Lending an Ear

Travel stories make for some of the most interesting memories. Mishaps, unexpected adventures, detours, you never know where a trip is going to take you. Sometimes, these experiences are thrilling and memorable for all the right reasons. However, I’m a firm believer in relaying the bad things as well as the good ones and this particular story is a little bit sad. I’ve had a handful of experiences where I’ve had unexpected conversations with locals but this one really took me by surprise.

Last week I wrote about my little two-hour jaunt to Caen to see the castle. Afterwards, I stopped into a cathedral that was under renovation because I knew the inside would be stunning, as most French cathedrals are. As I walked in, I noticed a heavy air of quiet resignation. A lot of monuments I’ve visited have a similar heavy feeling to them but this one was different. Most of that feeling usually comes from the history of the monument and knowing the number of important things that took place. I noticed the interior of the cathedral was completely empty, or so I thought, which was fine with me. My eyes were adjusting to the difference in light while I was gazing up at the vaulted ceiling (one of my favorite parts of medieval architecture) and I didn’t even notice the woman standing close to the altar.

She had seen me, though, and approached me slowly. I could tell she was very old and she looked quite sad. When she got to me, she quietly and politely asked me if I spoke French, to which I answered yes. She told me that was good because she knew very little English. The conversation that followed is one I’ll never forget.

She began by telling me how sad the sight of the empty cathedral made her. She grew up in the area and had been attending local churches all of her life. When she was a girl, she told me, this cathedral used to be filled with people constantly. The cathedral was full of the sound of whispered prayers, singing choirs, and long masses. Now there wasn’t a soul in sight, besides me that was.  It was very clear how much this upset her, though it was also clear this wasn’t the only thing. That’s when she told me the reason she approached me in the first place.

She was dying. She never told me exactly what it was that was ailing her but she stated that fact frankly and clearly. She told me she didn’t know exactly how long she had left. I didn’t really know how to respond. It’s not often that a stranger, especially in another country, approaches you to tell you that they are dying. She told me she wanted to die peacefully by the seaside. There was no one left to take care of her and she asked me if I was able to take her to the coast. Seeing as I didn’t have a car, I wasn’t.

I felt so bad for not being able to help her. I offered to buy her a train ticket and to help her get on the train safely but she refused due to mobility issues and I think because she didn’t want me to pay for her. I didn’t have a car or any other way to help her out. I wish that I did. I wish I had followed through on my original plan of renting one instead of taking the train everywhere. I wish I could have helped ease her passing and her pain by taking her to a quiet village somewhere. I try not to live with regrets but my inability to help her will stay with me for a very long time. I really do hope she found someone who was able to help her out. I hope that someone happened along who did have a car and, out of the kindness of his or her heart, drove her to the seaside. If she’s still alive, I hope she is spending her last days happy and if she passed, I hope she did so in comfort and peace.

The takeaway from this story is that sometimes it’s important to listen to someone’s story. Coming from someone who lives in New York City, I know it’s not always fun, practical, or even safe to stop and talk to a stranger. However, situations may arise, much like this, where listening could make a difference. Sometimes, people just need an ear or the kindness of a passing stranger. You never know, the experience could change someone’s life, including your own.

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