And Then He Spoke

I searched his face for something familiar. I knew this man in front of me, but I didn’t recognize anything about him. I knew him as a boy, so many years ago. The strong shoulders that once carried equipment now drooped, rounded and disinterested. I looked for the powerful hands that I used to watch as they worked, but these hands were frail and tired. His bright blue eyes were hazy today, when he could keep them open. His thick, wavy, brown hair was almost entirely gone. I looked, but I didn’t see my friend in this man. And then he spoke. There was the boy I remembered. That voice. Hearing that voice again would have stopped me in my tracks anywhere. There was always something about the soft, deep tones and melodic nature of his speech that captivated me. He probably could have read a cook book and I would hang on every ingredient. No matter what he looked like on the outside today, his voice reminded me of the boy I once knew.

He spoke, and I remembered that young boy full of energy, physically strong, laughing. I didn’t see that boy in this man. He saw my confusion, he felt my hesitation. We sat in silence for a bit. And then he spoke. “You can ask me anything,” he said quietly. I didn’t think I was waiting for permission, but the relief I felt tells me otherwise. I asked how long he’d been sick. I asked how they found the tumor. I asked what he ate for breakfast. I asked if he hated turning fifty. I asked what happened to that old blue car he drove. I wanted to know all of it. I wanted the last 30 years of our lives back as if we lived them side by side. He told me everything he could remember in honesty and in love. Remembering made him tired and he closed his eyes to rest a bit.

And then he spoke: “I’m not spending time on ‘I’m sorry’ or reconciliations.” I smiled at his strength of character, a contradiction to the pale body sitting across from me. He is choosing to spend his time with the people who brought him peace or happiness. What a beautiful way to meet an ugly illness. He told me about all the visitors he’s had. Some stayed for a long time. Some were very brief. “No regrets on that,” he almost giggled as he said that. It made me curious, but that’s not what I want to talk about with him now.

I moved to sit on the floor closer to him. I was quiet. I didn’t feel a need to speak. I liked just being in this space with him for a bit. And then he spoke. He told me about a time many years ago when he was ready to give up on life. He had packed a bag. He had a plan to run away – from his family, from his friends, from his home. But life made other plans for him. A drab conversation fueled by late hours, tired minds, and possibly some residual paint fumes took him in a different direction. Two people who knew nothing of his plans to leave made him change his mind. I pleaded to know more.

Work was spilling over into late night hours in order to meet a deadline. The three acquaintances worked side-by-side-by-side, hour after hour. That’s all they were – acquaintances – three people assigned to work on a project together. They weren’t lifelong companions.

Sharing details of the story was making him tired. He rested. I waited. And waited. Maybe that’s enough of the story. I resigned myself to knowing only this much. And then he spoke.

“I was mad that the late hours were screwing up my plan. I had to leave – to be far enough away by morning that my mother wouldn’t find me.” He never opened his eyes as he told me how he made practice runs to know how far he could get. He never changed his position as he recalled how he decided what to pack. He was still for a while. “A book.” His eyes opened and I swear I saw a little sparkle in one. “I don’t remember which one, but I remember taking extra shoes out of my pack to make room for a book. It must have been a good one!” He smiled – a lazy, contented smile.

The unremarkable conversation that played out among those three acquaintances overtook his anger at the delay in his plan. It wasn’t long before he stopped being angry and just enjoyed the laughter and the honesty. In the wee hours of the morning, as they went their separate ways, only he knew how much life had changed that night. The others might never know what a difference they made to him.

That boyish voice sounded strong as he said “I unpacked my bag that night. Mom never knew. That was best.” And softly he added, “I have this life because of that night.”

My mind raced. This life? He sounded pleased that he has this life. I’m looking at this man who must weigh barely half what I remember him to be. The table next to him is overflowing with pill bottles. His nourishment all comes in liquid form now. Bewildered, I watch him as he smiled at me. And then he spoke.

“I’ve had a good life. It was hard. It was lonely at times. I was frustrated and overworked. But it really was a good life. I’m happy with it.” Perspective.

He often thinks about his plan to run away. He imagines what his life would have been like if the conversations had never happened that night, leading him to change his mind. And the other two people never gave the conversations another thought. Perspective.

His body is weak. His mind floats between lucid and ambiguous thoughts. He’s not sure which is worse, the disease or the treatments to fight it. But, he tells me he’s happy. Perspective.

It was quiet for a long time. He rested. I watched him and tried to imagine what it was like in his head all those years ago – wanting to escape. I tried to fathom what it’s like in his head now as memories come and go – wanting to hold on. I was glad I came to visit my friend – the friend I never really knew until now. I held his hand. I listened to his rhythmic breath. I closed my eyes and rested with him. And then he spoke.

“Thank you.”

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