Do you see me? There is an obvious answer to this question, especially if I ask you in person. But if you ask me if I saw my parents, I will tell you no. At least not during those seven magical years my three brothers, The Sister, and me spent growing up on that old familiar street not so far away called Flamingo.
If I’m honest, it wasn’t until my twenty-sixth birthday that I saw my parents for the people they were. Their unique personalities, with all their talents, quirks, and faults were finally laid out in front of me for the first time. They weren’t hidden; they had always been there. Guess I was so self-absorbed in my own life (or just not mature enough) to see them.
But I’m much older now, and with age comes a certain clarity that was lacking in the younger me. Being a writer has also given me the ability to observe the world differently, often enabling me to see things that most of us overlook every day. With my eyes wide open, I now see everything.
Or do I?
I see it all day, every day. The two-inch scar on my right hand will forever remind me of my recent surgery. The surgeon did an excellent job and is happy with the outcome and my progress. He says I’ll eventually be as good as new.
Unfortunately, there’s still three more months of physical therapy to go. There’s no easy way to say it; physical therapy is hard and painful after any operation, but if not done, the outcome will be less than desirable. Last week, after an exceptionally hard and painful session, I walked right past this story.
How can you walk past a story and not even see it the first time? Read on, Dear Reader, and perhaps you will see the story before I did.
I must admit, leaving the medical building, I was feeling really low. When finally finished, it will be six full months of therapy. That’s a lot. I’m not as young as I used to be, and it’s easy to feel sorry for myself when facing such a thing. Pulling into our local gas station in need of a pick-me-up, I parked, and then walked into the store for a soft drink.
I didn’t see her then, but she was still there.
Trying as hard as I could, twisting the top of the drink bottle using my recuperating hand was impossible. Opening the bottle easily with my left hand, I took a long draw and then replaced the cap. Walking out the front door, I was now feeling worse about my recovery than ever. It’s not fair, I thought, at my age, life’s not supposed to be this hard. That’s when I looked over to my right. What I saw didn’t make sense until I got back into my car, sat down, and looked over again.
Then it hit me.
A lady in her mid-thirties was sitting on the sidewalk next to the store. Thinking this was a bit odd and she may need some help, I continued to watch. Sadly, I quickly understood why she was sitting there. On the sidewalk next to her was the top of a cigarette trashcan. The lady was carefully picking through the snuffed-out butts, placing the longer ones aside in an ever-growing pile. Head down, she continued with her task as people filed past her flowing in and out of the store, either not seeing her, or worse.
Trying to not see her.
Many folks out there are down on their luck. For whatever reason, life hasn’t turned out the way they’d planned. But how far does one have to fall to find themselves sitting on a curb, in the parking lot of a gas station, picking through a can full of cigarette butts trying to find ones long enough to smoke? The weight of my self-pity about my slow recovery immediately vanished and was replaced by something else.
Shame. Shame that, until that very moment, I hadn’t “seen” her.
At twenty-six, I carried my mom down the steps for the last time. As I did, she looked up at me without a word. We both knew she was about to die. Gingerly, I placed her in the back of an ambulance, and then watched as it drove off. At that moment, the curtain of youth dropped, my eyes were opened, and I could see my mom for the very first time.
She was a person with a life all her own, and I wanted to know everything about her. But sadly, the revelation had come too late. She passed away the next morning. From that time on, I promised never to get so wrapped up in my own life that I would not see others.
After walking over to the lady still sifting through the cigarette can, I handed her what little money that was in my wallet along with two gift cards to nearby fast-food businesses. Looking up at me with weary gray eyes that had already given up on life, she said, “God bless you.” I had seen those same gray eyes once before. A long, long time ago.
“He already has.”
A smile of gratitude made its way across her face as she slowly got up and went inside the store. Driving back home, I’d forgotten all about the pain in my right hand, making a renewed promise never to “not see” people in this world ever again.
[Rick Ryckeley has been writing stories weekly in The Citizen since 2001.]