Sharing our public and private selves

Guatemala. There’s a couple who’ve been passing through town for the past few days. They seem like normal, active, sun-weathered people, indefinably aged somewhere between their early 50’s and healthy 70’s. We’ve seen each other in our wanderings, with the usual, “Hola, buenas dias/tardes” and a nod before going our respective ways. Saw them again this morning in my favorite local coffee shop/restaurant – great food, better owner, and fantastic selection of classical and opera on the sound system. After exchanging acknowledging nods I went back to checking email, reading the paper and enjoying my meal. Anyway, in a place where the conversation is usually in at least two, more likely 3-4 different languages, I picked up on their American accents when they took a table just a couple away from mine.

I couldn’t help but overhear. The mundane: deciding whether to go to a nearby town or not; making plans for the day’s walk. The personal: “Let’s see how I feel when we get back.” I’ll admit it was hard to get back to my paper. Next, bits and pieces about her multiple complicated ailments, with names I can’t pronounce and couldn’t begin to spell. She’s going in for surgery [again] and this time will [1] be knocked out and [2] take 3-4 weeks to recover, the longest time she’s ever had in her history of cuttings. This is her last trip before the surgery, but she wants to restore her quality of life. The quality she’s come to expect through the years. Apparently there are some age-related organic issues, as well. Her words expressed a matter-of-fact confidence in the whole process. Her voice said anything but.

Then a pause. I had to look up and over. I saw them grip each other’s hands and exchange tear-filled looks. “When I made these plans,” she said, “I didn’t know I’d be spending my year with you.” He nodded. Tightened his grip on her hand. I forgot my reading, turned away and motioned for a coffee refill – after I’d wiped my eye.

She’s recovering from a serious accident or some sort. While she looks healthy on the outside, there’s apparently a lot going on the rest of us can’t see. She wants her old life back. Every now and then they’d squeeze each other’s hands a little tighter. The most important parts of their conversation were wordless. That silence that says so much.

Their waiter came and their public selves called across the now vacant intervening table to ask me some questions about the menu. In the small talk that followed I made a comment about the nice pack her friend had and he said he’s got nearly everything he owns in it. We traded a few stories about travelling light and she apologized for having the next size larger pack. But it still fits in the overhead. “But it’s getting harder to lift it up there,” she laughed. “I must be getting old. Or maybe I’m just squeezing too much stuff into it,” she laughed to me. She’d discovered the joys of travelling light in Spain, walking the Camino a couple of years ago. She’s also planning to do it again, with her friend. “Probably next year, but definitely by the year after.

I want them to.

 

7 Comments on “Sharing our public and private selves

    • Thank you, Peggy. Your experience – and skill – makes the compliment particularly appreciated.

  1. How beautiful, Jim! Yes… the nonverbal is often far stronger than the verbal, when we tune in to it. I want them to, as well! <3

  2. What a moving & emotional tale: I want them to, also.

  3. I felt the lump in my throat seconds before my eyes welled full and warm tears trickled down both cheeks. Damn it, I found myself sitting next to you Jim, embarrassed to be eavesdropping but unable to change frequencies. Tender moments, shared fears, and a rare glimpse of kindred souls hanging on with all their might to dreams that are slipping away like quicksilver. Will I be that brave when the time comes?

    • Mark, I hope we can all be that brave – and if not brave, at least calmly resigned. (And I’m not quite sure what the difference is between the two. I think they’re someplace on the same spectrum.)

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