It was a lovely Easter weekend, but Monday morning came crashing down upon our heads like a furious hailstorm. I will spare you the gory details, but it was not pretty. I drove to my early morning doctor’s appointment feeling beleaguered and rattled to the core.
I stood in line at the reception desk behind a man I would consider to be the exact opposite of who I am in just about every respect. He was a wiry, older white man with no discernible top teeth. He reeked of cigarette smoke. I caught only snatches of what he was saying to the receptionist, but I could feel myself stiffen when I heard him say in a thick southern accent that this country was goin’ to hell. I was just waiting for him to start extolling the virtues of Donald Trump. I wondered if the very sight of my non-Caucasian face might make him bridle. He finally got checked in and shuffled off somewhere. I finished checking in too and found an empty seat in the waiting room as far away from anyone else as I could.
To my dismay, the man who had been ahead of me reappeared and sat down next to me. I pretended not to notice, and was already deploying my imaginary bubble shield when he addressed me.
“Hello, how are you?” he asked politely.
“I’m fine, thanks,” I replied warily. “How are you?”
“I been better,” he said.
“Oh. Well…I’m really sorry to hear that.”
“Yeah…had to take another day off work to come back here to get checked out. When I was here last week they found a spot on my lung. A big one. I knew somethin’ was wrong, but I avoided coming to see a doctor, ’cause I was afraid of what they were going to find.”
“I’m sorry. I hope it turns out to be nothing…”
“That’s how my dad and my brother died.”
“Oh, that’s terrible…”
“Yeah, well it’s been a terrible year. My daughter just died too.”
“What?! Oh no!”
“She was in a big accident. You probably heard about it. It was on the news and in the papers. She was going to Richmond for a NASCAR race and she got hit by a tractor trailer as she was pulling onto 64.”
“I’m so sorry…”
“She had a little daughter too.”
“Oh no! That’s so sad!”
“Her husband’s fighting it out with insurance, trying to get them to pay. They want him to take a settlement, but he’s just trying to take care of his daughter. At least make sure she can go to college.”
“How old is the little girl?”
“They should pay! Especially when there’s a child to raise.”
“Yeah, my daughter was a stay-at-home mother. Her husband’s doing the best he can. He works nights in a factory in Waynesboro. My other daughter stays with the little girl until midnight, and her daddy’s home with her during the day before he has to go to work.”
“It’s so good to have siblings.”
He nodded, “Yeah, it’s good to have people around you who can help out. I took care of her for a couple weeks too. She ’bout near drove me crazy.”
I laughed, but he looked me straight in the eye and said with emphasis, “I’m dead serious. She ’bout near drove me crazy. One day she set there on my lap and looked up at me and said ‘I miss my mama.’ I don’t know how much she really understands about what happened, you know? I asked her, ‘Do you know where your mama is?’ She said, ‘Yeah! My mama’s on vacation!’ Then when I told her I had to go to the doctor, she asked me, ‘Are you going on vacation too?'”
We both laughed ruefully and then I was called for my appointment. The man extended his hand to me. As we shook hands, he wished me luck. I wished him the same.
Nothing really changed. The problems I began with that morning did not go away. The man is facing a frightening diagnosis. His granddaughter is still missing her mama. But in the midst of suffering and pain, there was an unexpected moment of human connection and understanding. We were no longer strangers, but fellow travelers. For me, it was exactly the grace I needed that morning.