That Sunday Afternoon

That Sunday Afternoon

From Chicken Soup for the Canadian Soul

That Sunday Afternoon

The plan on which this life is built is somewhat like a patchwork quilt.

E.J. Pratt

It was the first warm day of spring, about 20° C with a clear Calgary sky and full afternoon sun. Only a handful of people were around as I jogged through the park. Ahead was an elderly gentleman in a worn cardigan, sitting on a wooden bench a few feet off the path. He was somewhat secluded, nestled among the poplars and aspens, which were leafing out and stretching their wings. He had found a shaft of sunlight wending its way among the branches; he was enjoying the radiant sun on his face.

I was ready for a break to catch my breath and check my pulse. I sat next to him, looked at my watch, and started counting my heartbeats. After a few seconds, he interrupted my focus by asking how often I jogged. Being somewhat preoccupied with counting, I responded without making eye contact and muttered, “Two or three times a week.” He persisted and attempted to engage me in the small talk that one engages in with a stranger.

His genuineness and comfortable smile eventually won me over, and soon we were talking about everything under the sun. We first discussed the timing of spring, our favourite television programs and great places we had visited in Canada. Unexpectedly, we began revealing our politics, exchanging our different experiences as parents, and expressing deeper feelings about the people we loved. He mentioned that his daughter and her ten-year-old son, Jason, were coming to Calgary in a couple of weeks to visit him; he hadn’t seen them for two years. How he looked forward to their visit! “You know,” he said, touching my arm, “family shouldn’t be separated. We should be with people we love and who love us.” I nodded.

In-and-out, back-and-forth we went, revealing meaningful moments in our lives, paths taken and not taken, laughing, and occasionally misting at the corners of our eyes. We touched one another, emotionally and physically; a sense of mutual “knowing” washed over us. I learned that he was a widower and gently poked him when he mentioned a certain woman he had recently met in the nearby retirement village. He smiled at the compliment; I could see the face of a young man in his eyes.

I think it was the late afternoon chill that broke the moment between us. I looked down at my watch. What seemed like a half-hour had actually been three hours! We had been captured in a moment, totally unaware of time and place. We who were strangers had somehow become soul mates. It was a serendipitous meeting and yet magical in the “connection” that occurred.

We bade our gentle farewells, “See ya around,” smiling and waving as we parted. We knew we probably wouldn’t meet again, and why should we? We had never met before despite having engaged in the same activities in the same park many times before.

Several days later, while putting newspapers into a recycling bin, I chanced to see the old man’s picture in The Calgary Herald, on the back page, in the obituaries: “Mr.— is survived by. . . . In lieu of flowers, please send donations to the Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation.” Tears welled up in my eyes. They trickled down my cheeks as I drove home; I didn’t brush them away. I was also crying for his daughter and her not having had that moment of closeness with him that I just had on that Sunday afternoon. Arriving home, I sat down and wrote her a brief letter, describing the chance meeting and what we had talked about. I hoped it might ease her grief knowing that she was loved and in his thoughts before his passing. I addressed it in care of the funeral home.

It was almost eight months later when an envelope arrived postmarked “Brandon, Manitoba.” I didn’t know anyone from Brandon, at least that I could recall. As I began reading, I realized it was from the old gentleman’s daughter. There was a carefulness and kindliness in the letter that brought him vividly back to mind:

Dear Mr. Fouts,

Please excuse the tardiness of this letter. I’m sure you can understand. I wish to acknowledge your warm generosity of spirit for letting me know that Dad had Jason and me in his thoughts just before he died. You were probably the last person that he talked to in his life, since he was found in the park later in the day where you said you had met. It was close to his apartment. I wish to thank you for being the kind of person you are to talk to an old man sitting alone on a park bench. I take comfort in knowing that you were there with him—if only for a brief time—to share the sunshine and a few thoughts. Thank you so much.

I put her letter away with the picture of the old gentleman from the paper. Later, as I went for my jog through the park, I approached the same bench where we had met eight months before. No one sat there now on this cold December day, but as I jogged past, I was filled with the memory of our special connection and all the things we had shared on that Sunday afternoon. With a warm feeling in my heart, I gave a little salute and carried on.

Gregory Fouts
Calgary, Alberta

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