“O ttumwa, Iowa, Ottumwa, Iowa…it’s a smoke stop. If you got ’em, smoke ‘em!” The train conductor’s voice crows over the old speaker system. His mustache, his hat, his demeanor, his voice, and his words throw me back to countless nights cuddling my kiddos while watching the conductor on “Polar Express”. The likeness is uncanny. Tossing my carry-on bag into the cubby above my seat, I make my way to the observation deck to catch the sunset through the windows. Sealegs come in handy on an Amtrak. So does Dramamine.
I press the large rectangular button that says “press.” The door slides open ala Star Trek-style. There is a foot’s length of the car to stand on while the next car and its mysterious door dance in front to the rhythm of the train tracks. It’s a clashing rhythm to that of the car’s edge on which I stand. This is the stuff of which obstacle courses are made. Channeling my inner Han Solo, I just go for it and punch the moving “press” button to the observation deck and jump into the observation car.
I f a train had a dry bar, it would be the observation lounge. Seats and cafe booths line both sides of the car. Total strangers chat, lovers cuddle, loners gaze out the window or watch their iPhones with an odd, robotic fascination. It is packed with people. I immediately wonder at the wisdom of risking my safety by Han Soloing across two train cars to catch a sunset through the walls of a glass cage. I get a better view from my front porch. But I don’t want to miss out on the romance. Somehow looking at the sunset through a bug-speckled glass cage barreling cross country at 80 miles per hour seems romantic. My regret deepens as I survey the seating offerings. There is one seat left, and its neighboring seat is occupied by a middle-aged man who has clearly seen many rough seasons of life.
Take that seat.
It’s the “Voice.” Not the talent show by that name. You know what I mean. The Voice- the one that might as well be a well-dressed, singing cricket sitting on your shoulder whispering things you need to hear. Recalling hard regret compels me to follow the Voice’s instructions. I stumble over to the seat, looking as though I’d had a few beers for the shaking of the train car.
“Is this seat taken?” I ask with a guarded smile.
“It will be as soon as you sit down.” The man replies with a broad, inviting gesture. His arm is tattooed and leathered by the sun. Chains hang off his worn jeans. His yellow baseball cap is backward, revealing a face sporting a toothless grin and years of worry etched on his face.
“Thank you,” I mumble and smile awkwardly. I glance around nervously wishing Tex could be with me. A handsome, salt-and-pepper haired businessman in a sports coat and expensive shoes turns around eyes me curiously. He looks away and turns back to look. I know his type. They are everywhere. I return his stare with a flat, blank look. He turns back to the young Asian woman he is endeavoring to impress. I was suddenly a bit more grateful to be sitting where I was. Some things are scarier than dental deficiencies and chains.
M y chair is stuck and I struggle to turn it to face the western horizon that is now deciding between a muted salmon pink and lavender. Swiveling to the right no longer an option, I spin my body to look through the bug remains at the fading sunset but I am not enjoying it. I am uncomfortable with something. I have seen sunsets without the disgusting filter so many nights before. Why am I here? This is awkward. The man next to me is scary. I miss Tex. Amarillo is so far away. He should be here holding me in the seat for two, kissing my face and daydreaming out loud as we watch the sun go to sleep through a bug-stained glass. We should be having dinner and holding hands in the dining car before retiring to our private sleeper room to flirt while the Iowa corn rolls by.
A brown, tattooed arm stretches out in front of my view. “Hi. I’m Johnny.”
I slowly spin my body back around and receive his handshake with a slight inner hesitation. I silently thank the Lord that I remembered to bring anti-bacterial wipes.
Please do not judge his hands. If you look closer, you will see they have worked hard.
I hear the Voice and feel a bit sheepish.
“My name is Alisa. Nice to meet you, Johnny.” I am ashamed of my dishonesty. My name is Alisa but it is not nice to meet him.
Do you see that his face is heavy with something? Do you recognize that he is grieving?
I briefly analyze Johnny’s face. I recognize that look from years of masking the same heaviness of heart that the face cannot conceal. I feel my harsh snap judgments softening.
“Where are you headed?” He asks without hesitation, as though he’s asked that question many times before.
“Salt Lake City,” I say, not sure if I want to tell this stranger where I’m going. “And you?” I am a bit annoyed at the invitation for small talk and that I will miss my one shot at chasing an Iowa sunset on an Amtrak.
“To Colorado to bury my wife.”
It takes a few seconds for that to travel from my ears to my disconnected heart and mind. This is no surprise. Arrogance has a way of short-circuiting human connection.
Alisa, why are you so surprised he had a wife? Is it because he looks rough? Why do you judge him based on his outer appearance? Did Jesus not descend below all, even him? Even you?
My secret shame in errantly assuming the man has no family obligations quiets me. I am acutely aware that my arrogance knows no bounds. I search for something to say. Even having been widowed for nearly 20 years, I still don’t do death very well.
“I’m sorry, Johnny.” He nods and looks down at his hand that is fingering something small and red. “What is her name?”
He comes to a state of alertness and attention that surprises me. He pulls out his wallet and produces his wife’s Indiana driver’s license. “Her name is Evelyn. She was my Pocahontas. We were married for 30 years. She died of heart failure two weeks ago.”
Alisa, you’ve had three marriages and the longest one is to Tex at 9 years and counting. You are not above this man. Open your heart and listen.
“She has lovely eyes.” I meant it. I can see that thirty years earlier he would have been spellbound by her beauty. I can see that he still is.
“Yes. She was my life. I took care of her a long time before she died. She was my roadie while I worked. I miss her.” I nod and feel a gentle smile working across my mouth. Years of grieving taught me that to say nothing and to speak empathy and compassion with the heart is the most connecting thing a person can do. I am never sure how that response will be received, but it’s all I know to do.
He looks back at his hand as he flipps the red item between his fingers. He brightens a bit and smiles. “You married?”
“Yes,” I reply with newfound humility. I suddenly feel very grateful that this man would share a few minutes of his precious time with a brat.
“I can tell,” he replies. “You look happily married. You look how I felt with Evelyn.”
“Yes. Tex is wonderful. I drive him crazy sometimes, but he puts up with me.”
He smiles and nods and says, “Hey, who doesn’t drive each other crazy? It’s part of life.”
We sit in silence a few moments. The stirrings of interest in this man’s welfare grow inside of me and I step up to a new level of connection with a person by all appearances should have virtually nothing in common with me.
“Is Evelyn with us on the train?” Perhaps this is rude, but I have to know.
“Yes,” he replies quietly. “She wants me to spread her ashes over Disneyland, but I told her I wasn’t willing to go to jail for that and to pick another place. She said ‘Colorado’, so that’s where she and I are headed. I will save some of her ashes to spread in a few places that mean a lot to both of us.”
My heart aches for him, but I keep pressing him for more as though my development depends on knowing more about his thoughts and feelings. I meet Johnny halfway by reaching out with some of the heaviest contents of my heart. “My first husband died 20 years ago. I understand how you feel.”
His face changed. “Girl, you were young when that happened!”
“Yes,” I say simply. “Twenty-one.”
“So we understand each other,” he says with a smile.
“All too well,” I reply. I think about the rawness I felt at two weeks after Mark died, and I feel an unexpected sense of awe spreading through my chest. It is warm.
Johnny is very strong, isn’t he? He is freely sharing his feelings so soon after his wife’s death. Remember how hard that was for you even years after Mark’s death? Listen. Watch. Learn.
Johnny looks at me with a sideways glance, a knowing grin on his face. “Our spouses are in a good place, you know.”
“Yes. I have no doubt we will see them again.” I see that Johnny and I are growing in our commonalities, the perceived gap between us closing with every word. We both believe in God and a heavenly existence after this life.
“I am an ordained minister,” he says proudly. “I have all my certifications.”
“That’s great!” I smile with a little too much surprise. This plot is thickening faster than I expect.
Johnny points to something in his hand that I have not noticed. A beer can. I realize the small, red item in his other hand is the opener from the can. “This keeps me from helping people as a minister. I am struggling to kick this habit.”
He does not know he is already loved and accepted. He does not know he does not need to be perfect to do good for my children. Tell him.
“Really? I don’t drink beer, but I’m addicted to sugar.” His look of confusion is priceless.
“Sugar absolutely destroys the body. We’ve all got something that could hold us back, but God works through us anyway.” He smiles and nods. I realize some of his worry lines have the word ‘alcoholism’ written in the deepest parts.
I continue, ”You are healing others with your friendship.”
He looks at me as though he has not considered it before. He smiles and the worry lines change to smile lines. “What is someone like you doing talking to someone like me? Even though I am an old man who is about as dangerous as a rusty hinge, and I’ve never been a criminal in my life, most people treat me like a gang banger because I am Mexican and look like this.” He gestures to his clothing which does fit the gang member stereotype, chains, hoodie, and all. “Why are you talking to me?”
Alisa, you wondered the same thing.
Ah, the mirror-like, full-circle self-analysis God has a penchant for administering. My arrogance of a few minutes before flies to the front of my mind.
I consider the humbling truths spoken by the Voice and this mortal man that, according to the modern definition of beauty, has no beauty that man should desire him. I imagine the nature of the hardships he wears on his face, and marvel at his fortitude. That he should descend to my level to lift me up humbles me.
“Johnny, I was wondering the same thing about you. I am honored that you would share your story with me.” I reach my arm out to shake his hand. His face breaks out into a face-wide grin. He grabs my hand and leads me through a four-step handshake that I clearly do not know. He walks me through the steps again and pats me on the shoulder. We laugh.
I stand up and pat his shoulder. “It’s been a true pleasure.”
He pats my hand on his shoulder. “Ms. Alisa, the pleasure is mine.”
As the train sways and rumbles down the track, I stumble back to my seat and smile as I look through my window at the last few glowing rays on the horizon. It matches the glow in my heart. I am grateful to the Voice for leading me to a mirror moment that showed me just how far I have to go to love as God loves and to see as God sees. I can see that Johnny sees and loves far better than I do. And though he spent years nursing a wife that had a sick and broken heart so much that it broke his heart, Johnny still lives with an open heart.
P erhaps my sitting by him interrupted his daydreaming about sitting with his wife, his “roadie”, while they watch the sunset as the Iowa cornfields roll by. Perhaps he was dreaming of simply sitting with her as they hold hands. Perhaps my arrogant self interrupted a togetherness he can only now share in his heart and mind until they meet again in heaven. I, too, have been pulled from that daydream many times. I am familiar with the pain of that kind of sting. Perhaps Johnny and I are not so different at all. Someday, when I slide the long way down from atop my high and mighty horse, and my feet finally hit planet Earth, I want to be like Johnny.
An hour later he walks down the train aisle as I write about him. He smiles, reaches out and shakes my hand as he walks by. “Hello, sweetheart.”
“Hi, Johnny,” I smile back. I notice others on the train do the same as he walks by. They are black, white, Asian, rich, poor, and somewhere in between. He ministers to them, too.
Do you see how even in his grief he seeks to lift others? These people do not see that he is grappling with grief. They only see his smile.
Had Johnny said ‘sweetheart’ to me an hour ago I would have misinterpreted his friendliness as untoward flirtation. What a difference a moment of correcting connection makes.
Johnny brings sunshine to people’s lives. This is a great gift.
I n reality, I did catch a complete sunset tonight. I caught it without spending a minute looking out a window or snapping a picture with my phone. In some respects, the sunset caught me. The subtle thrill of the chase led me to that moment of truth and connection. The beautiful colors of light that came from his heart and the rugged but constant landscape of Johnny’s ministry of friendship are forever imprinted upon my heart and mind. Even while watching the rising of the sun on a new day of love and humility, I didn’t miss the sunset. Tonight, through the miracle of finding love and connection in unexpected and disparate places, I watched the sun set a little more on my life of closed-hearted arrogance.