Tragedy is our shadow. It’s the price we pay in this life–a sense of uncertainty that anything can happen at anytime. But we can’t think about it constantly because that would only hinder us from moving forward or fighting battles that need to be fought. Unfortunately, though, we often don’t address this dark side until we’re directly affected by it. I am by no means suggesting we live in fear–merely pointing out that we shouldn’t take what we have for granted. Nothing is a given.
This lesson has been brought to my attention many times over the years but in this particular instance I want to talk about a New Year’s Day reunion of sorts. At the time, I was working at an area bookstore helping customers when a familiar voice called my name. It took me a moment to recognize the gentleman because he looked smaller than I remembered. In the same way that your elementary school classroom seems tiny when you revisit. It just becomes hard to believe that all these “big” things happened in such a pocket-sized space. And, somehow, you feel that the room, the chairs–all of that–must have shrunk because it doesn’t seem possible that you could have changed that much. And, yet, you have.
Anyhow, the voice belonged to my French teacher from 7th-12th grade. He actually switched schools when our class moved over to the high school so there was a strong bond between the many students he taught for six years. I really think he decided to move over to our high school with us after the loss of one of my classmates in 8th grade. She was a spunky girl who always enlivened our studies with jokes and her general free-spirited demeanor. The day after her tragic car accident we didn’t have a regular lesson. Instead, we went outside and sat on the swings talking and crying. I can still see my feet kicking the ground as the dust billowed up around us. Part of grieving is personal–the other part is sharing, reaching out to still find something tangible in this world.
So, through the years, I learned more than conjugations and pronunciations. We grew up together: he shared stories about his kids and I became a young woman. When my graduation rolled around it made complete sense that he would be there with a rose in hand to celebrate. Later on, he proceeded to teach my younger siblings and I tried to visit when I could.
But, time passes and eventually I lost touch. I know I was surprised when he wasn’t at my high school reunion. I heard that he had changed schools and was teaching elsewhere but until the moment he called my name on that blustery, winter day, it had been years.
I immediately gave him a hug and he inquired about me and my family, asking several times if I was happy. After exchanging pleasantries, I turned the conversation back to him and what his life was like. I remember the heavy feeling that clung to my lungs as his eyes shifted to the side. He explained that he had been struggling with depression for a while and that he didn’t see his children much–he and his wife had gotten a divorce. He said he came to see me because he needed a job application and remembered that I worked in the area and was glad that he was able to find me. I immediately gave him the paperwork and asked where he could be reached. He told me that he was regrouping so for now he was at the Center for the Homeless. With much pride, he indicated that there was a translation job that he was hoping to get in the near future–somewhere in France.
In that moment I felt like we were once again on that playground. He smiled, waved the application in a gesture of thanks and started to walk away. He said he was going to see where the bus could take him to get a steak dinner–after all, it was New Year’s.
I retreated to my office playing his words over in my head, blinking back tears. This was someone who had traveled the world. This was someone who appreciated life–enjoyed a good meal and time with friends. This was someone who had once given me confidence.
I never saw him again. We tried to reach him about an open position but he couldn’t be located. And he never strolled back through those doors.
I work downtown now and see homeless people wandering the streets, sometimes taking shelter in the library. Without realizing it, I find myself searching for his face–not because I want him to be in that same situation, but because I selfishly want to know he’s alive. What would be better, though, is if I received a postcard from France.
Life, however, doesn’t always have closure like that and homeless people aren’t lazy. They’re lost. The only difference between the two of us is circumstances. He, at some point, leaned too far back into his shadow while mine is still following me.