First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.
Journalists know the big stories. They also learn quickly that the big ones are a mosaic of thousands, sometimes millions of little stories that are important, too – lives lived, loved, lost and remembered.
We miss much when those little stories get shunted aside and forgotten.
On a beautiful October morning with the maples and oaks nearing full blush and the birch halfway between lemon and lime, I went to my doctor’s office. We were on the cusp of Thanksgiving and I knew I would need my anti-acid prescription refilled if I wanted to survive my wife’s too-delicious stuffing for the turkey.
I arrived at the clinic early but not as early as an older woman who sat in her car at the front door, who rolled down her window and said, “you’re too early honey. They don’t open until 8:30.”
I smiled and nodded. When was the last time anyone called me “honey?”
“Beautiful October day, isn’t it?” I offered.
I glanced at my watch. It was 8:26.
She got out of the car and tested the door to the office. “I was here first, son. But I won’t be long. Just need a refill on my prescription. I know their schedule here. Been seeing this doctor for years.
I struggled to remember the last time anyone called me “son.”
I laughed and so did she.
“I don’t mind waiting. On a beautiful morning like this? Why not?”
Her eyes smiled. I looked at her face. It’s difficult to judge ages once people pass 50. Some look 70. Some 70-year-olds have skipped the life traumas that cause the skin to betray or even exaggerate time spent on Earth. I figured she was in her late 60s, wearing a sweatshirt and blue jeans the way just about everybody does these days. Her hair was silver and cropped short. Her eyes were confident and cornflower blue. At exactly 8:30 the receptionist unlocked the door and we both walked in and took waiting room seats. Our conversation continued.
“You know,” she said. “I took the dog for a walk this morning at 5 a.m. It was cooler than I thought it would be so I had to put on this warm jacket.”
She was wearing a dark blue well-lined jacket – the kind people wear when they work around the house in the fall or wear to sweep away an early snowfall.
“Wow. That’s an early time to get out of bed!”
“Oh no,” she said. “I was just getting off work.”
I looked at her hands. Her knuckles had the lines. They were the hands of someone who has worked hard all her life. I looked at her feet. She wore the shoes of someone who is on their feet too long.
“Where do you work?” I asked.
Well, we were in a medical clinic. And to me and most, there is almost no place in the world where your personal information should be more guarded. Let me just say that she works an overnight shift at a major retailer unloading trucks and restocking shelves. I didn’t ask if she still worked because she wanted to or because she must to make ends meet. I suspected the latter.
For the next 20 minutes, we talked on and on about the news, the state of the world and other things. And we laughed. Then I made a mistake.
“Well, it’s Thanksgiving weekend. You have big plans?”
She looked at me. Her eyes looked away and seemed to fill with mist. And then there was a cloudburst.
“My husband and I used to love Thanksgiving and Christmas. But on Thanksgiving several years ago we were in the kitchen. I was preparing vegetables to go with dinner for him and the kids when he just collapsed.”
When they arrived at the hospital the doctor confided he probably had less than an hour to live.
“So I told him you’ve got to fight for your life or you’ll never make it. He managed to hang on until Christmas Day.”
“I’m so sorry.”
I reached for a tissue so she could dry her eyes but she didn’t need it because she had one of her own. I was grateful because I was going to need one for myself.
We talked on about children. She only sees her own about four times a year. They’ve moved out of town. Young people, she said, can’t afford to live in cities like Toronto any more.
“It’s just too damn expensive.”
“Why don’t you move to be closer to them?”
She looked at her feet. She looked at me and then stared off in the distance again.
Then she started to explain.
They were very close. Her husband always told her that if he was being a jerk (though she used a saltier turn of phrase), she could call him one. So they called each other “jerks” for more than 40 years. “I loved him when I was 15, married him when I was 20. And I love that [jerk] still. We’d be 49 years married this fall.”
The mist had returned.
“I stay here close to the graveyard where he is buried. Where my parents are buried. Those are my ties. My plot is right next to his. I go there every single day. In winter I shovel the snow and ice away. I know he’d love that as much as I know he loved me.”
I clasped my hands together and nodded. I looked away. I felt those cornflower eyes X-raying me and looked up again.
“I don’t know why the hell I’m telling you this. I never talk like this to anyone. I guess we’d all be better off if people just talked more. Or listened.”
Just then the nurse called her. The doctor was finally seeing patients. I was next. I was hoping to see my new friend when I emerged. But she was gone.
I hope she gets together with her family and her memories this weekend. I guess she is just one of those little stories. We’ve all seen them. They’re those little red maple leaves that defy the frost and cling to the branch after all the others have gone.
John Beattie lives in Toronto.
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