It’s a typical, hot California Wednesday and I’m sitting in the coffee shop at Barnes and Noble, readying myself for the daily work that fills my to-do list. The emails, the phone calls, the informational writings, the website, the this, the that, the this, the that. It’s all important, its all urgent. I need to get it all done.
Working in coffee shops and bookstores allows me to see and experience life in ways that the four walls of my home office simply cannot provide. Being surrounded by a humming cloud of noise – overhead announcements, blenders grinding, people chatting and the air conditioner blasting – I am forced to concentrate on my tasks and usually come away feeling pretty productive. But today was a little different than most days.
Little did I know that tucked away in the corner table of a Barnes and Noble Starbucks, profound, unexpected lessons were waiting for me.
After entering the busy bookstore, I wasn’t sure if there would be a table open for me to work. As I walk closer towards the café, my back rose straighter and my steps grew faster when I realized “that” table was open. It’s the best table in the place. “Yes!” I exclaimed, although silently only to myself. I quickly sat down, pulled out my laptop, turned my phone on silent and opened the latest how-to book that I am reading. But instead of being laser focused on the text, my attention was cast to my right.
An elderly couple sits across from one another. Silence fills the void between them. Her hair is like that of a baby girl – fresh, short, thin, wispy, although colored white with time. The skin of her arm looks soft and almost unblemished from the stains of the life, but her face carries the weight of the world. My eyes glide down and notice her hands wrapped tightly around the cup of starbucks coffee.
Across from her sits a man. About the same age, I suppose. His thin, wind-blown, gray hair and his deep, dark eyes told me that life was heavy. The burden was thick. He gently pushed his napkin under the plate that sat in the middle of them, holding what was left of a sandwich, presumably one they shared. As his arm rose to the table, I noticed the white silicone bracelet on his wrist, inscribed with blue letters. I knew it was a bracelet for a cause, although I couldn’t make out what it said.
While my unobservant observance is taking in the details, silence still lingers. I try to go back to reading, but I just stare at the page. I read a sentence. Then re-read it. And re-read it again, trying to look busy, like I’m not attentive to their situation. But it has captivated me.
All of a sudden and seemingly out of nowhere, the lady asks the man sitting across from her, “Did you buy these yet?” pointing to the books sitting on the table. He responds, “No, I didn’t buy these yet.” Again, the table is silent.
Unable to observe more with my eyes (I didn’t want to just stare), my other senses detect the story unfolding here. I feel something interesting happening between them. They have been here before. The question had been asked before. The tone in his voice agrees.
Then she says, “ I know you are in touch with my brother, my brother, Tom.” He agrees, “Yes, uh huh.” She asks, “How’s his wife?” To which he responds, “She passed away about a year ago. No, it’s been about two years ago.”
I felt my body tighten. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen next. Would she break down and cry? Would she be shocked at such a straightforward answer that held no details? How did she die? How did her brother Tom take it? How did she not know what happened to her brother’s wife? How did this man know?
She paused for a brief moment and her simple response was, “Ok, well I wont have to worry about her anymore.” No emotion, no feelings of how, why, when, where. It was just matter of fact.
The man gently states, “Welp, your coffee is cold by now. Im going purchase these books. Shall you wait here while I buy them?” Calmly, she responds, “Yes, I will wait here. I don’t want to stand up at the cash register.” He got up and walked to the front of the store to pay for his books.
I can’t help but lean back in my chair and watch her. She sits quietly, completely still as a couple minutes pass by. Suddenly, she begins to stir in her chair, careening her neck to see where he has gone. Impatient, she gets up out of her chair and walks around, clearly looking for the man who was just sitting across from her. Confused, she spins in a circle, the look of despair and abandonment crawl through her delicate, white skin. Lost, lonely, helpless as if an orphan had just been abandoned by the one they love most.
It takes everything in me not to get up and help her. I want to rush by her side and tell her that he is coming back, its ok, don’t be scared. I contemplate it, but I don’t. I watch her. She circles again and catches a glimpse of the chair she was sitting in and quickly walks back to it. It’s the only thing that she remembers right now. A look of worry, pain, doubt, confusion run over her as the fight to comprehend what’s happening stirs within. She returns to the only place she remembers at the moment. The chair.
Tears well in my eyes as I watch her stare with wonder. I think about the dialogue in her mind, “Stay here, he will come back. Stay here, he will come back.” As he walks around the corner, the tension drops from her shoulders but she doesn’t react as if she was lost. Its stale, its blank. Almost like she never felt lost at all. Like she was patiently waiting for him the whole time.
He approaches her with familiarity, no tinge of worry across his face. He’s been here many times before. In a soft spoken voice, she says to him, “I’m not going to come here again.” To which he lovingly responds, “Ok honey, we will go wherever you want to go.”
With patient eyes, he takes her hand and leads her out of the store as the white bracelet, which I now realize is for Alzheimer’s awareness, slowly slips down his wrist, wedging its way between their hands.
As they walk out, hand in hand, I press the inside corners of my eyes to suppress the tears that want to flow freely down my face. I think about how hard life must be for them. How one minute the love of his life is here, one minute she’s gone. How she asks him the same questions over and over and tirelessly, he responds with love and attention as if she had asked it for the first time. What kind of love it that? What does it take to know that the person you spent your life with remembers but fragments of the memories you created together as a couple? How frustrating it must be for her mind to play tricks on her, erasing the story that she created with the years of her life.
It packs a bag of lessons that I will surely never forget.
The undying power of love. Although she may never remember his perseverance and diligence to care for her, he still does it.
Memories create life. Make a lot of good ones because you aren’t promised to be able to keep all of them forever.
Write your story. Take the time to remember your life and write your story down on paper. The world needs the story you have scribed, with the memories you have created.
Enjoy life. It’s much later than you think.