All great and precious things are lonely.”

John Steinbeck

………………………….

Was it a faint hint of a tear I saw at the corner of her eye as I sat down with my coffee?

She was perched upright with her back snugged close to the large plate-glass window so that she was able to view the entire area of the store including the main entry door at the far side.

It’s not every day that I encounter a fractal of emotion when I order a “double-double” at my Summerland Tim Hortons’ coffee shop.

tim-hortons-extra-large

This is me being discreet when I snoop on others at Tim Hortons …

But of course now I’m intrigued, just like I was a number of months back when I sat next to a murderer at the Penticton Tim Hortons.

Tims has become the quintessential microcosm of Canadian existence, probably like Dunkin Donuts if you’re American, or Gloria Jean’s if you happen to live Down Under.

I curiously examined the inches-away-from-elderly lady (we’ll call her Linda) with dyed light-coloured hair; the network of heat-wave like wrinkles around her eyes and forehead told a truer story of her age. Scuffing her tan-toned shoes nervously over the tile floor, her eyes furtively scanned back and forth.

What was making this woman feel so distracted and out-of-sorts?

As many of us often do when we’re seated in a restaurant, I pried into my neighbour’s life and tried to piece together a sense of a story.

Here was an older woman sitting by herself but obviously expecting someone or something to happen. Nervous anticipation was written all over her face and body language. She turned and wiggled the narrow gold band on her finger uneasily.

It didn’t seem likely that she awaited a friend she met daily or weekly.

She was too old to be waiting on a business meeting or a job interview.

Perhaps a visit from a son or a grandchild had her feeling a bit edgy – had there been some family tension lately? Possibly she wanted to discuss how she would be dividing her estate when the end of her days arrived.

Or maybe … she was a widow awaiting the arrival of a man who had expressed an interest in her companionship. But there was that tear in her eye that left me wondering.

I sipped the steaming coffee, enjoying its smooth creaminess and feeling a bit guilty about having stirred in two Splenda sweeteners instead of the one I had promised to restrict myself to – too bad they were finished with the Roll-Up-The-Rim contest, not that I ever won anything anyways.

Then it occurred to me that there could be a person or two in my midst that was spying in on me at my table and wondering what my story held.

The watcher being watched.

I looked around at the other tables and their occupants suspiciously. Spooky.

But I snapped to present reality when I detected the woman’s eyebrows raise and her eyes lock onto a similarly elderly woman slowly passing through the door at the front.

I could feel it –  this was it.

The story would unfold now.

Book unfolds

This new woman (let’s call her Rose), similar height, similar age but with short cropped salt and pepper hair peered anxiously around until she spotted her acquaintance and, smiling tightly, hustled over to the table.

There was a girl-like shyness about Linda as she rose stiffly and was engulfed in the arms of her friend.

Then, the tension melted away and they sank comfortably into each other’s arms, like long lost lovers reunited … and … I began to realize that this WAS the story.

Let me tell you the rest – at least as I imagined it.

two women hugging

Decades earlier, the two had been nurse co-workers in Vancouver’s Lion’s Gate Hospital’s Intensive Care Unit.

Working as part of a team, they were set in tense situations frequently while patient after patient entered their lair. It was hard – exhausting, physically and emotionally – work.

Their camaraderie and closeness grew over the months and years. Then one night, after a particularly tense crisis event, their friendship spilled over into a romantic interlude – the surface tension burst and developed into a relationship that continued on for months.

A covert operation.

It was a forbidden love in a society that told them what they were doing was so wrong, and yet they couldn’t step back. Their passion and affection wouldn’t be denied, just guiltily hidden from an unaccepting and hostile world.

But the step back did finally occur when Linda’s father suspected what he didn’t really want to know.

His solution to this “problem” was to forcibly introduce suitable young men into this daughter’s life. And … buckling into the pressure of her family, Linda eventually succumbed and agreed to marry the least disagreeable of the suitors.

Linda brokenheartedly and reluctantly cut her tie with Rose, married the young man and moved away to the small idyllic town of Summerland in the interior of the province.

The next 40 years were spent raising a young family, nursing at the local hospital, and living the quiet, desperate existence of a life of lies to herself.

Meanwhile, Rose passed her years in muffled isolation, immersing herself in her nursing life and occasionally allowing herself the stinging pleasure of remembering her one passionate connection. A mixture of melancholy and happy reminiscence encircled her days.

Rose retired and spent her hours gardening, reading and volunteer in a local nursing home when, one day, a letter arrived.

She could almost hear her heart beating as she opened it and read the bittersweet words from the pen of a decades-long-gone-lover.

It told her the story of a woman recently widowed who had found Rose’s address in the pages of the retired nurses’ website. It told her of a life spent with a husband and children –  days of school meetings and routines, and days filled with happiness and sadness.

And then, at its end, it asked if an opportunity to meet once again was possible. A gathering of old “friends”.

………………………

And so this is where you and I came in.

I gulped back the last drops of lukewarm coffee, rubbed my moist eyes and smiled as I watched them speak in soft tones and with long, lingering looks.

The last thing I saw as I pushed the door open to depart and return to my own life, was the two, their hands extended across the table, firmly holding on to each other as if they would never let go … again …

A great and precious love had been pried apart by an unaccepting world that had finally turned into a place of welcome.

I could feel the cavernous sense of lonely dissolving like sugar in aromatic coffee, leaving only the delicate sweetness swirling in its wake.

Holding hands

 

 

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