Near the end of July this year, my wife and I were passing through the community where I had grown up and where our family had lived for eighteen years. We had moved seventeen years earlier, and, since we were now back in the area with a little time, we decided to stop for breakfast at a quaint little restaurant that had existed there for a long time but in which we had never eaten.
More than hunger or a desire to patronize a place I'd never been, however, motivated my decision. I had heard that a couple of friends from my high school class had married and now owned the restaurant. I had seen neither of them in 50 years, and I suddenly had a yen to reconnect with them.
We entered the seat-yourself eatery and glanced around for a good location to sit. This is not as easy a task as one might think because my wife insists on not sitting anywhere a fan or vent is pushing cold (to her) air down her neck. We tried one two-seater booth only to have her insist on moving to another diagonally across the aisle.
The only other customer on that wing of the restaurant was an elderly gentleman wearing a black baseball cap on the front of which, in glaring white script, was the name Jack. So, for the purposes of this blog post, I'll call him Jack.
Jack smiled as we moved to a booth just ahead of the one where he sat eating his breakfast. My uncle Dillon always asked me as he was preparing breakfast whenever I stayed overnight with him, "Do you want your eggs running, walking, or standing still?" Jack's eggs were walking.
I nodded to him as we sat down, and he spoke. I can't remember what he said, but it made me laugh and reply. We conversed briefly before I turned back to look at the menu and allow him to finish his eggs before they got cold.
I hadn't had time to read the description of the first entree when Jack was suddenly standing at the end of our booth. He looked down at me with a smile and then looked at my wife while jerking his thumb in my direction.
"How long have you had him?" he asked Connie.
"We just celebrated our 44th anniversary," she replied proudly.
"Well, is he a keeper?" Jack pressed.
"Yeah, I guess I will keep him," she responded with a grin.
Jack turned and sat back down. The waitress came with our coffees, after which she went to Jack's booth. I overheard her say to him, "Now, Jack, you just sit here and eat your breakfast and don't be bothering the other customers."
Strange, I thought. But I just assumed it was all part of the good-natured repartee one hears between regular customers and friendly wait staff in little diners.
The waitress had no sooner disappeared with our orders when there was Jack at our booth again. He kept glancing toward the kitchen, as though wary of the waitress's imminent return and the judgment that might follow. He asked where we were from. I replied that although we were now living in South Carolina I had grown up locally and was back for a short visit. I asked about my friends who owned (or so I had heard) that restaurant.
Jack paused momentarily, looking out the window and into the distance as though deep in thought. "I don't know," he admitted. "You'll have to ask her about that." He jerked a thumb in the direction of the kitchen.
As though on cue, the waitress reappeared with our orders.
"Jack! You go back there and eat your breakfast!" she ordered. "These people are trying to eat."
As Jack slowly returned to his surely-by-now-cold eggs, the waitress apologized in a low voice. "I'm so sorry. You'll have to excuse Jack. He recently lost his wife," she said sadly. Then she added, "And he has Alzheimer's."
Every time the waitress left our booth or the general area, Jack appeared at our booth to say something. Each time, he reached out and tapped my arm as though to get my attention. His topics ran the gamut, random thoughts of a wandering mind. He told us the same joke several times as though we had never heard it.
Then he reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a tattered and worn funeral program. He opened it to a color photo of a young couple.
"This is my wife," he explained with a note of both pride and sadness. "I lost her last November."
I dutifully looked at the picture and expressed my condolences. He continued gazing at the photo nostalgically and then stared out the window silently.
The waitress returned and reprimanded Jack yet again. He obediently returned to his booth, and we resumed eating our meal. I asked the waitress about my friends, but she said they had sold the restaurant to someone else about two years ago. As soon as the waitress disappeared, however, Jack reappeared.
"Did you know that--." He asked--or rather, told-- us myriad random things. I sometimes started to offer a response, but I quickly gathered that he didn't really want to listen. He just wanted to talk to someone. A true conversation was out of the question. So I listened. After all, we were almost finished our meal and Jack didn't seem to mind that we continued to eat as he talked or that his own breakfast was by now long past cold.
Jack returned to our table time after time during the course of our meal. Several times he again pulled out that worn funeral program and photo of his wife and told us he'd lost her the previous November. He never realized that he'd already shown it to us. Each time was as though it were the first time.
Another family entered the restaurant and sat in the booth behind Jack's. He struck up a monologue with them and never returned to our booth. We downed the last sips of coffee and started to leave, but by then Jack was at the register, where he lingered, talking to the cashier, just as he had talked to us. We waited. I didn't want to be shanghaied at the door. We had a schedule to keep.
For Jack, however, time had ceased to move. He was trapped in November 2020, the day his wife died.
After we resumed our journey, my wife and I discussed how many Jacks there are in this world. Elderly. Widowed. Lonely. Perhaps even feeling friendless. And worst of all, suffering Alzheimer's.
May God help us to be sensitive to the needs of such people and patient with their attempts to hold onto and share with others something meaningful in their disappearing lives.