He sat across from me, the cannula in his nose snaking its way to the oxygen bottle that rested against his leg. He had puffy patches under his eyes and looked a bit frail. I wondered for a moment if I knew him but dismissed it. I've asked strangers before, "Do I know you?" and only occasionally have I been right.
Instead I picked up a magazine and waited. A few minutes later someone hailed him from across the room and made a beeline in our direction. An old friend. A good, old friend. They gabbed back and forth in the comfortable way that showed they had a lot of history together. Bantered about which golf courses were their favourites. Compared notes on committees they had both served on. Spoke to each other with a gentle air of knowing that life is really just a pouf of time and then it's over. A warmth between two (not even grumpy) old men.
I half listened and half looked at my doctor's office magazine. After a time his friend bid goodbye and then it was just the two of us sitting across from one another, the chairs so close our knees almost touched. When he looked up and smiled my confidence increased. Even at that I had an argument inside myself.
Eventually I won.
"Are you Karen's dad?"
His face broke into her smile, removing all doubt.
"Yes, I am."
Instant tears for both of us at her name. Then we talked. Kindness in his questions. Kindness in his responses. I kept studying his face as if I could pull Karen right out of it. Talking to him made me feel like I could almost reach out and touch her. In his smile I saw her so fully that I just kept wanting to keep him smiling.
"I think about her every day." He welled up as he said it. I did, too. We were quiet then, no segue into a place that knows no sorrow. We just looked at each other with tears and said nothing.
Eventually I asked him about his oxygen use. Sometimes when you are sick it is so nice to have someone understand the ins and outs of what you are dealing with. We talked about how many liters he needed when he sat and when he walked. I knew Karen would have grilled him about this. She would have been worried at the high number he needed to walk.
I'd been thinking of her just a few days ago. Out riding the lawn mower I'd remembered her tale of being so weak that she fell off hers while trying to cut grass in a ditch. She never got on a lawn mower again.
She would be so happy for me that my health took a turn for the better. That I am in a remission of sorts. At least that's what I call it. The geneticist says this is a syndrome of peaks and valleys and I've been mostly on the peaks for several years now. Karen was my main support group while I struggled through many years of debilitating health issues.
Grief feels like an awkward friend to me. Yes, I know it but I don't know what to do with it. Several few years ago when I was in a grief and loss workshop I stood up to present my collage of losses to the group. Other people got all teary explaining theirs but I pointed out this baby lost, that baby lost, plus that baby lost, this brother, that friend like I was reading statistics from a Mathematics manual. Since then I've read that when you cry over one death you are also crying over every death you haven't fully grieved.
I'm getting better at crying although I still haven't wrapped my head around that Karen really is gone. A few days ago was the second anniversary of her passing.
Postscript: I asked him that day about his wife. Tentavively, unsure of whether it would be okay. She had been going through cancer treatments at the time of Karen's death. Although I tried to keep an eye on the obits I didn't know if she was still alive. I didn't want to add to his pain.
"Oh, she was having a few issues," he said.
Was in seeing the doctor right now as a matter of fact about biopsy results.
She was in there a long, long time.
I wondered at the dynamics of their relationship that he was in the waiting room and she was in the doctor's office. As if reading my mind he told me that one of Karen's siblings was in there with her. In the midst of our warm conversation crept the strain of the unknown.
At one point I debated excusing myself and going to the bathroom because of my rising anxiety at the reality of being there when she came out of the doctor's office. What if it wasn't good news? I didn't want to be there to witness it.
But instead of running away from what might be, I stayed.
The longer we waited the more our conversation dwindled and the tension increased.
But he kept asking me questions, turning the conversation my way. Karen did the exact same thing. She might have had to gasp between words but still she would ask how I was. No matter how many times I tried to turn it her way she never forgot she was in relationship right in this moment. She taught me much.
Forty five minutes after I first sat down across from him my eyes became glued to her face as she came down the hallway. She smiled at him immediately. Not the smile of the triumphant. But nevertheless, a smile. I felt myself relax. Good news then. She called out to him to say the results weren't back yet. Arrangements were made for the nurse to phone her when the results came in.
Karen didn't talk about dying very often. But once, a few months before she died she said, "What will my husband do when my parents and I are all dead in x amount of time?"
I wonder if her mom ever got the phone call about the test results.
Not that it matters in the end.
When I opened up the obits today there she was.
A week and a day after I saw her in the doctor's office.
I am sitting here feeling stunned.
That poor, kind man.
Lord, have mercy.