There is something hypnotic about sitting in the middle of a conversation in a language you do not understand. Something about the familiar cadence and the unfamiliar words causes my brain to flicker in and out this afternoon…as if I were trying to fall asleep in self-defense. I watch Tina and wonder if it’s worse for her, because she understands enough of the Greek conversation surrounding us to follow it, having been exposed to the language her entire life, but not enough to truly participate. Her brain is grasping the edges of the conversation, so must be working very hard.
The topic of conversation is music. The people we sit with are professional musicians of one variety or another. If it weren’t for the fact that I am a stranger here, I would be of no interest at all in this room and I am lulled into a false sense of invisibility that one gains by being completely unable to comprehend anything that is going on. This does not last long. My heart races as I realize that Ellie is referring to me in something she says. My dull, glazed over look feels inappropriate when I am suddenly referred to. I can tell she is letting them know that I told her months ago about Kataklysmos, the festival in town…that she knew nothing of it until I told her about it. Her story is clearly charming and animated…I am clearly surrounded by storytellers actually…but still I can’t follow. Though no one seems to notice, I find myself embarrassed by the fact that I am making the freshman traveller mistake of mirroring the movements and expressions of the people talking without understanding what they are saying. I feel a little like a bobble head doll.
Ellie’s friend, Mary, has been scurrying around making sure the house is in perfect condition for us. Unnecessary, really, as it was beyond perfect when we walked in. Unexpectedly, she slides into the room beside me and asks me if perhaps we would like to go for a walk to see the beach. I dearly hope my rush for the door didn’t appear as desperate as it felt. I did not even want to take a moment to change into more comfortable shoes and risk the chance that the opportunity would pass. The people in the room with us were clearly so sweet and kind. But my brain ached from trying to remain awake. Plus, I wanted to see the beach.
Tina and I walked with Mary and she spoke to us in English. She was quite capable of communicating with us, but I felt bad that she had to make the effort, having just scrambled out the door to escape the challenge to my own brain.
Mary’s 21 year old son was studying in the states when he was diagnosed with cancer and told he must go to Houston to be treated. She took an eight month leave of absence from work and rented an apartment in Houston to be with him during the treatment. She was alone in a huge city where she knew no one, spending the few hours a day with her son, as she was allowed while in cancer treatment and then returning to her apartment alone. The thought of this truly dear woman enduring this time alone fills me with so much grief that I am grateful when the well of emotion running through her slows her to standing. Motion seemed inappropriate given the intensity of story. The story she shares runs so deep in her that I can literally feel the lonely ache of sitting by herself in an empty apartment counting the hours until she could be back with her son. And this is how I learn about Ellie.
I have known Ellie for years, of course. But today, standing along the beautiful beach as the sun sets, I really learn about her in a way that would be impossible except through the words of a woman like Mary.
Ellie received the call about Mary through the Cypriot network in Houston and sprung into action. Every day for eight months, Mary could count on Ellie’s call, a connection to something other than the fear and loneliness that filled her days. Ellie came often to pick Mary up from her apartment and take her shopping, to lunch or dinner, or to just sit amongst the noise and chaos of a house full of people somewhere. Mary was clearly not a charity case to Ellie, Mary was a sister…a sister who needed her.
Suddenly, the fuss over ensuring our comfort was understandable. I came thinking that Mary felt indebted to Ellie and was happy to have a chance to give back to her in some way. But this is not really it. Mary was inviting family into her home. She is proud to have us here. Having us stay somewhere else is unthinkable, not because she has a debt to pay but because she loves Ellie, and by extension, us. And she truly does.
I have always loved Ellie. She is easy to love. But as we walked back to the house this evening, I loved a part of her that I had not really known before. Ellie has a gift for making family of strangers. She gives where she is most needed. She loves those who most need her love.
I silently thank Mary for the fresh glimpse of Ellie.