The man in the cafeteria

My daughter and I sat in the hospital cafeteria awaiting a followup appointment.  We were sharing a monster cookie... the same delicious fantabulous monster cookies I coveted at 2am on my night-shifts when I worked there many moons ago in a different lifetime. My daughter chattered on and on and on, her nervous anxiety bubbling out in a continuous stream of senseless blather that combined with the dull hum of lunching hospital workers.  Over my daughter's shoulder I noticed a gentleman dining alone.  He was probably in his 70's.  He had finished his meal and was sitting in the booth slowly twirling a straw in his hands.  His gaze was very far off.  I knew that gaze, and though I didn't know him, I knew his story.

The look I saw in his eyes was the look of someone losing their love.  I imagine his wife was a few floors above us, possibly in the Critical Care Unit or Oncology Ward.  His face showed the exhaustion of someone who had been doing this, dining alone, a little while now.  Time in the hospital takes its toll on a person in warp speed.  Days quickly meld into each other by the 24hr nature of a hospital and the physical exhaustion experienced by family members is only trumped by the emotional exhaustion.  His stoic face barely veiled the exhaustion, and pang.

When I looked at him, I felt almost voyeuristic like I was seeing memories as they played out in his mind.  The day he met her.  The day he held his first born.  The years of drought that brought poor crops and little money, yet somehow they survived.  Together.  They succeeded and failed together.  And now he looks on a potential rest of forever, alone.

The disharmony between his palpable ache and my daughter's effervescent yammering was almost overwhelming.  I tuned into her and time and my sensory input sped up ten fold.  I looked at him, and it's like that scene in the Matrix when everything freezes.  He was taking inventory of their memories together, replaying every detail he can recall, hoping she has known just how much he needed her, and loved her.  And wondering how, just how he will go on without her.

I wanted, longed actually, to say something to him.  But there really are no words for these times.  In the same way there is no way to accurately describe the feeling of holding your first child, or watching someone take their last breathe, there are no words that can bring understanding or comfort to standing on the threshold of being alone.  It is a time solely intended for feeling, experiencing, witnessing.  Anything I would stammer to say would be as awkward as a bullhorn blaring during a sunset.

As I reluctantly got up to leave, I gave the gentleman one last glimpse.  I wanted to know how the story was going to end, I wanted it to be wrapped up in a nice little package like a 30 minute show.  But I know that isn't how life unfurls, as much as we would like it to.  It is this discordant symphony of life and death, youth and age, joy and grief that, with faith, plays out meaningfully in the end.

by Diane