I stood leaning against the doorway of the passport office, which is tucked into a corner of the Post Office, my eyes flashing between the sign on the door that said the office closes at 2:00 and my watch that now glowed 1:40. There was nobody behind the desk to take photos for my visa application and no bell to ring for service, only a lonely bowl of lollipops, an insufficient apology for a pandemic Halloween. I tapped my foot anxiously, wondered how much time I had left on my parking meter, and did a quick calculation; I could wait, at most, twenty minutes before my daily agenda would be irredeemably compromised.
I watched as several people addressed and sealed their packages before dropping them in the pickup bin. The line for the postal counter was growing faster than it was moving, and soon several impatient patrons were waiting outside the main door. Just as I was debating whether to accept my loss and come back the following day, an elderly woman shouted to me from across the lobby, “Do I have you all to myself?”
“Oh, I don’t work here,” I corrected quickly. “I’m waiting too.” She moved laboriously toward me.
“Well, you’re wearing the blue.” I reflexively looked down at my shirt, though I had strategically chosen it for its color in hopes that it would at least bring out my eyes in the notoriously unflattering face shot. I allowed her the chair and shifted my weight to the opposite side of the door frame to maintain our sacred six feet of distance in the cramped office.
She sat down heavily and said, “I’m tired of sitting, but I’m eighty.” After a pause, she added as if to herself, “I can’t believe it. I’m eighty.” I fidgeted, unsure how to respond, but she didn’t need me to. “It goes so fast. Make sure you enjoy all of it,” she told me. And I promised that I would.
She asked if I was done with school, and I told her that I had just graduated in the spring. Unable to afford tuition, she had only finished two years. With her encouragement, I told her about my dreams of grad school and my fascination with linguistics. By the time she was telling me about an Egyptian hieroglyphics class she had taken, I had stopped checking my watch.
I explained my reason for being at the passport office, my excitement palpable as I told her about my upcoming move to Thailand and gushed over my future kindergarteners. She was there because her friend had just lost her husband and decided in her grief to take a trip.
“There was no way I was going to let her go alone,” she explained. “I have no desire to go, really, but I decided to step up to the plate and be a good friend, so I guess I’m going to Bermuda, Portugal, and Spain.” We shared travel stories and compared our lists of places we wanted to see. She told me about the odd jobs she had done to make ends meet: shoveling horse manure, maintaining libraries, and working in pet stores while I listened attentively.
At a natural break in the conversation, she sighed heavily, “I’ve had a heck of a life. I’ve had a heck of a life.” In a passing thought, I hoped to myself that I can say that when I’m eighty, even if, as she says, “everything hurts.”
Preparing to move across the world, alone, in a pandemic, has been, to put it lightly, stressful. The unknowns of my immediate future are ever-present blanks on my usually meticulously outlined flow charts. Every “what if” is a stone in my stomach. With a little less than a month before my anticipated departure, I am relentlessly going over my to-do lists, scheduling appointments, and checking boxes. On this particular day, I was especially anxious to start the next chapter of my life. My hometown and I have a relationship that is full of animosity, yet I chose to return for the few months before I move to the other side of the world to spend time with family and tie up loose ends. Thankful for the time but ready to leave, I have been counting down the days for a while.
I needed someone to tell me to slow down because life flies by. I needed a reminder to enjoy being young and make my life everything that I want it to be, to stop watching the time pass and listen to the eighty-year-old woman sharing her life with me. To everyone who is scrambling through the visa application process and spinning through predeparture checklists, this is my reminder to revel in the chaos of the present. Be in the now, for the day you board the plane to Thailand, nothing will ever be the same.
Eventually, a woman came to lock up, insisting that we could not have been there long because she had, supposedly, had an appointment at 1:45.
“I will dispute that ma’am,” the woman next to me asserted. I smiled secretly behind my mask, myself too polite and without the authority of age. Reluctantly, we were helped, and my passport photos were, as promised, unflattering but would serve their purpose. I took the little, waxy envelope with my pictures long after the 20 minutes I had allotted myself for this errand. As I moved toward the door, my waiting-room companion turned to me and said, “Have a good life, kid.” And I promised that I would.