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By the Grace of a Stranger

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I often say that it doesn’t take much to make me happy. I can also say that it doesn’t take much to make me sad. That’s the beauty of emotion. There are times when I look back on my life and wonder how I can possess such a positive nature, yet feel such sadness. But when I put it all together, I understand what it’s all about; my choices and my path and those who’ve led the way. When life offers hope that brings despair, love that leaves a bruise, joy that turns to confusion; all within the blink of an eye, I stand at the ripe age I never thought I’d be—or at least not this soon—smiling. There’s no turning back and doing it all over; this time with a lot more wisdom, more thought and perhaps a little less emotion. Truth is, time doesn’t wait for those who doddle. It doesn’t wait for anyone, and it won’t wait for me. Now as years come and go, the emotion remains like a steadfast love or a complacent scar that continuously reminds me of who I am. And each emotion is made of memories both good and bad; of thoughts, feelings, experiences, beliefs, dreams, tiny moments in time; life itself.

I find it useful at times to reconnect with the memories that matter. The relevance isn’t how I’m feeling when it’s useful or needed; it’s how I feel while remembering. That is the purpose here; a small but momentous example of how the best things are free and possibly share the value with those who appreciate its unpretentious worth. There’s not one single person whose significance outweighs another as there are many people who come our way and create differences in our structure and formative nature and attitude; those we’ve known since birth and every moment thereafter. And we remember; even those we wish to forget.

For the purpose of my expressions, this is about the first and possibly last encounter with three strangers; two of whom I don’t even remember their name but will always remember the hug goodbye. The other is a child who is wise beyond his age. It’s about emotion, touch and healing. It’s about them and me; gain from loss, purpose and the human spirit.

My husband Larry lost his job to a lay-off after nineteen years of loyal employment; the beginning of a fearful roller coaster ride that took us through endless dark tunnels and the highest peaks down to bottomless holes. I lost mine a year later in 2010. As a result, we were forced to put our beloved home up on a short-sell and it sold shortly thereafter. After giving it a lot of thought, we decided to move from Riverside California to Atlanta Georgia. It was a difficult decision given the fact that my son Todd who lives in Colorado with his wife and kids opened their home to us. My other son Scott lives in Arizona with his wife and kids; both close enough to visit more often than they could with us living in Atlanta. Our daughter Ashleigh wanted to be near her boyfriend and she needed us most (at the time) for support while leaving the nest. We all researched the area and found it to be favorable job-wise but we have since learned that it isn’t; not at our age anyway. I’m a few months away from retirement (sixty-four) and my husband is sixty. Companies these days hire the young if they’re lucky.

Late February of 2011, after no sleep the night before, we said goodbye to our home. The events that took place before, during and after the ‘road trip’ to Atlanta were horrendous to say the least. Although crazy as it was, there was some excitement and fun to it. I will spare the problematic details of those four days while placing the emphasis on the emotional impact to my well-being at the time. I’d lived through worse and so have many more throughout the history of our world. Saying goodbye to the state I lived and loved my entire life, home, job, dearest friends, then my son and family in Arizona, was painful. It was like pieces of your soul being ripped out and torn apart. I don’t know how long I cried; probably all the way to El Paso Texas and into the early hours prior to the first encounter.

We had just finished a complimentary breakfast at the motel we stayed in and were leaving. I was filling up the thermos with coffee and grabbing a couple muffins for the road when she approached me with hunger needs of her own. I don’t remember how or why our conversation started, but I do remember how it ended and the impact we left on each other. She appeared to be around my age and she was lovely; soft spoken and gentle, and very interested in what we were doing in El Paso and why so far from home. I shared the short-version of our story and she gave me a compassionate blink with tearing eyes. She told me she was staying at the motel because her house had recently flooded as did others in her neighborhood. She said she lost most of life’s treasures and would need to relocate until knowing the extent of damage and the fate of her home. It wasn’t long before that she had lost her husband of many years who suffered a slow and painful passing. She was alone. I realized at that moment that I was looking into the eyes of a woman who had far less than I; undergoing far more yet shedding tears for me. I was astonished. All we did at that moment was wish each other comfort with a few words of encouragement and a meaningful hug goodbye. I fought back the tears but let them roll once I made it up the steps and into the cab of the huge moving truck my husband was driving; filled with the belongings we were able to fit while leaving the rest behind, and I was grateful.

Todd drove our little truck with our daughter, while the moving truck towed her car, which made it all that much longer and difficult to maneuver. Many events happened still; some causing frustration and anger, while some made us…well some of us…laugh hysterically while my husband mumbled words without any meaning or significance here. We stopped a lot, ate a lot, and slept the night in motels while tending to a golden retriever, a large black lab mix, and two delirious cats.

Somewhere along a deserted road on the east side of Texas was a gas-stop that also provided groceries and various supply paraphernalia including square foot ice chunks for cold storage. We were all standing by the dusty outdoor freezer trying to remove one of the ice chunks when a young motorcycle driver approached us to offer some help. The chunks were frozen together and temporarily impossible to separate. It was obvious we needed more help so the young man went inside and asked this cute little woman with her head covered in a scarf for help. It appeared they knew each other, but I’m confident that anyone living in this neighborhood had some kind of connection with each other. Eventually she gave up too, so while the ‘stronger ones’ continued to work on the ice, the woman and I began to talk. She also expressed an interest in where we came from and where we were going. After sharing bits of our story, she began to tell me hers. She was undergoing treatments for cancer and that’s why she wore a scarf over her head; she had lost all of her hair. She didn’t have a lot of time left, or so it was predicted. But isn’t that true with the rest of us? How long do we have? She made the decision to live out the remainder of her life as joyously as possible and to her anything was possible given the choice. Like the lady in El Paso, she too was beautiful both inside and out. She asked me to pray for her and I promised I would. She said she would pray for us and I know she meant it. I was blessed with another lasting hug with a woman who started out a stranger but ended as a friend; yet I never remembered her name. I remember her heart, her eyes and what she taught me during our journey toward the unknown. My heart was back home; would I find it again in Atlanta? Or is it following me and leaving bits of it in California, Arizona, El Paso Texas, Colorado, and a Nowhere-Ville Texas gas station standing alone beside a long and dusty desert highway?

Our arrival into Georgia did not come too soon or without further events. One of my Todd’s favorite sayings is ‘it’s all about the story.’ Yes, we can look back, talk about it and giggle fervently, but the truth is it took a lot out of us. We arrived near the apartment we’d be living in Marietta Georgia late in the evening, so we spent the night in a motel prior to the grueling move in. That morning Todd and Ashleigh had to catch their planes; Todd back to his home in Colorado, and Ashleigh back to Riverside because she was a maid of honor at her friend’s wedding the next day; peculiar after four days of endless driving they were right back where they started in a few short hours. After hurriedly leaving us stranded (by no fault of their own) after a tearful goodbye, we spent the rest of the day moving into our new home; a two bedroom apartment surrounded by tall green trees. I didn’t know when I’d see my boys, their lovely wives and children again, while knowing how secure, happy and strong they all are. Still, I tried to convince myself it wouldn’t be long. Gratefully, our new neighbors pitched in and helped and by the middle of the night that evening the truck was empty and ready to return that day. We got through it alright while amazed at how we pulled it off. Meanwhile, I was thankful for the two women I met along the way. I’m grateful for many things; love, family, friends and a roof over my head. The beautiful trees here with numerous trails along the Chattahoochee River to walk the dogs continue to delight our days. It wasn’t long after when a thunder storm rolled in. We were outside and Larry said, “Welcome to the South.” I was ecstatic. The storm proved powerful and loud; lightning crackled and lit up the sky, combined with wind, rain and all that I love about weather. It was our welcome committee.

Chance encounters with miraculous people will not always set things strait or keep things right; we do that for ourselves. My husband and I have since moved to a smaller and much cheaper apartment. We’re plugging through the adjustments of the customary empty nest syndrome while reconnecting with each other in ways needed and certainly overdue. We’ve shared its significance and the possibility that it could be one of the reasons we’re here.
Given our circumstance – in part by no fault of our own – undoubtedly there will be more highs and lows along with additional lessons in coping and reasons for change. Still, there’s one more little ray of sunshine that deserves acknowledgement; little but massive in its effect on me.

In December of 2012 Ashleigh struck gold when she landed a job at a nearby athletic club. Membership is free for her and family members and friends of the employees. I eagerly joined and it’s the first time I enjoy going to a gym to work out these weary-aging muscles. I’ve suffered injury and arthritis resulting in fused disks along the lower spine. I suffer minor pain related depression and fatigue so exercise is vital to prevent it from getting worse. I’m required to take a multitude of medications for other health-related issues; most of which could have been avoided by a healthier lifestyle, eating habits and exercise. So gladly, that’s what I’m working on today.

A few weeks ago I was waiting in my usual spot by the door for my husband to pick me up from the gym. A little boy approached me and asked if I would help him with his spelling. I said, “Sure” and he handed me his spelling words. He sat on the floor and pulled out a pencil and notebook as I waited for him to tell me he was ready. He was intelligent, precise, polite and cute as a kitten sitting in a window watching the birds and squirrels outside. He was obviously comfortable with himself and his surroundings, while appearing at ease with me.

I introduced myself as an invitation to friendship and he responded favorably.

“I’m happy to meet you. You know, I’m a cancer survivor.”

“Well that’s just awesome, give me five.” I raised my left hand and he slapped it with his own before eagerly reading the first word. I don’t know how much time passed during the spelling test, but by the time we finished he had expressed how grateful he was for being alive because now he can do the things kids like to do. He can learn proper swimming strokes, run, eat and play. He can enjoy his family and his friends. He told me he was eight years old and I told him that I have a grandson who just turned eight and his name is Sam. He asked me to wish Sam a very happy birthday and I promised I would.

Right about then I could see my husband pull into the area for me to exit and head on home. I wondered where his parents were, or perhaps a guardian because no one approached us while we were together. I later thought it odd considering the amount of time they’d been away. I shook his hand and said goodbye and he thanked me for helping him with his spelling. While approaching the car, my husband knew right away that I was emotional but I gestured to wait until my composure returned enough to talk about it. Once again my personal health issues felt minor in comparison to another’s. We’re alive and well. I can swim, exercise, walk and enjoy family and friends. And I have the ability to remember, whether I want to or not. We can appreciate the simple things; things that cost nothing except a little time and thought.

I have yet to see my new friend again, but I will keep watching for him.

We continue to enjoy the surrounding beauty of our daily walks and hikes near and throughout our back door. When I’m standing alone in the quiet, looking up at the sky and numerous treetops; I speak to whoever might be listening. Mostly I whisper ‘thank you’ or I say ‘I love you’ to those who might be listening but not there; physically anyway. Momentary yet timeless, costless yet valuable are blessings belonging to me.

By the grace of a stranger, I’ve gained a little more understanding, respect, dignity and some extra mercy of my own. There are others who have and still enhance my life, nourish my character and give me joy; including my own children who are fine examples of worthy influence. There is no downside to this message; plain and simple. With hardships come hope, and there is honor in sharing it to combine with a healing heart. There is no delight in the outcome of loss except gratitude for all that remains and gained thereafter; and with acknowledgment comes grace.

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