident.”
The two of them sat there for a moment, looking at one another, saying nothing, as if they were both at a loss for words.
Finally, Shakila said, “Would you like something to drink? I meant to ask you earlier.”
“No, thank you,” Betsy said. “I really must be going. Again, welcome to the neighborhood. I look forward to meeting Zia and Fahad. Thank you for your hospitality.”
Betsy went back home and made lunch for herself. Then she slathered sunscreen over her face, neck and arms, put her wide brim hat back on and headed out to her garden.
She worked there, weeding, picking vegetables and taking breaks for lemonade, sitting on a bench, for a couple of hours. As she worked, she thought about what Dr. Schneider had told her the day before, how he had urged her to sit with her fears. She thought about Shakila’s head scarf. She wondered why she wore it. The very idea of it made Betsy suspicious.
She heard the high-pitched screech of a school bus braking on her street and the happy sound of children’s voices. She thought of her own children coming home from school. That seemed so long ago.
She went in the house, washed up and took a little nap on her family room sofa. When she awoke, she was hungry and made herself a dinner of vegetables from her garden over organic brown rice.
After dinner, she went into the family room and turned on the TV, just in time for Fox News at 6:00. The lead story was about a bombing at a mosque in Minneapolis. Eighteen men, women and children were killed during a religious service there.
A composite photo of their faces was shown on the screen. As she looked at all these faces, Betsy thought of the photos she had seen of Shakila, Fahad and Zia that afternoon. Their faces looked just like those on the screen. Most of the women were wearing head scarves just like Shakila’s.
Then she thought about the Siddiquis as they might be at that moment. Maybe they too were learning of this terrible news. She wondered how immigrants like them deal with such a tragedy. She wondered if they feel threatened here in the US. She wondered if they feel unsafe every day, if Shakila had felt anxious when Betsy came to her front door that morning.
The bombing in Minneapolis dominated the news the rest of the evening. In addition to reports from the scene, Fox featured various experts offering running commentary on the tragedy. Most were sympathetic to the victims. But some took the opportunity to express dismay over Muslim leaders, especially the imams, not speaking out more forcefully against violence committed by Muslim extremists.
“For every action, there is a reaction,” one commentator said. “It’s sad to say, but maybe the members of this mosque should have seen this coming.”
The very idea made Betsy feel sick. She picked up the remote and clicked off the TV, but she could not get the faces of the victims out of her mind.
She sat there on the sofa and thought of all the lives that would be changed forever as a result of the bombing that morning. She wondered if Shakila and Fahad were putting Zia to bed right now, just a few hundred feet away. She wondered if Zia knew anything about the tragedy. She hoped not. But certainly Shakila and Fahad were aware. How afraid they must be, for their daughter and themselves, on a day like this.
And she began to weep. She wept for the victims of the bombing and their loved ones. She wept for the Siddiquis. She wept for the loss of her beloved husband and how he had left her a note before going to pick up dinner for them that evening, a note which, as usual, said “I love you” and for how bad she still felt for not having had a chance to say “I love you” in return. She wept that she had not seen Jessica and Josh since Christmas, knowing it was her fault because of her fear of flying and even riding in a car.
She remembered kissing her children good night when they were little. She remembered Ted kissing her good night. She remembered her mother and father kissing her good night when she was a child and the feel of her mother’s soft lips on her cheek and her father’s whiskers on her neck. How grateful she was for having known these things in her life and to remember them just now.
And she remembered the flannel pillowcase on her pillow in bed when she was a girl. She loved the warm, soft feel of it on her face. How she missed that caress.
Betsy wiped away her tears and got up. She went into the kitchen and poured herself a glass of white wine, organic and sulfite-free. Then she went to her patio door, slid it open and stepped out onto her deck.
She had not been out here at night in a long time. She sat down in an Adirondack chair, which had been Ted’s favorite, and looked up at the stars. It was a clear night, and the sky was filled with stars. She and Ted used to sit out here looking up at the stars all the time. He knew all the constellations and tried to teach them to her, but Betsy could never quite see them as he did.
Except for the North star, which she was always able to see. Now she looked up, and there it was, brilliant, large and luminous as ever, like a small sun, lighting up the darkness all around it. How blessed she felt, just then, to behold such a light. Light. No wonder Shakila and Fahad had named their daughter after it.
She finished her wine, went inside and turned out the lights on the first floor. She went upstairs. At the top of stairs, she turned on the light and opened the linen closet. She reached up to the top shelf and pulled down a flannel pillow case. She took it to her bedroom, took the hypoallergenic pillowcase off her bed pillow and replaced it with the flannel one. She went into the bathroom, brushed her teeth and got into bed.
The flannel felt so soft on her face. It made her think of her childhood and how safe she felt in her own bed at night. She said a prayer that Zia was feeling safe in her bed tonight, then she drifted off to sleep.
The next morning, Betsy decided to take a walk. She and Ted used to walk down the sidewalks of their neighborhood. Betsy hadn’t taken many walks lately, but this morning, for some reason, she decided it might be time to start walking again.
She slathered her skin with sunscreen, put on her straw hat and headed out. She decided to turn right, past the Siddiqui’s new house. As she did, she saw Shakila out in the front yard with a little girl. This must be Zia. They were kicking a large, plastic, bright blue ball back and forth.
Shakila spotted Betsy coming their way.
“Good morning, Betsy!” she called, having just kicked the ball to Zia.
“Good morning!” Betsy called back.
The little girl looked up at Betsy. As she did, the ball rolled by her. It rolled across the grass and over the sidewalk and between two cars parked on the street.
“Zia!” Shakila yelled.
But the girl ran after the ball. She ran across the sidewalk just ahead of where Betsy was standing and started to step between the two cars.
“Zia!” Shakila screamed, running toward her.
Betsy heard a car coming. With the speed of a much younger woman, she ran to catch Zia between the cars. She grabbed the little girl’s T-shirt just as she was squeezing through and pulled her back. Betsy fell backward, landing on the grass, with Zia tumbling on top of her.
By now, Shakila had reached them. She was crying and speaking in a language Betsy did not understand. She fell to her knees, grabbed Zia and held her tightly. She looked over at Betsy, sobbing, with a mix of terror and relief in her eyes.
Betsy picked up her hat, which had fallen off, and got up.
“Is she okay?” she asked Shakila.
But Shakila didn’t answer. Instead, she picked up her little girl and, still sobbing, carried her into the house and shut the door behind them.
Betsy brushed off her T-shirt and jeans, put her hat back on and resumed her walk. She walked around the neighborhood for about half an hour, thinking about Zia and Shakila and how grateful she felt to have been there for Zia at just the right moment.
Returning home, Betsy walked by the Siddiqui’s house. A small SUV was now parked in the driveway, but there was no sign of Shakila or Zia.
Betsy walked on to her house and went inside. She was hungry and decided to fix herself some lunch. Today she would have an egg salad sandwich. She had made the egg salad from organic, cage-free eggs.
She was spreading egg salad on a slice of organic, whole wheat bread when she head a knock at her front door. She peaked though the living room and, through the sidelight, saw someone standing on the front porch. She could see the person was wearing a head scarf and realized it was Shakila.
She wiped her hands, went to the door and opened it.
“Well, hello, Shakila,” Betsy said.
“Hello, Betsy,” she said, smiling. “I brought you these,” she said, handing her a bouquet of flowers. “Thank you for saving Zia this morning. Thank you for my daughter.”
Betsy looked at Shakila, who had tears in her eyes. In that moment, she reminded Betsy of Melinda and, without knowing whether it was acceptable to embrace in the Muslim culture, she opened her arms and embraced Shakila, as she would her own daughter. The two women stood there for a moment, holding each other.
“Is Zia okay?” Betsy asked.
“Yes, she is fine,” Shakila said, wiping away her tears. “She is taking a nap. Fahad is home with her now.”
“I’m glad,” Betsy said. “Would you like to come in? I was just making lunch. Would you like to join me?”
“I would love that,” Shakila said, “if it’s not too much trouble.”
“No trouble at all.”
They walked into the kitchen.
“I was just making myself an egg salad sandwich,” Betsy said. “Would you like one?”
“That sounds delicious,” Shakila said. “My mother used to make egg salad all the time.”
“Yes, I grew up on a farm. My parents raised chickens. We always had eggs.”
“I see,” said Betsy. “Well, I hope you enjoy my egg salad. It’s made from cage-free eggs.”
“Our eggs were anything but cage-free. We kept our chickens in a coop to keep them safe.”
“That makes sense,” Betsy said.
“Do you ever use paprika in your egg salad?” Shakila asked.
“No, but I have paprika. Would you like me to add some?”
“I’d love that, if you think you’d like it,” Shakila said.
“Well, I’ve never tried it in egg salad, but I’ll give it a try,” Betsy said.
She stepped over to a spice rack on the counter.
“All my spices are certified organic,” she said, picking out a small glass jar of paprika.
“We used to make paprika from chili peppers we grew on our farm,” Shakila said. “It’s a wonderful spice. I use it in my cooking all the time.”
“Who knows?” Betsy said. “Maybe this paprika is from Pakistan.”
“Maybe so,” she said. “Maybe it came from our farm.”
“Would you like something to drink?” Betsy asked.
“I’d love some coffee, if you have it.”
Betsy gave her a quizzical look.
“Yes, I know. You might not expect someone from Pakistan to like coffee. But ever since we came to America, I’ve loved it. I drink coffee every day.”
“Well, I don’t make it very much anymore. But I keep some in the freezer. It’s good stuff, from Colombia, I think.”
“Sounds wonderful,” Shakila said.
Betsy went to her freezer and pulled out the bag of coffee. It was already ground. She put a filter in her coffee maker and poured in enough coffee for two cups. She poured two cups of water into the machine and turned it on.
Soon, the aroma of coffee filled the air. It smelled so good to Betsy.
She took two white coffee mugs out of her cupboard and sat them on the counter. When the coffee was finished brewing, she poured it into the mugs.
“Would you like cream or sugar?” she asked.
“No, thank you,” Shakila said. “Just black.”
“Me too,” Betsy said, bringing their coffee mugs over to the kitchen table and setting them down.
The two women sat down to eat. Betsy picked up her coffee mug. She held it under her nose, closed her eyes and breathed in the warm, earthy aroma. It smelled so good. She opened her eyes, brought the mug to her lips and sipped the hot coffee. She had almost forgotten how much she loved the taste of it.
“It’s delicious,” Shakila said.
Betsy looked at her across the table. In that moment, she saw Shakila not as a stranger or a friend or a Muslim. She saw her as a mother, as if with new eyes, and she felt a sense of peace, a wholeness, she had not known for a long time.
“By the way,” Shakila said. “I asked Zia about your Sophia. As it turns out, they are in the same class together.”
“It’s a small world,” she said.
“It is indeed,” Shakila said, biting into her egg salad sandwich.