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Journalists know big stories. They also learn quickly that the big ones are a mosaic of thousands, sometimes millions of smaller stories that matter – lives lived, loved, lost and remembered.
We miss a lot when those little stories are put aside and forgotten.
On a beautiful October morning with maple and oak full blush and birch halfway between lemon and lime, I walked into my doctor’s office. We were on the verge of Thanksgiving and I knew I had to refill my anti-acid recipe if I wanted to avoid stuffing too tasty for my wife’s turkey.
I got to the clinic early, but not so early that an old lady who was sitting in her car at the front door rolled up her window and said, “You’re too early. They don’t open until 8:30. “
I smiled and nodded my head. When was the last time someone called me “honey”?
“Beautiful October day, isn’t it?” I presented.
I looked at my watch. It was 8:26.
She got out of the car and tested the office door. “I was here before, 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 can’t remember the last time someone called me “son”.
I laughed and so did he.
“I don’t mind waiting. On such a beautiful morning? Why not?”
His eyes smiled. I looked at his face. Once people are 50 years old it is difficult to estimate age. Some look 70. Some 70-year-olds have let go of the trauma of life that the skin can deceive or even exaggerate the time spent on Earth. I thought she was in her late 60s, wearing a sweatshirt and blue jeans, as everyone else does these days. His hair was silver and was cut short. There was confidence in his eyes and the cornflower was blue. At exactly 8:30 the receptionist opened the door and we both went inside and took the 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 colder than I thought so I had to put on this warm jacket.”
She was wearing a dark blue fine-lined jacket—the kind people wear while working around the house in the fall or to ward off early snowfall.
“Whoa wow. It’s early to get out of bed!”
“Oh no,” she said. “I was just leaving for work.”
I looked at his hands. There were lines on his knuckles. They were in the hands of someone who has worked hard all his life. I looked at his feet. He was wearing the shoes of someone who has very long legs.
“Where do you work?” I asked.
Well, we were in a medical clinic. And for me and for most, there is almost no place in the world where your personal information should be kept more secure. Let me just mention that she works overnight shifts at a large retailer unloading trucks and restocking shelves. I didn’t ask if she still worked because she wanted to or because she had to make a living. I doubted the latter.
For the next 20 minutes, we talked about news, the state of the world, and other things. And we laughed. Then I made a mistake.
“Okay, it’s Thanksgiving weekend. You have big plans?”
He looked at me. His eyes looked away and seemed to be filled with mist. And then the cloud broke.
“My husband and I loved Thanksgiving and Christmas. But several years ago on Thanksgiving we were in the kitchen. I was preparing vegetables for dinner for him and the kids when it fell.”
When he reached the hospital, the doctor admitted that he probably had less than an hour left to live.
“So I told him you have to fight for your life or you’ll never make it. He managed to hang on until Christmas Day.”
“I am sorry.”
I reached for a tissue so he could dry his eyes but he didn’t need it because he had one of his own. I was grateful because I needed one for myself.
We talked about children. She sees herself only four times a year. They have moved out of town. He said youth could no longer afford to live in cities like Toronto.
“It’s just too expensive.”
“Why don’t you grow up to be close to them?”
He looked at his feet. She looked at me and then started looking from afar.
Then she started to explain.
They were very close. Her husband always told her that if she was a jerk (though he used a salty turn of phrase), she could call him one. That’s why 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 him [jerk] Even then. This fall we will be married for 49 years.”
The mist had returned.
“I live here near the cemetery where he is buried. Where my parents are buried. They are my bond. My plot is right next to it. I go there everyday. In winter I remove snow and ice. I know he will love her as much as I know he loved me. “
I shook my head with folded hands. I looked away I felt those cornflower eyes x-rayed me and looked up again.
“I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I never talk like that to anyone. I think we’d all be better off if people just talked more. Or listened.”
Then the nurse called him. The doctors were finally seeing the patients. I was next. I was looking forward to seeing my new friend when I emerged. But she was gone.
I hope she is reunited with her family and memories of her this weekend. I think he is one of those little stories. We have all seen them. They are small red maple leaves that defy frost and cling to the branch after all the others are gone.
John Beatty lives in Toronto.
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