I met a stranger and he changed my life.
“I’m going to die tomorrow,” the man said, shifting his striking blue eyes to meet my gaze. The three-foot space between us suddenly grew to a chasm. I, on one side, a wellspring of infinite tomorrows and he, on the other, in his final hours of sentience. There, in the meeting of our eyes, I saw pleading, not peace. I couldn’t look away. Thinking magically, I hoped my eyes could meet his as jumper cables. That by holding eye contact, I could extend my vitality to him. That I could spark a reserve supply of life in this man so that tomorrow could be an ordinary Monday. The prelude to an ordinary Tuesday. Not a death day. A regular day. And then another. Life undetermined in quantity. Life, like the rest of us expect.
It was a hot Sunday morning, the first exceptionally warm and sunny day of Spring. I meandered through the city on foot, smiling at brunch-goers dining al fresco on the crowded sidewalks. It was to be a perfectly unplanned day. I brought Random Notes to scatter — my ever-present paper trail — but had no itinerary. I would explore. My heart would lead the way and I, as always, would find an adventure.
Hungry, I stopped for a breakfast sandwich and a cold juice at a coffee shop tucked in the corner of the town square. Scanning the plaza for a seat, I found only one vacant chair next to an older gentleman. I approached and asked if he minded my company. “Please,” he said, waving to the red metal folding chair. I smiled, exchanged pleasantries, and savored the first bite of my sandwich.
“You have a presence about you. Tell me about yourself. Are you in school?” I laughed, thrilled by his decades-too-young estimation of my age. We started chatting — he shared stories of his time serving in Vietnam and then his civilian career in the county courthouse. I mostly listened, sharing only bits and pieces about my work and travel and plans for the day. He asked to see a Random Note and I pulled one blindly from my envelope. I didn’t have a chance to read it before he drew it to his chest, “Mmhmm this one is special.”
And then he said it. He is dying. Not at some undetermined point in the future — the mystery we all share — but dying tomorrow. Monday. Death day. A known thing.
“Can you tell me more about that?,” I quavered. He nodded and looked away, shifting in his chair. His eyes returned to mine. “I’m surprised I said as much as I did. It’s like I said, you have a presence about you and now I’m talking. I am a dying man, and I worry that no one will remember me. I am dying alone.” He continued to discuss fractured family relationships, the loss of his siblings and parents. Love he felt once that is now buried in the past. “And now I wonder,” he said looking at his worn hands, “if the God who I believe is real is pleased with me.”
My atheism stands stark against this man’s dying wish. I inhale slowly, imagining the depth of his faith, the basic need to belong and be useful. We’re all the same, aren’t we? Calm clarity washes over me. I say his name quietly and continue, “I’d like to think we can’t know the mind of God. If we did, he wouldn’t be very powerful.” He smiles. His mouth could be my own grandfather’s. “I won’t pry, but if you have any choice in what happens to you tomorrow, I sincerely hope you live and that we can meet here again soon.”
He changes the subject and we travel Memory Lane to a time when he met Jane Fonda, stopping briefly at a story about naming his daughter. His eyes sparkle. All the love, all the joy we have ever felt at any time lives within us forever. It’s so close to the surface once we take the risk to explore it. Sadness is a deceptively dark film. It leads us to believe it is miles thick and we are forever separated from passion, from life. Yes, the veil is dark, but it is thin. It waits to be torn to let the light in.
His friends approach and he introduces me. I take this as my cue to leave. “It was a joy to sit and eat with you today,” I say as we embrace. I have set an intention upon this man — life — and I can do no more. I need only trust that our paths crossed for reasons beyond my understanding.
Much of what we deem to be absolute truth is really our own stories painted upon a rather basic reality. We assign feeling to sounds, we assign meaning to words. Left to our own devices, it can all become a bit too much. As humans, we have the sacred privilege of holding each other’s stories. We get to help each other sort through interpretations, find the truth, and restore our individual and collective peace. I walk away certain only of my uncertainty, fighting the urge to question whether I should have done more.
“Gabrielle,” I hear him call. I turn, catching his smile. “Will I see you here next weekend? Your note said I have many beautiful days ahead.”
Grinning, I take a step toward him and say, “I’m really looking forward to that.”
I did all I needed to do without knowing what or how. Life needs no practice, only presence. A perfectly unplanned day indeed.