Saturday 31 March 2018

They Say It Gets Better

James Bates

weak tea

The name tag worn by the guy at the guard desk read Dan. His job was to check the ID badges of the employees as they entered the huge office building through the revolving doors from the parking ramp. All day long during his eight hour shift he eye-balled everyone who passed by, checking to see if the photo on the badge matched the person wearing it. He was maybe fifty years old and his hair was buzz cut so close that his scalp shone through. His eyes were steel gray and they never seemed to stop moving. He missed nothing. He had a weightlifter's build and his blue uniform strained against his hardened muscles. His gun belt was thick and black and held a Smith and Wesson that seemed too big for its holster. He also carried mace, pepper spray and hand-cuffs. He looked ready for anything.
            Dan never smiled. He rarely spoke and he seemed like the kind of person you just wanted to avoid at all possible costs. So when tall, thin, haggard looking Jeremy Larson tried to walk past without his badge and Dan stopped him, who knew what was going to happen.
            "Wait a minute, there, buddy," Dan commanded, "What do you think you're doing?"
            Jeremy was a young man, maybe thirty, but looked at least ten years older. He paused, confused, acting like he had no idea where he was, "Wha...wha...what?" he stammered. The question hung on the edge of his lips, barely having eked out.
            "Your ID, pal. Where is it?"
            Jeremy looked down at his shirt pocket where his badge was normally clipped, "Oh, geez. Sorry. I must have forgotten it"
            "You can't go in, then. You know the procedure. Rules are rules."
            Jeremy looked around, visibly distraught. It came to him right then that he had no idea where he was. He took in his surroundings for a moment before finally recognizing their familiarity. Oh, yeah. He was at work. The problem was, he had no idea how he got there. He must have used his car but had no recollection of driving in from where he lived in Long Lake, twenty-two miles to the west. This was not good. The inability to recall his actions suddenly  frightened him. What a mess his life was. His eyes welled up. Tears formed. His briefcase slipped from his hand and thudded to the carpet as he put his head on the counter and started to cry.
            What the hell? Dan was taken aback. Crap. Of all the things he was prepared for, this wasn't one of them. Criminal activity? Sure. A gun wielding nut job? Absolutely. A burned out, broken down man sobbing on his guard desk? No. That just wasn't supposed to happen. This was a highly regarded office building filled with clean and polished white collar workers, for christ's sake. Professional people. Someone losing their composure and breaking down in tears in the middle of the crowd hurrying past the security desk? Well, that just didn't happen.
            Dan took an instant to size up the situation. While he did, the steady stream of well dressed men and women continued to rush by with only a few curious enough to take the time to glance at the scene unfolding. They, like everyone else, though, may have slowed but ultimately kept on walking, embarrassed for the weeping man. It was clear that no matter how concerned people may have been, no one wanted to do anything to help. Later on, Dan would be at a loss to explain why he did what he did. The best answer he could come up with was, "Well, there was just something about the poor guy. He seemed like he needed help and I was there, so I did what I thought was the right thing to do." Whatever the case, what happened was good for Jeremy. Maybe, even, in the long run, for Dan as well.
            Dan jumped into action. He immediately called his boss, "Ed, send someone down to fill in for me. Anyone. Right now."
            Then he hurried to where Jeremy had now sunk the floor. He reached down and helped the broken man to his feet, picked up his briefcase and carefully moved him to a quiet corner off to the side of the flow of human traffic, all the while his eyes never missed a face or a badge passing by. That's where he stayed until a few minutes later when another member of the security team arrived.
            "Take over for me," Dan said when she showed up, "I'm going to take this guy for some coffee."
            She gave him a curt nod, all business, "Got it." Then she took over and began watching badges and faces.
            As they started walking, Dan figured it would be good to give the guy some time to collect himself so he didn't say anything. With each step down the hallway, though, the security guard's gruff demeanor began to change and become more compassionate. He was taking seriously the young man's breakdown and trying to figure out the best way to handle the situation. Would it be best to bide his time before he said anything? At least until he had a handle of the situation? But when would that ever be? The guy was clearly in bad shape. Maybe he should do something now. But what if he did or said the wrong thing? Then what?
            Finally, after a couple of minutes of indecision, he said himself, To hell with it. I'll just do what I think is the best thing to do.
            He put his arm around the young man's shoulder, leaned into him and asked, simply, "Can you tell me what your name is?"
            "Jeremy. Jeremy Stendahl."
            "Nice to meet you Jeremy. My name's Dan." He pointed to his badge. Jeremy looked at it.
            "Yeah, sorry about that. I don't know where mine is. Must have lost it." Tears suddenly welled up in his eyes.
            Dan was quick to offer reassurance, "Hey, hey, man. That's all right. Don't worry about it. The badge us no big deal. We'll get it taken care of." Relief passed across Jeremy's face and the tears disappeared. With the ice broken, they continued walking. Dan asked, "You were in pretty bad shape back there. What was the matter? Can you tell me what's going on?"
            Jeremy was still shaken and finding it hard to speak. But there was something comforting about the muscular security guard walking next to him; something soothing. By the time they'd neared the end of the hall he'd calmed down enough to be able to softly articulate, "Well, this is what it is: my wife passed away a month ago. I thought I was ready to go back to work. I talked to my boss," he arbitrarily pointed up above where they were standing, "I work up on the third floor in the engineering department. Programming. Anyway, my boss Sara Schneider said I could come back if I was ready. I thought I was, but," he shrugged his thin shoulders, "I guess not." He glanced at Dan and cracked a weak, embarrassed smile, resignation written all over his face. Then more tears began forming, "I'm so sorry..."
            All the while Dan walked beside Jeremy he kept his arm around the young man's shoulder. It seemed like the right thing to do; to stay close to the poor guy. All around them people hurried by, only a few giving a passing glance to the odd looking couple slowly making their way down the crowded hallway. As they talked, Dad listened carefully to what Jeremy was saying. At the mention of the loss of his wife, his eyes softened. He slowed his steps and ducked his head close to Jeremy's ear. His voice just above a whisper he said, "Hey, man, I understand. I get it. I really do." He inhaled and then let out a long breath before going on, "I lost my wife ten years ago. It hurt back then. It still hurts now. It's still painful."
            Jeremy stopped walking and wiped his eyes. He turned and said, rather formally, "Oh, man. I didn't know. I'm so sorry for your loss." Of course he wouldn't have known. Dan hadn't told him. He hardly told anybody. The stoic guard acknowledged the comment with a quick nod but said nothing. There wasn't anything to add.
            Jeremy paused for a moment. The last thing he expected was to find that they had something in common. In a way, it was rather comforting. He said, "For me, I just don't know if I can go on, if I can take it anymore." Suddenly, his body went rigid and he clutched his fists. His entire demeanor changed. He became almost frantic. He grabbed Dan by both shoulders and looked him straight in his eyes. "Tell me," he said, his voice pleading, imploring Dan to give him an answer, "Tell me. I've got to know. Does it ever get better? Does the pain every go away?"  
            Dan looked at Jeremy, taking his time with what he wanted to say. He felt an affinity for the young man, he really did. He wanted to give him a sense of hope. To help him and somehow boost his spirits. He wanted to say something that would relieve his pain and take away his anguish. He didn't like seeing the poor guy reduced to such despair. Finally he said, "It does get better, Jeremy. It does. Eventually. "He saw a measure of relief appear in his eyes and was quick to add, "But I won't lie to you. It's hard. Especially those first months, like you're now finding out. But you know what? If you're lucky, you eventually learn to live with it. It does get better with time."
            Jeremy grimaced at Dan's words, "You know, that's what people tell me. But I don't know if I believe them. I loved her so much."
            They started walking again, each lost in their own private thoughts. After a minute or two Dan slowed his pace and turned to Jeremy so they were facing each other again. He put his hand on his shoulder, tightened his grip and said, "You'll find a way, man. You have to." He paused, then added, "For me it helped when I thought about what it was my wife would have wanted me to do. She'd have wanted me to go back to work. You know, get out in the world and keep living. She for sure wouldn't have wanted me to hide out at home, feeling sorry for myself."
            Tears formed again and Jeremy did his best to snuffle them back, "Really?"
            "Yeah. It helped me a lot to think like that. To think about what she'd want me to do."
            They turned together and continued walking. To Dan, Jeremy appeared comforted by his words. By the time they reached the break room, he seemed more in control of himself. Dan found an out of the way table and helped the young man to sit down.
             As he made himself comfortable Jeremy said, "Thanks, Dan. Thanks a lot for talking to me; for taking some time with me. I know I sound like a basket case, but I can't help it." He shrugged his shoulders in resignation. "I don't have a lot of friends. It feels good to get some things off my chest."
            Dan stood by and listened. Even in Jeremy's pain, he had the feeling the young man was going to rally. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but eventually. He was beginning to talk about how he was feeling and that was good. Someday he'd begin to heal. One thing was certain, Jeremy was stronger than he first appeared. In fact, the longer Dan was with him, the more he had the feeling that Jeremy was going not only going to be okay, but he was going to thrive. The guy seemed like a survivor.
            They were both quiet for a minute, thinking. Jeremy broke the silence by adding, "Anyway, thanks, for listening, Dan. I really appreciate talking to you. Thanks for your patience."
            "Don't mention it." Dan pulled out a chair and sat close enough so their voices wouldn't be heard, "It's hard, I know it is. Believe me, you just have to have a little faith that it can work out. Eventually it will."
            Jeremy smiled with a sense of relief, "That's what I needed to hear, because, you know what? It's been hell so far."
            "I know, man. I hear you. Just hang in there. You'll get through it."
            They chatted for a while. Later on, Dan went for some coffee. He also called his boss and told him that he'd be awhile getting back to work, that he had an emergency to deal with. His boss told him not to take too long, and Dan told him he'd get there when he could.
            When he brought the coffee back and sat down, the two continued to talk. It was good to be with the young man. He saw a guy who was starting to come to grips with himself and his situation; this life of his right now and how he was going to have to learn how to cope with the death of his wife. In Dan's mind, he knew It wasn't going to be easy, in fact Jeremy had a long road ahead, but at least it was a start. He was happy for him about that. There was something about the young guy. Dan found himself liking him and he wanted things to get better for him. He could see them talking more in the future.
            Well, maybe.
            The thing was, all the time they were sitting together, and all the talking they did, Dan never let on the truth about the depth of the sadness he still felt for his wife; the numbing emptiness he still lived with everyday. In fact it had been ten years, two months and seventeen days since his beloved Amy had passed away. The pain was still there. The loss still intense. The love not diminished. Sure, he was out in the world. He was working, and doing the things he should be doing. The things Amy would have wanted him to do. The things he told Jeremy he should do. And maybe it would work for him, for the likeable young man. Dan sure hoped so. For himself, though, it all came down to this: for all those years that had passed since Amy's death, he was still waiting. He was still trying to heal. And, despite what he had told Jeremy, the truth of the matter was that for him, it really wasn't getting any better. Not even close. It wasn't getting any better at all.
            His thoughts were interrupted by Jeremy, "Say, Dan, I don't know. I was wondering...It's been good talking to you. Nice, actually. I don't have a lot of friends. No close ones, anyway. Anyhow, I don't know...I was wondering if you'd like to go for coffee sometime? You know, just to hang out or something?"
            Dan dragged his thoughts back to the present. Back to the here and now. Back to Jeremy and the pain he was feeling and now starting to cope with. What was it he had said? Did he actually say, 'Maybe hang out?' Dan smiled to himself. He was not what anyone would remotely call a 'Hanging out' kind of person. But he liked Jeremy. He seemed like an alright guy. An image of Amy flashed in his brain. Was she smiling? Yeah, he thought, maybe she was.
            Hell. It'd been over ten years. Maybe it was time for him to do something to try to move on with his life. Maybe now was the time to try something different. In fact, when you got right down to it, maybe he should pay attention to Amy's smile.
            Why not? What did he have to lose?
            With only the slightest hesitation, Dan smiled and said, "Sure, thing, Jeremy. I'd like to do that. It might be fun."

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