the people i meet

I regularly interact with random and strange and wonderful people because of my job.  Every now and then I meet someone I can’t shake the memory of. Sometimes it is because they say terrible things. Like the man I recently met who said the Holocaust never happened. He could prove it to me, but I won’t believe him. Because people who don’t understand science don’t believe him.

He looks at my notebook smiling. He wants me to write down his words.  Every single filthy one. So I put my pen down and look for the door. Lift an eyebrow and search for words that won’t get me fired. Then I leave. However, most of the time I don’t meet people like that. Most of the time I meet people who say something that rings true in my bones. Something that comforts some part of me that apparently needed comforting.

For instance, last week I interviewed a woman who made the decision to finish her degree at the age of 98. She said she was used to reading a lot. She has done it every day since her husband died 15 years ago. She reads whatever paperback books friends and neighbors bring to her door. She has no preference. She was on bed rest once for six years so she re-read the Bible – all but the last chapter. The Quran too. And the book the men in yellow robes read.

She told me her life story while perched on a piano bench.  It took three hours. She jumped decades at a time and back and I was supposed to keep up in between. She told me the full name and birthday of anyone she mentioned. Sometimes their children’s full names, who they married, and whether or not they had any children.

She described growing up on a farm in southern Utah. How she was in charge of separating the cheese curd. She shared the story of how she met her husband.  At work. He was in her office. She told him to get the hell out of it.

For their first date they went to the one diner in town and to the picture show. The next night on their second date they went to the picture show and to the one diner in town. He asked her then if he could see her ankles.

“All of my relatives have cow ankles,” he explained.

She didn’t.  They were engaged within the week and stayed married for more than 60 years before he died. She no longer wears a wedding band. She no longer really leaves the house. When I asked why she wanted to go back to school she turned on the bench and looked me in the eyes as if searching for some sign of intelligence.

“To learn,” she said.

A few days later I interviewed a young mother of two who dreams of becoming a doctor. She moved to the United States from South America and has spent the past decade learning English, taking prerequisite courses, and working to support her family. She is applying to medical school this summer.

“I don’t care how long it takes me,” she said. “I will go.”

She wants to be a good role model for her kids. She described how her four-year old walks around the house carrying textbooks half her size saying she is doing homework like mommy.

“How can I tell my kids to go after their dreams if they can come back at me and say, well then why didn’t you go to medical school mom?” she said.

I smiled into my notes as she went on.

“I might not get in,” she said. “And it will break my heart. Then I will be ok. Because it will make me stronger. And then I will apply again.”

She told me that she didn’t always have the confidence to go after her dreams. But somehow she found it. She walked into the right classroom and found a teacher who pushed her into another. And another. It’s taken her about a decade more to start going after it.

“I used to not know what I was going to do with my life,” she said. “I think we all have that sometimes. But sometimes we are lucky and find someone who can walk us through it.”

Afterward I shook her hand and wished her all the best. I said it was really nice meeting her.  And it was.

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