Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Story at the Next Table

“You look like a preacher!”

I looked up from my two eggs over medium and coffee to see a big man in his 70s, wearing a button-down sport shirt and holding a Huddle House cup standing over me. I think I had glimpsed him briefly when I came in, sitting with a local Baptist pastor at another table. My time was limited and my attention on my schedule for the day, so I immediately got a seat on the other side of the restaurant. I placed my order and started perusing my so-called “smart phone.”

The waitress brought my breakfast and refilled my coffee. It was as I was digging into my eggs that the accusation of being a preacher boomed out over me like a klaxon alert horn. I gazed up into unwavering blue eyes. I really didn’t look like a preacher. Sure, I was wearing a polo shirt and khakis, but I could have just as well been a clerk at Auto Zone. I gave what I thought was, for me, an appropriate answer: I pointed at him and said, “You take that back!”

He stood there for a few seconds and blinked. Then he proceeded to sit across from me without an invitation and started talking. It was then that I realized that I had been sold out by my Baptist pastor acquaintance. This guy knew what I had done in my previous incarnation as an employee of a Large Religious Organization. I really didn’t want to talk about it, especially to a stranger. I didn’t have to. In his booming voice, Klaxon proceeded to tell me all about how he was a retired pastor.

“Oh great,” I said to myself. I was going to have to speak Christian-ese with this guy when I just wanted a quick breakfast before heading off to work. I explained that I was retired from the Large Religious Organization. With that intense curiosity about other people’s personal lives that is common with preachers, Rev. Klaxon asked me what I was doing now. I explained that I worked as a chaplain with a local hospice organization.

Usually that’s enough to dampen any casual conversation. People just don’t know what to say to a person whose job it is to work with dying people. “Oh,” they say. “That’s good.” Then they wander away to find someone with a more comfortable calling, as if I was the angel of death and they might catch something if they talked with me for too long.

Rev. Klaxon was not deterred, however. He started telling me of his own hospice experience. He spoke of his wife and how they had been married for decades. He told me of the last ten years of their marriage and how he cared for her as Alzheimer’s increasingly claimed her mind. Rev. Klaxon told me stories that were both funny and tragic at the same time of how hard it was taking care of someone struggling with the loss of their basic identity. Finally, he’d had to turn over her primary care to a hospice organization as it just became too much for him.

All the time he was talking he smiled, occasionally chuckled and sometimes looked sad. My eggs got cold as I listened and my heart hurt for him. Rev. Klaxon didn’t need another pastor-type person to talk Christian-ese with him. He didn’t need deep philosophical answers or long quotes from the Bible. He just needed someone to hear his story. He needed to know that it all mattered – his marriage, his wife’s struggles with Alzheimer’s and his realization that he needed help.

I suppose that’s what all of us want, really – to know that someone hears us and that our story is important. That’s part of what we do in hospice and it should be part of what we do as human beings. It’s way past time that we stopped talking and began listening. We need to stop being so engrossed in our own story and realize that there is another story crying to be heard from the person at the next table or the one passing us on the sidewalk.

American society tells us that we should be engrossed in ourselves to the exclusion of all else. Most of reality TV exists for the sole purpose of making us feel superior to those on the screen. You need look no farther than that Honey Boo Boo tripe on The Learning Channel (The Learning Channel?! Really?!) So many of us are living First Person Singular lives. It should be a First Person Plural world. “I” needs to become “We.” We are healed of our own spiritual and emotional pain largely to the extent that we embrace someone else’s.

Rev. Klaxon asked if he could pray. “Of course,” I said. He said a prayer and got up to leave. “Nice talking to you,” he said. “I enjoyed it,” I answered.

“Thanks for reminding me to listen,” I added in my mind. I paid my check, left a tip and left for the Hospice office a half hour later than I had wanted. When I arrived, I told the story to Teresa, who keeps our office running.

“God puts you where he needs you,” she said.

“Thank God,” I thought, and prepared to listen to someone else’s story.