by Jean Venable
It seems odd that at a terrible time in my life, the person who helped me the most was someone I didn’t know, someone who was unaware of my existence. She lived in a building across East 76th Street from me in New York City, our windows directly opposite each other. It was on my third night home after visiting my husband in the hospital that I became aware of her.
We had received horrible news. “You have a brain tumor,” the doctor told my forty-seven-year-old husband. “It’s in the speech center so it’s inoperable.” As we sat stricken-faced, he proposed a course of radiation that would not eradicate the tumor, but would--as he put it--”shrink the hell out of it,” giving my husband more time. The treatment meant that my husband would have to stay in the hospital for five weeks.
I made my way home, the streets a blur, to face the apartment we had so happily moved into the week before. Maneuvering through stacks of boxes to the kitchen, I poured myself a glass of wine and took it into the bedroom, setting up camp on a mattress still wrapped in plastic on the floor, to make the dreaded calls. Hearing myself say the words that the doctor had said made them harder to disbelieve. I gratefully accepted one friend’s offer to make some of the calls for me.
As I returned to the kitchen for a refill, I glanced at the window across the street and that’s when I noticed her. She appeared to be in her mid sixties, with neatly cut gray hair, wearing a dark green robe which zipped up the front. She was headed to a table by the living room window, her headquarters, I was to learn, for her habitual evening’s reading. It was quite late by now, and few of the other windows in her building were still lighted. As I changed into my nightgown, I found myself appreciating her presence.
The next day my husband started his radiation treatment. We tried not to notice the condition of some of his fellow patients. That night I opted not to call anyone, which would involve reporting things I would rather not think about. I glanced across the street and saw that my anonymous friend had emerged from her bedroom in her reading attire. I was grateful for a form of companionship that did not require answering questions.
With no appetite, I attempted to eat my dinner, which consisted of a large glass of wine and a linzer torte, the wrapper of which I used as a plate. As I munched, my stomach in knots, I observed the surroundings of my new acquaintance. Her living room was attractive and uncluttered, with dark wooden bookcases on two of the walls. As I looked around my own apartment I realized that the disorder of the unpacked boxes was adding to the grimness of the situation, as was my constant pacing, wineglass in hand, increasingly gravitating back to the bottle of Chardonnay.
At the beginning of the second week, it occurred to me to wonder what was in the glass being refilled periodically across the way. The next time the woman headed to the kitchen I turned out the light and grabbed my binoculars. What she was drinking was ginger ale, and I surmised that she was probably feeling a lot better in the mornings than I was. The next day I made two purchases: a box cutter from a hardware store near the hospital, and on my way home that night, a six-pack of ginger ale from the deli across the street. I began with the box cutter, extricating two table lamps, their warm light an immediate improvement over the glaring ceiling fixture. With the help of the super, I got the mattress out of its plastic shroud and onto the bed frame. At supper, I had one glass of wine and switched to ginger ale.
At the hospital the next morning I tried to describe my new relationship to my husband. He regarded me quizzically at first, but grateful for anything that could be of help, came to appreciate this stranger whose order and serenity I was attempting to emulate. He did not encourage me to share this one-sided relationship with others.
Back at the apartment, I settled into a nightly routine, which began with a call to my husband to report that I was safely home. I had often procrastinated taking my showers in the evening, but I started timing them so that my friend would still be reading when I emerged. I found it helpful, when trying to ward off morbid thoughts, to get into bed and turn out my light while she was still up, revisiting childhood days when I could hear my parents quietly talking after I was put to bed.
My favorite nights were Saturdays, when the woman’s doorman would bring her the Sunday Times as soon as it was delivered to the lobby late Saturday night. This was a guarantee that she would be up half the night working on what I figured out was the crossword puzzle. If I were feeling desolate, I could crook up on one elbow in my bed, and no matter how late it was, she would be intently bent over, pen in hand, the light of her lamp enabling her to do her puzzle, and me to fall asleep not feeling alone.
When my husband’s treatments were completed, he was discharged with a prognosis of one year and lived six, during which time we had a son. Our life was now centered in the apartment; shades were pulled at night, and I was no longer thinking about the woman in the window.
Several years later, shortly after my husband died, some activity across the way caught my eye and I realized that the furniture was being moved out of the apartment on which I had once been so focused. The next morning when I pointed up to her window, her doorman confirmed that the woman had died. She was never to know the measure of solace felt by an anguished young woman who, one long ago summer, kept company with her across the darkness of East 76th street.
Jean Venable was a writer/producer for NBC Network News for 25 years in the Documentaries division and spent the last seven years of her career with the TODAY Show. Now retired from NBC, she writes from Poughkeepsie, NY where she lives with her second husband. She has one son, who is a cameraman for News 12, Westchester, and seven stepchildren.