The place was classic Italian, straight out of New York City's little Italy, fake gazebos with strung lights and ornate efforts made to make it look like we were in Rome, though we were in fact in an industrial parking lot just off the I-95 ramp in New Haven. However, the sausage packing warehouse and the deli advertising hot, melty grinders next door did help to set the scene.
My mom, dad and I were escorted to a table under one of the "gazebos." I was wearing pink sweat pants, my go-to khaki cap and a zip-up. Out of my shirt gaped a huge chunk of white gauze taped down with a couple layers of clear dressing that served to wrinkle the skin on my neck so that it looked – and felt – like the skin of a wilting apple.
I don't know that my parents noticed, but as soon as we were sat, I could see some of the restaurant workers whispering and gesturing. When I'd look over behind the counter they'd avert their eyes and act busy. It's a reality I've become quite accustomed to, and it doesn't bother me in the slightest. I know that they were just trying to figure out what my story was ... a young woman with what looks like her parents and it's pretty apparent that there is no hair under her hat ... and what is that on her neck? I get it. I'd probably be sneaking glances too. All I was concerned about was getting some of that wafting garlic into my belly.
Our waitress came over to our table and before even greeting us she leaned in close and started whispering to my mom about how horrible the table of old ladies in the corner was being to her. She said that no matter what she did, it wasn't enough, and that she knew they were going to be horrible tippers anyway. She said that she just wanted to drop everything and walk out, but that she needed the money. We empathized and were all a little puzzled about why she was divulging this to us.
Then she locked eyes with me. She was a tiny thing – barely five feet. Obviously of Italian descent herself with dark wavy hair, dark eyes and olive skin. I'd guess that she was about my age, maybe a few years younger.
"Did you just come from the medical office next door?" she asked. It was a fair assumption by the looks of me.
I explained that no, I was at Yale-New Haven hospital.
"Oh, doctor's appointment?"
Well, actually ... . And I went into a very brief explanation of what I was going through, that I had cancer that couldn't be treated locally, that we were checking out the hotel where I'd be staying for a couple of weeks and wanted to try out the restaurants close to it.
"And you're out eating? I hope you don't mind me asking, but I thought that people feel awful afterward like they couldn't get themselves to do anything for a week ... well, that's what my dad said," she replied to my cancer adventure summary.
I explained that no, I hadn't just received chemo, that I hadn't started that yet.
She pried a bit further, but in a polite way, obviously confused leading with her eyes for more information. Then I remembered that she could tell that I had no hair and was probably wondering how I got that way without chemo. So, I explained further that yes, I already received chemo, but at Hartford Hospital and that it was only high-dose salvage chemo to clear me out before the real high-dose chemo would start and the whole stem cell transplant process would take place.
"What's your name? I'll pray for you." she said abruptly, catching me off guard with her response.
"What?" I asked. I thought that I heard her right but wanted to be sure.
"What's your name? I meet a lot of people so I keep a prayer list ... I'll add your name to it," she clarified. I felt like I was being added to a VIP list at a club or something. Or, like if I came in I'd get a free tiramisu for being a cancer patient.
"Thank you ... that's so sweet of you," I said and told her my name.
She jotted it down on her waitressing pad and snapped it closed walking away with our orders.
My parents and I looked at each other and recounted what happened with this perfect stranger as we noshed on the mini garlic knots with pepperoni surprises baked inside them.
After we finished our lunches, which were all in fact covered in oozing mozzarella and smears of olive oil as suspected (and hoped for), we packed up and headed for the door.
"Wait," the waitress called to us. "I'll walk you out."
She told me about these healing masks that she'd heard of. That her mother had used them when she was very depressed. That you go to this healer - a woman with long, black hair and if she chooses you and feels your spirit, she'll work with you. She jotted down the name of the practice and told me to Google it. She told me that she hoped it would help me and told me again that she would be praying for me. I had no idea what she was talking about but was so taken aback by her passion, her spirituality, her beliefs.
"Don't forget, my name is Christina, next time you come," she said as she breezed away.
I couldn't help but picture her at night on her knees at the side of her bed asking for help for me – someone who just happened to be seated in her section that afternoon and for whatever reason she was drawn to.
I do hope that I see her again and when I do that I can tell her her prayers worked.