When I heard the news that Whitney Houston had died in a bathtub on February 11, 2012, I couldn’t help thinking, “What if she had decided not to take that bath but had just gone to bed instead? Would she still be alive? Pointless speculation, of course. Whitney and her soulful, spiritual, and majestic voice have left us for good. However, as I kept running through all of my “what if’s,” regarding Whitney’s sudden death, I was instantly reminded of an old 1998 film starring Gwyneth Paltrow (as “Helen”) called, “Sliding Doors.” In the film, the plot splits into two parallel universes, based on the two paths Helen’s life could take, depending on whether or not she catches a London underground train. Although the details are irrelevant, the outcome of Helen’s life is dramatically different by having caught the train. The film captured an appealing concept: When do seemingly innocuous occurrences in our lives lead to momentous events?
When I was in my twenties in the ’90’s, right after my long relationship with Randy had ended, I was an absolute mess. Although I had a good job and lived in a great studio apartment on East 86th street in New York City, the happy, carefree me was replaced with a depressed, gloomy young woman. When I was not at work, I cried much of the night, wondering if Randy would ever call. I was desperate to hear from him and for some encouragement that we might to still wind up together. In truth, Randy was, without question, the wrong man for me to spend my life with. However, given my physical abnormality, I did not really believe any other man would be willing to marry me. For all of the many years we were dating, I had refused to acknowledge the flaws in the relationship because I really thought he was my only hope.
I have mentioned in past blog posts that when I am feeling blue I become much more sensitive about my physical difference. Not surprisingly, at this point in time, I was at my lowest. When strangers inevitably stared at me and my two fingers, I absorbed every gaze. This was far beyond any pity-party from my childhood. The feeling of panic that was setting in as I had to contemplate living my life solo was leading me to a breakdown.
And so this was who I was as I ran down the stairs to catch the #6 subway train after work one hot summer day in 1997. Flying down the gray concrete stairs, I could hear the subway doors beginning to slide shut. “Wait!” I shouted. At that moment, a middle-aged man held open the door and I raced in just as the doors slammed behind me. The train was packed and all the seats taken. With my sole finger never securing a strong grip, I wrapped my right arm around the pole to secure my ground. In my depressed state, I did not notice the two teenage girls standing next to me, but they definitely noticed me. Pointing at me, one turned to her friend and then came close to my face. “Look, that girl has no hands. Look how weird she looks.” “Yes I do!” I shouted in anger. “I do have hands!” “No you don’t, you freak.” She began to laugh with her friend, and then pushed me to the ground. Someone kicked me at that point, but in my effort to gather my things, I couldn’t tell who it was. No one in the subway car attempted to help. They all seemed to turn away, hoping not to get involved. At this point, I knew I had to get away. Fortunately, the next subway stop was approaching. Although I was still miles from home, I got off at the14th Street station.
Rather than getting on the next train, I decided to walk home. And then, a gift. With my face by this point covered in a mixture of tears, foundation and mascara, I passed a homeless person. Looking up at me, he asked for change. At that moment, I felt a strong desire to help him. As I dropped $20 into his hands, he stared not at my fingers, but at me. “You are a beautiful angel. May you be blessed and have a wonderful day.” In his eyes, I could tell that he believed that I was clearly a fortunate person, regardless of my outer shell. I walked away feeling humbled. The experience took me back to memories of living in Cairo, Egypt. There I would walk to school with my brothers, and nearby was a garbage dump locals called, “Garbage City.” Garbage City was where families lived when they had nowhere else to go. The alternative was another place I had never seen but heard about called, “City of the Dead,” where some families lived in a cemetery.
It was at this very moment that I decided to not only face, but for the first time, really move past my fears of not finding a man who would want to commit. Somehow, I needed to learn to love myself. After all, I had been blessed with so much, how selfish of me to walk this earth feeling sorry for myself? Even even with my physical difference, I had so much to be grateful for. Being single had to be okay, if that was my destiny. And more importantly, I did not have to let myself be drowned in the judgments and perceptions of others. That was my choice, no matter the experience.
Within three months time I would meet John, and for the first time in my life, I was truly ready. After all, how could I expect anyone else to love me unconditionally, if I had not yet begun to accept myself? I was not fully there yet, but I was finally on track. Thank goodness I made the #6 train–that was instrumental in changing my outlook on my life. For years I tried my best to not question “what if” I had not. I suppose Whitney captured it best: “Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.”