I am writing at Panera this afternoon. I like it here because the buzz of activity helps me to focus. And yeah, the cinnamon crunch scones ain't bad, either. A few minutes ago, an older woman came and sat down alone at a table near me and started eating. That was unremarkable.
Things got interesting, however, when I noticed an older man ever so slowly shuffling toward her, carrying a very full tray. I thought she would jump up and help him with it, but she didn't even look in his direction, nor did she slow the pace of her eating one iota.
It took at least a minute for him to inch his way to her table, and the whole time she was just munching away on her sandwich. He set his tray down, picked up his empty cup, and started heading for the drink dispenser. She could have filled five cups in the time it took him just to reach the machines, but once again, she did not budge.
So I watched him, a turtle in a sea of hares, moving steadily and slowly toward his destination. He had a peaceful smile and a twinkle in his eye, and was clearly not experiencing even an ounce of resistance to his snail-like pace. And neither was the woman who I had realized by now was his wife.
My best guess is that he'd had a stroke. One of his arms wasn't as mobile or active as the other, and the leg on the same side seemed to be sort of reluctant to cooperate.
He decided he wanted butter, and off he went to the counter again. All in all I saw him cross the room five times, at a pace that would have allowed the other people in the restaurant to literally walk circles around him.
When they finished eating, she got up, put her dishes away, and headed out without looking back. She was already out the door by the time he finally scooted to the end of the booth, and gripping a nearby chair for support, slowly straightened up, shaking his leg a little to try to get it to move the way he wanted.
During the leg shaking process, some children ran past him giggling on their way to the bathroom, and he put his attempts to organize his body totally on hold to watch them intently. He broke into a big grin.
He caught me watching from my corner table, and I beamed at him. I took off my headphones and told him he looked just like the Dalai Lama. He smiled wider. And then said, "Who?"
I repeated myself, and in a surprisingly strong and clear voice, he replied, "Thank you." Then he cleaned off his tray using only one hand, and headed out. Still moving at a snail's pace, he turned to look back at me and waved. He then proceeded to smile at every table he passed on the way to the exit, and at the man who held the door for him.
I found myself tearing up as I watched him shuffle all the way to the station wagon in the handicap spot, where his wife was waiting in the driver's seat.
I don't think I could have felt more blessed had he been the real Dalai Lama. This man was the quintessential embodiment of peace and acceptance --- right here in suburbia, eating soup and a sandwich alongside the rowdy soccer teams and corner booth writers and pregnant moms chasing toddlers.