“A THANK-YOU FOR A STRANGER”
by Steve Thomason
I was at the Super Chief restaurant, home of the world best Coney's, immersed in talking with my friend. Our waitress, a kind and perceptive woman, saw you in the parking lot and told us she'd be right back, that she thought you needed help. We saw you and your wife at your car, each of you in your 70's, but I didn't see where you needed help. Blind, I forgot about you and continued talking.
We were discussing politics and other irrelevancies when you entered. Our conversation wilted. Your wife held one arm, our waitress held your other arm. You appeared afraid but focused, and as you took your next step, I guessed you feared that you might not make it to a booth, that even with two women supporting you, you were afraid of falling in front of a dozen silent strangers. I saw you enter, then stop, inches from a booth, inches from the safety of sitting. Once sitting, your legs would no longer claim the notice of strangers. You tried to take that next step--only two to go--and your synapses failed. Your feet started dancing, started quick palpitations that, on a younger man, may have been graceful, delightful. But your fluttering was not a dance; your motion was uncontrolled, was the debris of degenerated nerve fibers. Disease left you dancing between a waitress and your wife, unable to take a simple step.
In that moment, did you know that every person in Super Chief was praying for you? Did you know that we shared your heartbreak? Could you feel us cheering your legs to obey you and take that next step?
Someday my body will stop listening to me. Someday I will know the vagaries of old age, the infirmities of diapers or twitches, of lost memories or detachment. Maybe all of these. I imagine that I will fight against aging as robustly as do you--but will I have your courage? Will I have the grit to step outside the safety and loneliness of my home, to take my wife to lunch, where quiet strangers study my weakness? Strangers.
To your left, a stranger, a waitress who saw how she could help. Quietly. Patiently. Embodying everything in humanity that makes me proud to be human. To your right, your wife; suffering, loving and patient. The three of you, reminding the rest of us how noble we can be.
I failed you at Super Chief. I did not see that you might need help getting into the restaurant. I was too busy telling my friend how smart I am, how hip and educated. I failed you by not seeing your simple need and meeting it. I failed you by not coming over later and telling you how proud I was of you, how you touched my heart. So now, today, I'm trying to make up for it. In the midst of your isolation, fright and courage, you were my champion. You fought--for a minute that stretched toward eternity--fought the forces of decay, fought in a minor restaurant in the middle of an unassuming neighborhood in an unimportant town, fought a battle that you perhaps believe you are fighting alone.
And you, brave hero, took that next step.