A volunteer at their church dropped off copies of last Sunday’s sermon with my father-in-law, asking him to bring a few to their neighbors in the assisted living apartments, neighbors who were also church members.
Because he couldn’t leave mom alone, I volunteered to bring around the stapled stacks of paper.
I don’t write out sermons. No one could ever bring my notes to the people who couldn’t come to church. Our generation has turned to the podcast and the Facebook live, and it, too, is good. But different, and not offered hand to hand by someone whose hands you know.
The walk down the hallway should have been simple. Efficient. Quick. Until I started noticing the peoples’ doors.
Each apartment came with a small table next to the door in the hallway. Some tables had the generic items. Flowers. Easter decorations. The predictable duel of Vikings-versus-Packers memorabilia common in certain parts of the upper Midwest.
But some stood out.
I lingered near a corner table covered with an antique globe and some clearly foreign pieces of memory. A bronze elephant. A sliver of driftwood. An embossed puzzle piece, and others. Who lived here? Where had they obtained their treasures? What stories could they tell?
A lover of travel, I wanted to knock on the door. What would they tell me of their life before this small apartment and limited mobility? What corners of the earth had they seen? What had they learned? What did I need to know before I, too, came to live in a place where my globe-circling days were likely complete?
I can’t imagine them ever being complete, yet here sits the concrete evidence that this occurs.
I stopped at a wall that held photos of sailing ships. This table held a rusted item I couldn’t identify but which was clearly part of life on a boat. Above them hung a title that simply claimed—Captain Ron.
Captain Ron lived behind this door, and of what was he still captain? I wanted to know.
I wanted to know Captain Ron. Wanted to hear his stories. I wanted to see the photos of the places he’d been, feel the spray of salt water and cool wind as I listened to his tales. I knew I’d like Captain Ron. How could I not, with my addiction to salt water places? He knew them, so many more than I did, and I wanted to see them through his memory.
I noted the music enthusiast with the sense of humor. (“Bach later. Offenbach before.”) My sons-in-law would love an hour with him, trading bad music puns and laughing in cadence.
I stood at the lighthouse painting, wondering if the person had, like me, an ambition to see ALL the lighthouses, and how far that ambition had been fulfilled.
Walking between doors, I began to take photos. These things on the tables and walls had been chosen. When all of their long lives had to be reduced to a small apartment and a few trinkets on a table, it seemed to me that what they chose had to be immensely important.
What would I choose?
If I had to define my entire life to strangers in a hallway, what would I choose?
One of my stained glass crosses? A garden trowel? Certainly a photo of our family, and probably one of us somewhere exploring the world, learning about other people and learning about ourselves, and almost certainly a goofy one. A stack of Lord of the Rings, Les Miserables, and Pride and Prejudice, all together, as if they’re inviting another read? I’m not sure how many reads are left in the copies I have. Perhaps by then I will have found out. Maybe a beautiful pen to signify writing, because really, who’s going to look at an old laptop and feel as if it’s life art?
I don’t know. I know it’s good to think about it now, though. To think about the race’s end and what I want to leave as the mark of who I was. If I don’t think now, I might not become that person I want to downsize to a nightstand-size table and a few square feet on a wall.
I can see, from the walls, that the stories of those people mattered. They still matter. It probably wasn’t great the heroic deeds that mattered, though. It was the rolling waves and the spray in the faces of Captain Ron’s family and friends. It was the tossing lures into the water for walleye together. It was the 369 steps up the lighthouse with your kids, urging one another on and proving that together you were better than standing alone.
Those are the stories. The stories, as Sam Gamgee says, that mean something.