Friday, January 19, 2007

the waiting room

I met him there in the waiting room of the doctor’s office. When I first heard him talking to some kids I saw how he seemed so kind and in need of someone to talk to. The way he looked at them, the way his weathered skin seemed to glow, the way his eyes sparkled when he spoke immediately caught my eye. His words would soon catch my soul.

He began to talk to me about all kinds of things. Many of them seemed trivial at first. I was tired from a sleepless night and just wanted to get lost in my thoughts. But I began to get lost in his words.

We talked about his home life, about his ailments as often older folks do. I always like to hear the older generation tell their stories though. Their stories of days gone by so often go unwritten and as we lose them we lose a part of life we will never know. I began to ask him about things in the old days. Things about his travels, his experiences, and the great adventure of his many years.

As he spoke I noticed a wedding band. But it was on his right hand. The sign of loss. The sign of a widowed heart. I was hesitant at first, but for some reason I felt compelled to ask.

“Were you ever married?” I already knew the answer but didn’t know how to ask what had happened to her. Up until writing this I did not know why I felt so compelled to ask. Unlike his other stories, he didn’t go into much detail about what happened to her. He told me that she had died last April. And then the glow seemed to fade, just for a moment. His next words cut me and will forever be with me. So simple, so plain, and yet so moving. With a softness and sincerity I have not heard in a long time he spoke.

“I miss her so much.” “I miss her so much.”

For a moment it seemed he would cry. I sat there trying not to.

He began to tell me about his life with her. 57 years of marriage. 57 years. Unheard of these days. Funny how something so heartwarming can bring a light to reveal how dark our world has become.

He told me that she had always taken care of him. She would come home from her work and get lost in the evenings taking care of her family. After working double shifts he would spend his evenings getting lost in alcohol. He said that every day she made his breakfast. Did his laundry and fixed his supper. She would lay his clothes out everyday, and never complain the first time. She spent the evenings ironing clothes in the kitchen and he spent them in front of the TV and behind a bottle.

A time came after so many years and he asked her why she spent so much time in the kitchen and none with him. What she said made him realize that his first love had been in the bottom of a shot glass and she had been lost in the background. She told him that his own children did not know him. He said then was the first time his heart broke.

He told me he pushed the bottle away from him and promised her he would never go back. She told him she had heard that before. He told her that this time he meant it. So many years of being loved and not returning it. So many years of being served and not realizing how she needed him to hold. So many years of losing himself in work, losing his children in a haze, but never losing her love, her commitment.

He stopped working double shifts.

Her vows meant something. In sickness and in health. Until death do us part. He had been sick and until that moment never realized just how much so. But she never left. Never gave up. Never stopped giving what everyone starves for in the world, love. Unconditional love. Not based upon what he could give her. But upon what she was committed to give him.

He promised her that he would go to church with her that weekend. And when the kids heard, for the first time in so long, they climbed into his lap. They fell asleep there, knowing they had their daddy back. It was one of the happiest moments of his life.

He remained as true to his word as she had been to him. He told me that something just got a hold of him that Sunday. And he realized she had never let him go from the beginning. He promised to live in and when the time came, die in her arms.

The years passed. Each day more precious than the day before. But every moment one less to spend time with her on earth but treasured like a forever. Somehow I knew then that there is one thing we all just don’t seem to get. No one lies on their death bed and wishes for more time to spend at work. If you had five minutes left, you’d want five minutes more. And the moments we waste on fighting, on taking for granted, on neglecting the “I love yous” can never be regained. I think he was trying to tell me this all along.

All too soon the kids grew up. All too soon they had kids of their own. And all too soon the day came when he had to do his laundry on his own. He never told me how she died.

I guess because that wasn’t as important as how she lived.

He told me how before she told him that she wanted him to get remarried when something happened to her. He told me that there would be no one else but her. Even in loss, he remained faithful.

I sat there staring at the empty seat beside him. I imagined his wife sitting next to him in spirit. Then as if he read my mind he told one last story that got me the most. His words grabbed my heart.

“I still see her sometimes.”

He said that he was lying in bed no too long ago and felt the covers move. She had a habit of pulling her knees up at night to relieve her leg pain. In a brief moment I thought about how often I would awake at night to see my own wife asleep with her legs propped up and crossed like someone does sitting in a chair. He said that then he felt her arm go around him. I felt a chill go around me.

With a smile he told me, that was her way of telling him that he would be going home soon. Since she had been gone, his life had become a waiting room of sorts.

The stories he told me there in the waiting room made me realize some things.

His story, his words, made me think. About how we throw our marriages away in this world. About how commitment is based upon how it suits us. I thought about how in our world it is cheaper to get a divorce than to go to marriage counseling.

What has happened that our vows don’t seem to be worth the paper they are written on anymore? We are a “me” society and as soon as things don’t go like a romance novel we are ready to move on. And our children pay the price. We don’t think we get the attention we need so we look to someone else and forget our vows.

His wife never forgot hers. Even in death she remains faithful. While so many of us cannot in life.

Before long he became preoccupied with some of the children there in the waiting room. I got up and looked for something to read. But nothing written seemed as interesting as what he had said. As I went back to my seat I saw that he was gone. The waiting room was still filled with people yet seemed so empty now.

I had intended on shaking his hand and thanking him for sharing his life with me in that brief moment. I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. Funny how a brief and unexpected encounter that seems so simple, so trivial can change your life. Nothing is trivial.

I would not neglect the chance to hold my wife that night. For the first time I realized that marriage was not about me or her. Because there was no longer a me or her. I was her and she was me. Marriage is not about a couple because the couple becomes one. We were the place where the ocean kisses the sky. Where one bleeds into the other. And not even death could do us part.

I sat there contemplating my own vows. My own neglectfulness. My own taking for granted. I sat there thinking about my wife. And how sometimes we give up our time together for the sake of harsh words and selfishness. Time that we can never get back. Time that is a gift that we so often take for granted. I thought about how even if she is gone for a day, I cannot sleep. How I never tell her that when she is away from me, I try to sleep on her side of the bed, so I can breathe in her scent. How when she is away, sleep won’t come.

I cannot imagine how he sleeps.

I couldn’t wait to get out of that waiting room. To go home and tell my wife what I never told her enough. To go home and lie next to her with my arm around her that evening.

I slept well that night.