I pulled a red knit top from the rack and held it in front of me.
“What do you think?” I asked my husband, Neil, who was sitting in a chair waiting patiently. We were at the Chico’s boutique on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, a world away from our tiny village in upstate New York.
“Can I help you?”
I turned to see a beautiful olive-skinned woman. She was wearing an elegant blue dress, set off by a gold necklace and earrings. Her dark hair was short and spiky. She had a sort of glow about her and looked like no one I had ever seen back in Turin. But what held my attention was her accent. It sounded like music.
If only there was some way you could help, I thought.
Neil had bladder cancer and we were in New York City so he could have surgery. The next day he was to begin a two-day pre-op regimen. On Monday, surgeons at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center would remove his bladder and create a new one. Then there would be 11 difficult days of recovery before he was discharged and four more weeks in the city before we could go home.
He would need my constant attention. I wanted to be there for him. But I felt so alone and scared here, 300 miles away from family and friends, from anyone who would be able to relieve me. Other than God, there was no one I could even share my feelings with. Lord, I prayed night after night, give me the strength to help Neil.
We’d been married 36 years, and I knew he was worried even if he didn’t show it. That was Neil. So I had to stay strong. For both of us.
“Thanks,” I said to the saleswoman. “But I don’t even know what I’m looking for.”
“Let me help you,” she said. “My name is Mandana.” Mandana. Even her name sounded like a melody.
She stayed by my side through each section of the store, as if I were the only customer there, asking about my taste in clothes, suggesting a top, pairing it with a sweater. I’d never felt more pampered. I’d answered all her questions, but she was still a mystery to me.
“Are you originally from New York City?” I asked.
“I was born in Iran,” she said. “But I left there for a better life. I’ve lived in France and Los Angeles. Now New York is home. My husband is completing his medical residency here.”
Iran? France? Those were places I’d only read about.
Our arms were draped with jeans, sweaters, tops and tanks. Mandana escorted me to the dressing room. I modeled each piece for her and Neil, letting him cast the deciding vote with a thumb up or down.
We bought far more than I had planned on and I left with a pang of guilt. The shopping trip had been Neil’s idea, and it was a helpful distraction for both of us, but I was still anxious about the surgery and what the future held.
The next day Neil heated water for bouillon in the hotel coffeemaker and began his pill regimen. I busied myself trying on my new clothes again before putting them in a dresser drawer. I slipped the red top on. It didn’t fit quite right. I hadn’t noticed that in the store.
“Go ahead and take it back,” Neil said. “I’ll be all right.”
At Chico’s I was making the exchange when Mandana popped out of a back room. She wore a long, flowing sweater over black leggings. “So nice to see you again, Aline,” she said. She glanced around. “Where’s your husband?”
“He’s back at the hotel,” I said. But I didn’t—couldn’t—stop there. There was so much worry inside of me. I had to tell somebody. I poured out my story.
She listened as intently as she had the day before. When I finished, she said, “What hospital are you at?” She nodded at my answer and said, “I will pray for him. And for you.”
I thanked her and hurried back to the hotel. I’d spent far too long unloading my fears on Mandana. I didn’t want Neil to be alone any longer than necessary.
The surgery lasted seven hours. It was nearly midnight when Neil was finally moved out of recovery. He was heavily sedated, but slept fitfully. Each time he awoke his eyes searched for me. “Water,” he pleaded. He couldn’t drink anything because he had a nasogastric tube. I tried to soothe him by swabbing his dry, cracked lips with a tiny sponge, but I knew it provided little relief.
I hardly slept either. In the morning I changed Neil’s sheets, then gave him a sponge bath and got him into a new gown. I didn’t want him to have to wait for a nurse. Back in bed he grimaced in pain. I adjusted his pillows. “Try to relax. It’s going to be okay,” I said. “I’m here.”
For the next three days I barely left Neil’s side. Every few hours I had to help him walk to build strength, have him breathe into a monitor, adjust his pillows. More than anything I wanted to be a comfort to him. He watched me for any sign of distress. I couldn’t let him see me worry. But after three days I was exhausted. I hadn’t changed my clothes and my hair was greasy.
Thursday evening, I was sitting by Neil’s bed holding his hand when I heard a noise at the doorway. At first I thought maybe I was dreaming. There was Mandana with a dark-haired man.
“Is this a good time?” she asked. “I thought you might like a little company.” There was that voice. Music to my ears.
“This is my husband, Foad,” Mandana continued. “He wanted to come too. I hope you don’t mind.”
Without thinking I hugged her tight, then pulled away, realizing how dirty and disheveled I was. Mandana didn’t even notice. She sat next to me. “How are you doing?” she asked. “I’ve been praying for you.”
In minutes we were talking like old friends. I overheard Foad telling Neil of patients in Iran who had had the same operation and how well they were doing.
The evening flew by. “I’ll come back tomorrow,” Mandana said when visiting hours ended. I looked at Neil. He was sleeping peacefully.
Friday evening I glanced down the hallway to see Mandana striding toward me, holding a book and a soda. I’d just finished tending to Neil. She pulled a chair close to him. “Go back to the hotel,” she said. “Eat. Shower. Take a nap. We’ll be fine.”
For a moment I stood rooted in place. Was it really okay to leave? She shooed me away. I gave her a bundle of swabs, kissed Neil, put on my coat and left.
Outside the hospital’s double glass entrance doors I entered a different world. Steam whooshed from sidewalk grates. Taxicabs zipped by. People rushed past in an endless stream.
I got to our hotel room and hopped in the shower. Soap and hot water had never felt so good. I scrubbed off the sweat of the past few days and slowly my worries seemed to fall away as well. I got out of the shower and went to the dresser. I couldn’t wait to get into some clean clothes.
There in the drawer were all the things I’d bought at Chico’s. I put on one of my new tops, remembering the care that Mandana had shown me from the moment we’d met. It had been more—much more—than a chance encounter. God had sent us an angel.
I returned to the hospital revitalized. My pace quickened as I got closer to the room. Mandana was reading and Neil was resting comfortably. Like I’d never left.
“I don’t know how to thank you,” I told Mandana.
“It was my pleasure,” she said. “I hope we can stay in touch.”
Neil made a complete recovery. Mandana called and e-mailed, cheering his progress every step of the way. In fact, we celebrated his first successful post-op checkup at her apartment with a delectable 12-course Persian feast I will never forget.
Sometimes it takes a stranger to show you that even in a time of need you are never alone.
This story first appeared in the March 2011 issue of Guideposts magazine.