“A lot of your blog posts are really sad.” That’s what I’ve been told. Lots of times.
Fair enough. I write about sad things sometimes because in a lot of ways, the sad times mark a shift in thinking. Happy times confirm that you’re doing something right; sad times make you want to change something. Right? In that way, sad stuff can offer clarity.
Like how I learned to ask for stories—from a woman I barely knew.
Ten years ago, I went on a trip to Denver for a professional conference. I traveled with a group of eight colleagues, a sassy and fun clump of administrators who didn’t work together very closely, but shared a mutual respect—and a shared deliriousness at the idea of fleeing Ohio in exchange for the mountains of Colorado. It was February, and Ohio was at its most miserable: the snow had turned slushy and gray; the clouds were a disgusting, depressing mass; and the cold was the type that was making our joints hurt.
The beginning of the trip was unremarkable, because, as is the case with these types of conferences, the halls of a nondescript convention center swallowed us up. We dutifully went to all of the professional sessions; each night at dinner, we talked about what we’d learned and how to put it into practice back home. All the while, though, our eye was always on the prize; we had planned to stay an extra day to go skiing in Vail.
Vail! Me! Skiing in Vail! I felt fancy just thinking about it.
We rented a black Dodge Caravan, and all eight of us stuffed inside. We were in that giddy, the-conference-is-over-now-we-can-have-fun place. We left right after breakfast, headed west, and were on the slopes before noon.
The skiing was really not something that allows description. The mountains! The soft snow! The mind-blowing heights! The clean air! Oh, oh, oh—the skies!
And the skiing. Oh, my.
I’d skied for several years by then and had grown into a confident and ballsy skier. But my confidence had been built on slopes in Ohio. It took about 4.5 seconds after getting off the first lift in Colorado to take a look down and decide my breath might stop.
I fell a lot at first, but eventually got some passable ski legs on. I stuck to the green runs—most of us did. We were challenged but held our own. We did all right. And it unfolded into a lovely, lovely day. The kind of day where everything seems just right. We took a break from skiing at one point to gorge on enormous bowls of hot chili and buttery chunks of cornbread; then we drank the clichéd hot chocolate with mounds of whipped cream frothing over the edge of our mugs.
When the sun went down and the lodge closed, we folded our exhausted bodies back into the van. Driving east back to Denver, a snowstorm blew in like nothing I’d seen before. We considered pulling over, but we all had early flights and feared we would get stuck for hours. “I’ve got this,” Lenore said, taking over the wheel and scrunching down in calm, focused concentration. In the back, we didn’t talk; we let her study the black air and invisible road as thick, cottony snowflakes whirled and hurled around us. In the front seat with Lenore was her friend and work-wife, Linda, a woman I hadn’t known well, but had grown to know and respect over the four days we’d spent together. She was funny and smart and kind. Gentle. Frugal with her words. But as the van crept slowly eastbound through the mountains, Linda murmured nonstop to Lenore—a soft and encouraging sound that somehow reassured all of us.
The snow lightened as we neared Denver, but by then, a 2-hour drive had turned into a 5-hour ordeal. When Lenore pulled the van back into our Holiday Inn Express, we were almost tearful with relief. We hugged and thanked Lenore; she stretched her neck and arms from being clenched and clamped by worry. We went straight to the hotel bar.
“I’ll take a Shiraz, please,” Linda asked the bartender. She folded her hands elegantly over one another. Her lips barely moved as she ordered: Shiraz.
She saw me watching her. “What?” she asked, smiling.
“My daughter loves that word, too,” she said. “Actually, it’s a little embarrassing because her teachers tell me that she says ‘Shiraz’ all day long, over and over, while she’s at her job.” She laughed—but the sound mixed up happiness with melancholy. “I wish she’d pick a different repetition word.”
And I thought: There is a story there. About her daughter.
And I thought: I want to know it.
And I thought: I want to ask. Can I ask? I don’t know how to ask.
So I smiled and looked away.
And here’s where the sad comes in.
Two years later, Linda was gone. Not long after our trip, she found a lump in her breast and, in spite of fighting back like hell—complete with tired smiles, beautiful wigs, and a valiant work ethic that overshadowed her weak days— she lost the fight.
And now, years later: Although I barely knew Linda, I think of her a lot. Every time someone orders Shiraz, sure, but also when I meet a person who seems to have a story to tell.
Because now I ask.
“Tell me more about that,” I’ll say.
“It sounds like there is a story there. I’d love to know it,” I’ll say.
“Is it too bold of me to ask you to tell me more?” I’ll say.
I want to hear all the stories. All of them. And what I learned that day in Denver with Linda: If you lose the chance to hear someone’s story, you might not get it back.