Writer David Foster Wallace once wrote: “We are not the center of the universe, but we are part of it.”
I learned the true meaning of that statement a long time ago.
I want to take you back to that day, Monday, July 31, 1995, a typical Winnipeg summer day. I was nineteen-years-old and managing my family’s then-side-retail business located at The Forks Market.
That day, I noticed two RCMP officers wandering around on the main floor. It wasn’t unusual to have law enforcement wandering this tourist hotspot, especially in the summer. But what was strange was that we didn’t often see the RCMP. The Winnipeg Police Service officers were the ones who usually patrolled the area.
What was even stranger is when they headed in my direction. They were there for me! Now, even the most law abiding among us gets a little nervous when the cops start sniffing around. I dare anyone here to tell me their mind doesn’t start to race with every stupid thing they’ve ever done. And I was nineteen, at the apex of stupidity.
They told me I needed to come with them but they wouldn’t tell me why. Not a good feeling, especially when you get to ride in the back seat of a cop car. Luckily, no cuffs.
They escorted me home and the silence in the vehicle was heavy and loud with the absence of noise. There was only the hum of the engine to focus on. When we arrived, I found my neighbor Colette and my grandmother sitting at the kitchen table waiting for me, eyes glistening, tissues in hand.
I now wanted to get back into that squad car I’d desperately wanted to get out of just moments before. Context is everything.
I was given a piece of paper with a number to call. I recognized the 306 Saskatchewan area code. My mom and dad had travelled to my uncle Paul’s place in Nipawin the previous day for a 5-week fishing vacation. They’d never gone anywhere for more than three weeks. This was their dream vacation.
So many thoughts raced through my head as I looked at the paper. Was it one or both my parents? A road accident? A drowning? My head was spinning.
I dialed the number and a physician answered. She asked me to sit down.
Do you know anyone who actually sits down?
She told me my father had collapsed while out for a morning bike ride. I knew exactly what he’d been up to. As a journalist with the CBC, he always needed to get his daily dose of news by reading the morning paper. It was an itch he needed to scratch, even while on vacation.
He’d suffered a massive heart attack on the side of the road and he was rushed to the hospital but it was already too late. The physician said that even if he’d been in the ER at the time of his heart attack, there was nothing anyone could have done to save him.
He was 46 years old.
An odd numbness took over my body at that moment.
I thanked the physician and said that it must be tough for her to deliver this type of news on a regular basis. After a pause, she asked me if I’d understood what she was telling me. I couldn’t blame her for checking, but I knew exactly what she'd just told me..
There would be tough times ahead for my mom and me.
The next day, I was back at work “holding the fort”. It was probably a good thing. I think I would’ve gone mad sitting at home alone while my mother made arrangements in Nipawin before coming home.
Much to my surprise, the morning had gone well and I seemed to have little trouble being my reasonably-normal self.
Then a young woman and her friend came into the store. I helped as best I could but nothing seemed to matter. She was rude and belittling at every opportunity. Her behaviour was even making her friend uncomfortable but she seemed unphased by it. Finally, she decided she’s had enough of browsing and she was heading out of the shop. Then she stopped and turned around to share the following:
“Oh, you have to excuse my nasty attitude. My dad passed away last week and my emotions are getting the best of me.”
Wow! If you were in my shoes, what would you have said to her?
My reply? “I'm so sorry to hear that. That must be hard for you. My condolences.”
I’ll never forget that exchange. It’s the day I learned that I can never assume what another person is going through.
Had she known my story, would she have treated me that way? I doubt it.
I often wonder what everyone’s living in secret. The odds are most of us are dealing with some sort of burden (relationship troubles, illness, thoughts of suicide, financial distress, career stress, substance abuse, the loss of a loved one, depression...).
No one is immune to all types of burden for long because sooner or later life happens.
That exchange with this young woman made me consider that I'd also felt justified in treating others badly when I believed that my circumstances made me entitled to it. I’d coddled myself at others’ expense more often then I’d like to admit. And I knew better. Deep down, I always had.
We don’t get to read the script others are living even though we sometimes think we can.
That’s why empathy has to be our “go to option”.
Wallace also wrote “Try to learn to let what is unfair teach you.”
That exchange was unfair, but I’m grateful for the gift this customer gave me that day and I’ve carried it with me ever since.
Because you just never know.