My husband Rick has been gone for almost four years now, so you can imagine my surprise when I saw him walk out of the men’s room on the sixth floor of the James Tower one afternoon a few weeks ago. That’s the cardiology floor at the Cherry Hill campus of Swedish Hospital.
You know how it is. Someone you love dies, and you’re out in public somewhere, and you see someone, and for a gasp of a moment you think you’re seeing the departed person. Then you realize, no.
The resemblance was extraordinary – this man was dressed in the uniform that Rick often wore: jeans, long sleeved shirt with a vest, baseball cap, glasses. He had a mustache. He was kind of a wiry guy, about Rick’s height. It was as if Central Casting had sent over a Rick Tuel type.
It turned out that he and I were the only ones waiting for the down elevator, and I looked at him maybe a nanosecond longer than you’re supposed to look at a stranger. Just making sure he didn’t really look like Rick, despite the glasses and the mustache, though the similarities were a little eerie.
The elevator came and we got in and as we faced forward he said, “I see my cardiologist every six months, need it or not.” He went on to say he’d had two stents put in eighteen years ago, and they were working fine.
People got on at different floors. He kept talking, about this and that.
The elevator got to the lobby, and as we walked out he said, “My wife died in August.”
It took a few seconds for me to click that he meant this August, about five weeks before this encounter. Now I knew why we were talking. I told him my husband died about four years ago.
We stopped in the lobby and he kept talking. He told me that he and his wife had gone on a wonderful trip to Greece this summer. They got home a couple of weeks before she died.
“I’ll always have those beautiful memories,” he said.
He mentioned the name of his church, and I realized that he was an Episcopalian, as am I. I asked him if he knew a priest there whom I know, and he said, yes, that was the priest at his wife’s committal, which means burial for you non-Episcopal types.
At some point I wondered what his name was, and “Brian” floated into my mind. “Hush, silly brain,” I thought.
He told me about the homeless dinner where he volunteers once a month, and how he’d learned that not all homeless people are drunks or addicts, and many people didn’t want to volunteer there because they didn’t realize that.
He talked about all the many, many plans he had. He has learned five languages, and he’s going to volunteer to help people in several countries because he knows the languages. He signed up for a night class on Mondays. He has five degrees. He was in the Navy for forty years. He and his wife were married for forty-one years.
“She had an aneurysm,” he said.
He pulled out his phone and showed me a picture of his wife. She was smiling. She had dark hair and was wearing a red tunic and dark pants. He showed me pictures from their trip to Greece. He told me her name. He told me his name was Brian.
I flinched a little, but tried not to show it.
When we felt it was time to move on, as you do, we walked toward the door.
He said, “I was blindsided.”
I said, “Yes, you were, but no one is ever ready.”
Outside we waved good-bye and went our separate ways.
When your spouse dies you’re simply screwed and there’s nothing you can do about it, and you never get over it and it changes you forever. I didn’t tell him that. He’ll figure it out. I was grateful to be there to listen to someone in the early throes of a grief I know all too well. I remember with gratitude how kind people were to me right after Rick died, and ever since, for that matter.
God (or whatever you call it – I did not come here to argue) used an extremely effective way to get my attention: Oh, look. There’s my dead husband. That part felt a little bit woo-woo.
But having the man’s name float into my head from nowhere? That was beyond woo-woo.
Occasionally, I get a reminder that there are more things in heaven and earth than we know or understand, and I would be wise to have a little humility about that.
Roger that, Lord.