I sit in Starbucks finishing the last ten pages of Believing the Lie by Elizabeth George, drinking Chai tea, ignoring the Saturday ruckus around me.  In one of the other three comfy chairs, which form a tight circle around a low table, sits an elderly woman with an e-reader.  A friendly-looking middle-aged man approaches, enters our circle and plops down.  The elderly woman recognizes him and greets him by name.  He nods but says nothing.  She asks how he’s doing.

“The airplanes outside my room are too loud.  They make me nervous.  I don’t like them.  They’re too  loud.”

She asks him if he can just try to ignore them.  He repeats what he’s already told her.

He gets up and goes outside to smoke a cigarette.  The woman and I exchange a glance.

“He’s harmless,” she says.  I wonder if I look scared.

“I don’t like loud noise either.  I can relate to what he was saying,” I say.

“He’s mentally ill.  He won’t hurt anyone.  He’s in here all the time and they know him here.”  She repeats that he’s harmless.

I’m surprised she keeps assuring me there’s nothing to fear.  I know many people who are mentally ill, including several people in my extended family.  Many of them deal with difficult living conditions, tenuous or broken family relationships and medical problems exacerbated by their mental illness.  My reaction isn’t fear but admiration at their ability to carry on.  Maybe she’s just reassuring herself, I think.

He comes back in and sits down with us.  They talk about the weather and other innocuous topics while I finish my book.  I leave, grateful for people like this woman who extend small kindnesses to others, most unseen or unnoticed.

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