I picked up Betty in the midst of a panic attack she was having outside the door of her Newport Beach, California, home.
“I don’t feel very well,” the white woman, thin and older, perhaps in her mid sixties, with dyed platinum blond hair, told me as I rolled down my window to say her name and thus verify her identity.
“Do you need me to call the paramedics?” I asked immediately, “What’s wrong?”
She said she felt anxious and that she couldn’t breathe. Pushing the “hazard” button, I put my car in park just off center of the roadway leading around her housing complex and asked her if she needed a hug. As I put my arms around her she started to sob, telling me that her husband is dying and that she is taking care of her aging and ill parents–all of this on the eve of her birthday.
Reminding her to breathe deeply–in through the nose, out through the mouth–I acknowledged her pain and assured her that everything was going to be alright, offering her some lavender oil, which I keep in my car, to help calm her nerves.
“What are the neighbors going to think?” she asked through tears as we stood in her driveway for the next fifteen minutes, during which time she stuttered through the woes besieging her: questions about the status of her life, her aging beauty, her failing marriage. We were running late for her facial appointment at a local skin-care center so we headed toward the car, her demeanor somewhat calmer than before.
I handed her a small plush bear that I keep in one of my car’s cup-holders and it seemed to provide her with some emotional comfort as we drove towards her destination (she stroked its furry head gently and gave it a few soft squeezes). We exited the car together and I sat with her on a bench nearby so that she could further gather herself before heading inside of the salon for her scheduled visit. She apologized for her behavior and told me, “I need to stop drinking.”
I was not surprised to hear her say this as I smelled liquor on her breath in the car. I reassured her that there was no judgment on my part, only support and encouragement. Her husband, who does not take care of his diabetes problem, treats her harshly, she said, and is very controlling. She has been with him since she was in her twenties, but she is no longer in love with him. “But it would kill him if I left,” she said.
“Would it really kill him?” I asked.
She turned the conversation around to me and asked about whether or not I was in a relationship. I told her I was–with a man. She was very accepting of this, but asked a question I assume many others must think: “Is it true that all gay men are sexually promiscuous?”
I laughed and said, “Well, I can see how that stereotype might circulate as true, but, no, not all gay men are promiscuous.”
She asked if I want to get married.
“I think so,” I said, “He’s significantly older than me, but he has a lot of vitality for his age.”
“I don’t think that matters,” she responded, referring to the close-to-30-year age gap between me and my man.
I appreciated her encouragement and needed to hear it in the midst of doubts about what I’m doing and why I’m doing it with the one I’m with–voices of confusion that creep into my psyche on occasion as I become every day more deeply involved with a man nearly twice my age.
Finally, she mustered up the guts to step inside of the salon for her appointment where she was greeted warmly. She asked me if I would wait for her and I told her I would, taking the 45 minutes she needed for her facial to stroll the harbor-side avenue and maybe grab a bite to eat.
When I returned almost an hour later, her frail body seemed sturdier, buoyed by what she called a “consultation” with her thirty-something male aesthetician. As it turned out, she did not opt for a facial, but instead spent that hour sorting through all that was overwhelming her with another witness who reminded her that, as she put it, “I have the power. And I am beautiful.”
I echoed these sentiments, really convictions, and encouraged her to live into that power and beauty as she celebrates her birthday.
She thanked me for holding space throughout her meltdown, adding, “We all need to love and be loved. And to look out for each other.” I nodded in total agreement.
Still a bit anxious as we parted ways, I told her to be strong, free, and courageous for the new beginning ahead–despite and because of her natural anxiety.
“I hope we stay friends forever,” she said.
And no doubt we will. She is a piece of me–that part which does not want to grow old, or up; which is insecure about his appearance; which is afraid of taking responsibility for his own life, for his own freedom. But she reflects another side as well: that which believes in his own beauty and power, and places life’s greatest value in friendship–the only way to survive in a world that would have us believe we are unlovable and alone.