Wednesday is one of my days off. I woke early, but lounged in bed until almost 7:45. Breakfast is served until 8:30 and it is the best meal of the day here. There’s always fruit and oatmeal. So as not to miss my favorite meal time, I made sure I was heading to Spruce Dining by 8:05. There’s usually a table of people that I know from Friendship Circle (Senior Citizen Row), or the museum, but because I was running behind, most of them had gone or was about to depart when I arrived. Eating alone doesn’t really bother me, so as I sat down as the others were getting up. One of the guys from the museum ask me if I met Darrel. I hadn’t, but I didn’t give it much thought. As he was leaving that person showed back up and I was introduced.
He is the manager of the kitchen staff for the dining halls. He had his breakfast tray, so he sat with me. It was just the two of us. We started with the normal pleasantries. Where we were from and what we did, etc. He was seventy-seven and had lived in Dallas. He said he’d always have a fondness for his home state and had driven through Longview many times. He began to tell me his story, so I’m relating what he said the best I can.
He came to the Y after the death of his son in the military. (I didn’t ask which branch and he didn’t say). He did say that his son died in an accident. (It doesn’t really matter how, so I didn’t ask). At that time he was divorced. He said he needed a place to get himself together. (I can’t imagine his grief, but I do understand how heart breaking it is). He said that his family had been coming here for a long time; Usually in June and again during the Christmas Holidays, so that’s why he chose to come back here. He took early retirement. His job he said had taken him all over the world. He started as a CPA, but had moved up in the company and from what I gathered, he had ties to the military. I’m sure he made a comfortable living.
He said he had initially volunteered and was expecting some type of higher type of job. When he arrived, he was assigned to the kitchen staff. Not what he expected, but he said it turned out to be what he needed. He enjoyed working with the staff and meeting people. The seasonal work became permanent. He did say that he had some reservations about he’d feel if he crossed path with his previous coworkers if they came here.
That takes his story to that spot. He said, he had just closed the serving line when two couples came to the door and peered in. Food was still on the serving line, so he opened the door. He explained that they were welcome to eat, if they didn’t mind him cleaning around them. They didn’t, so they came in. He said one of the men kept looking at him and he looked familiar to him too. Recognition happened. The man was a former CPA who sat on a board with him. He said he could tell that the man was uncomfortable with seeing him in his present position, and he related the story of his son’s death, retirement, and how this place made him feel connected to his son.
Darrell said he hadn’t felt embarrassed about serving. His words, “I now serve, instead of being served. I traveled the world, but now the world comes to me in the form of college students who come here to work.” He said every three months, students come here to volunteer from all over the world and he feels blessed to be able to work with them. What impressed me the most was how his heart changed after he came to the YMCA and how he showered the love he couldn’t give to his son on the young staff that works in the kitchen.
Fifteen years has passed and he is no longer a volunteer, but on the staff. His family has all passed away; Mother, father, sister, and brother. He said that now the kids and the other volunteers are his family. He went on to say that he didn’t tell that story often, but it was nice to relate it. The story was going to end there, when I asked a few questions.
“Do you feel close to your son here? Do you have sweet memories of him and you in this place?”
Sometimes, he said, he’d have a feeling that his son was with him letting him know when something was amiss. Once, he said, he was looking up at the night sky, when every star seemed to be shinning. Someone came out to the field where he was standing and asked him what he was doing. Darrell said, “I’m trying to communicate with my son,” and he pointed up to the stars. At that very minute, a shooting star moved across the night sky. “That was my son saying ‘hello dad’ and I know that because we used to have chats how I would communicate with him after I was gone.”
At this point, my eyes were tearing up because sometimes I think that John is communicating with me through songs and inner whispers. Could it just be wishful thinking? Sure, but I think it’s peace given to me by God as a comfort when I need lifting up.
I said as much to Darrell. He smiled and told me a story that is was Father’s Day and he was having a rough time. He had printed some of his son’s pictures and had them stacked on the foot of his bed. While shaving, he heard a thump. He came back in the room to find his son’s pictures on the floor, still stacked neatly. That, he said, was his son letting him know he was watching over him.
We smiled as each other. I, definitely, was wiping tears. Darrell said, “You know, I was suppose to share my story with you.” I usually don’t share that story.
We both got up from the table. It was a bit awkward sharing so much with a stranger and we smiled embarrassed at the emotion that came from the stories. I wanted to hug him, but I sensed it would have been more awkward. We emptied our trays into piles of dirty dishes and said goodbye.
I’m not sure that I’ll ever have that connection with him again. In less than an hour, we had both shared part of our hearts. He mostly, but maybe he needed to tell the story as much as I needed to hear it this week.