Think about how many people you see daily or weekly. No, I’m not talking about your coworkers or family, but rather, perhaps, a waiter where you normally eat or the clerk at a gas station. Much like an extra in a movie they’re there but you don’t give them much notice.
Last night as I got to the place I always eat before bowling I sat down and started doing the South County Times Crossword. This tradition of eating there before bowling stems back over a decade! The tradition started with Emily and me going, but since 2005 my dad has gone with me. Anyway, as I was working on the crossword I got an uneasy feeling; something was wrong. I looked up at the television as it was now 5:00PM and the channels didn’t get switched. Always, like clockwork, the channel would go to channel 2 for the news, but it stayed on 5. This lack of the usual change made me look to the counter and I noticed that the guy who had always been there was not.
As I went back to my crossword I thought back for a moment to the previous times I’ve been there in 2012 and I realized that he hadn’t been there at all. Was he fired? Did he get a new job? He’d been a staple there as he had been taking my order since the first time I went there all the way back when I was with Emily in 2001. “That’s a long time for that type of job, maybe he’s moved on” was the conclusion I drew up.
As 5:10 rolled around I went up to place my order as my dad was scheduled to get there at 5:15. I placed my order in my normal, unsure self and when I heard my total and handed the owner my money I began to stare off beyond her shoulder because I dare not make any eye contact at all and then I saw the picture of the man who had been taking my order for all those years. It looked like a Christmas card, but then I did a second look and read, “In loving memory. The funeral mass for…”
I stood there, stiff and silent, just staring at it. My change was being handed to me but I could not react as I was just staring at the card. My concept of time, life, and loss is different than those who aren’t on the spectrum and at that moment I remembered all the times I’d been there and he was always there and just like that, at the age of 46, he was gone.
After 15 seconds I simply pointed in dismay at the card and the owner looked behind her and said, “Yeah, just four weeks after his last day due to cancer he was gone. Very sad.” My heart shattered. I’ve heard and been asked many times if those on the spectrum have any empathy at all and trust me when I say we do, but it can be different or we may try and hide our feelings.
As I started out this post I mentioned the extras concept and all I can say about the relationship I had with him was just that. I never had a true conversation outside the world of pizza and my dad usually did a bit of small talk, but there was nothing else there. And yet, despite that fact, I couldn’t shake the sensation of deep sorrow for the rest of the night and it persists even to now. Perhaps that is what is troubling me though, the fact that I never did engage in any sort of conversation except my order. Of course, why would I? What would I have said? I can’t think of anything but I wish I would have.
Moving forward that place isn’t going to be the same. As long as I had been going there he was there. Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not trying to say that my emotions have any relevance at all because whatever I’m feeling is irrelevant compared to his friends and family. And yet, if there is anything I can learn from this it is that for the extras in life, or those who have starring roles, be careful with the words you use because you never know when that last word you say is the last word you’ll ever have with them. The last words he told me, I believe, was on December 19th when my dad and stepmom treated me to dinner that night. On that night as we were leaving he said his usual, “Have a good evening” as I walked by and in each case he did this I never acknowledged him saying that orally and I may or may not have given a glance back to him in acknowledgment. Looking back I wish I could’ve said, just once, “You too.”