Some years back, Julia Alarez wrote an ode to living in small towns and to the sorrow of losing acquaintances: neighbors, friends, storekeepers, doctors.
In a small town … we don’t just make quick, specialized appearances in each other’s lives. For better or worse, we get to know people in a fuller way. The owner of the orchard where we pick apples is also our doctor, and the local bartender fixes our bicycle chain when it slips out on a country road.
This is good for all our characters, I think, for the flawed person we see in one situation can suddenly surprise us by a small act of kindness or thoughtfulness in another encounter. Small towns give us second chances, and third and fourth ones, too. [Source]
Once or twice a week, I spend early mornings in our town’s natural-food-and-free-wireless coffee shop working on project planning and correspondence. Over the months, I’ve gotten to know a few regulars — folks who work nearby, retired professors, college students — and listened to bits of stories about their lives and what’s important to them.
Over the past month, I’ve been busy on a project and haven’t gotten into town very often, so this morning, when I noticed I hadn’t seen one of the regulars, I asked where he was. “Oh, Gustavo. I’m sorry to let you know he died in his sleep several weeks ago.”
All of my thoughts — about what needed to get done this morning, about my pending deadlines, about the beautiful day I was looking forward to — evaporated completely. Someone I’d known, not as a friend, but certainly well enough to know his life story and what had brought him here … he was gone.
How could I not have known? I read the local paper every day. How did I miss his obituary? Have I been that busy? Did he mean more to me that I’d thought? Had I taken his presence for granted?
I found the obituary and tributes online and there they were, in black and white: the stories he’d told us. I haven’t wept in public for a long time. This morning, I did.
I could write about the art collection he curated at home and the beloved pieces he chose to sell at Cabot Antiques. I could share his frustration with the insulated, disconnected culture of middle-America, and its affect on our children as well as people around the world. I could tell you about his continuing struggle to get treatment for his asthma and sinus infections as a person dependent on the threadbare safety net for our elders. I could tell about his plans to sign up for yet another trip to some corner of the world that would be new to him.
Instead, I’ll quote this passage about his engagement with the world, both nearby and far beyond us.
[Gustavo] made the coffee shop in the Tontine Mall his own Madrid cafe and met there nearly every day with a circle of friends, exchanging ideas and arguing issues. He supported various causes, local, national and international. But he was also a man who loved exploration away from Maine.
His youthful energy belied his advancing years. He was full of curiosity about life and interested in what was going on in the world. His friends and family followed his world travels to China, South American and Europe through post cards and pictures.
I sit, looking around the cafe, imagining the loss of any of those with whom I’ve chatted, no matter how briefly, or of those with whom I’ve shared just a warm smile and hello. As I return to my daily routine, I vow to consider each and every one of those moments with more respect, deserving of my full attention, with both friends and with strangers.
I’ll hope I can carry that feeling with me. I think all I’ll need to do is remember Gustavo.