"I need to take a walk," I announced after a deliciously indulgent Southern breakfast. Stuffed full of a fresh biscuit coated with gravy with a side of bacon and eggs, I wondered briefly if it would hurt when I had a heart attack or what region of my brain might suffer most during a stroke. Frowning when my hosts wanted to take teleconferences in the car, I abandoned them without regret to wander the pleasant neighborhood our diner inhabited.
I paused to take photos, charmed by the juxtaposition of new flowers against old brick buildings, overgrown bushes laden with pink blossoms next to shiny cars neatly aligned on blacktop surfaces. I lifted my face to the sun, paused to admire the clouds, and continued along the sidewalk, smiling at people who passed by.
Being in the South, even for less than 24 hours, elicits a bittersweet homesickness for a home I no longer have. Cheese biscuits and conversations with Friend. Matlab code and journal revisions and the cadence of Boss's voice when he'd offer advice. I nearly wept when I saw him, by the way, when we were both in the same place at the same time recently. He stood patiently while I finished a conversation, but as soon as I turned my head to see him, I smiled widely and blinked back tears.
"I have to go," I interrupted my colleague. "That's Boss and I love him." And so we hugged and talked and I basked in the sameness of him - of the constant kindness and gentle strength and aura of comfort. "I miss you," I told him and nodded when he said they missed me too. I sighed against the ache in my heart as I remembered it this morning and walked back to the car, waiting in the sunshine until their conversation ceased and we set off for our next meeting.
"Do you have a moment to talk?" I asked Advisor on the phone the other day, beginning the conversation with the man who led my graduate career in much the same way as two other women began conversations with me. "I have colleagues - friends, really - who have family members suffering from a disease of interest. And they're aware - primarily because I talk all the time - of new research and alternate therapies and want advice on who they can see and what they can do. And it's sweet - this urge to help someone they love - so who do you know that I can ask for favors?"
And because I do him favors - talk to students interested in Industry, offer feedback on papers in my area of expertise - he paused to think before rattling off names, ordering me to call him back if they were not properly responsive.
I called one friend back with a new name and Google search term before eating my seafood bisque with the colleague - not yet friend - across the table of the airport restaurant.
"I feel like an old woman sometimes," I admitted, pausing to poke at the lumps of crab in my bowl admiringly. "I'm tired."
"You got in late," he replied and I nodded, remembering the trudge through this same airport after midnight. Traveling for 8 hours after putting in 10 at the office. The emails unanswered (but read - I always read email promptly) and ever-growing lists of tasks. The meager hours I slept, interrupted by an alarm set for 5AM, and a burst of knowledge at 6:30 that I'd not completed my presentation.
"Tell Adam," I joked after said colleague noted my amazing performance this afternoon. I was charming and funny, smart and engaging. I shrugged at the quizzical look I received in response to my comment and noted that Adam wanted to travel with me as he was concerned at how I interacted with customers.
"You're perfect," he protested - my colleague and now friend - and I smiled at him sleepily before rising to give hugs, pressing my cheek to his for a moment in grateful affection for a much-needed compliment. Deciding said compliment, even paired with a new necklace and shiny shoes, was inadequate to coax myself through the trip home, I bought a book - a rather racy romance - and chocolate. And settled in to write a blog post at the gate before returning to rest and repeat the cycle of lengthy days.