Friday, August 29, 2014

"...where everybody knows your name"

Well, maybe not everybody.  But Linda certainly does!

For lack of a proper title, let's call Linda the "Dining Room Hostess" at the Chik-Fil-A on Howell Mill Road just off of I75N in Atlanta.  She greets you when you enter with a smile and a "How y'all doin'?" that can turn your day around.  "Ms. Reece, I haven't seen you in a while are you doing okay?  I see you got your son with ya today.  Would y'all like a table or a booth?  Looks like you're puttin a little weight back on."  There's never any question about whether or not we will acquiesce to Linda's quiet demand to "see to us".  That's just how it is and how it will be.  It's as comfortable and natural as visiting my Grandmother's home, growing up.  There's also the same warmth of feeling accompanying every visit.

"I haven't seen y'all in a while, is everybody doin' OK?"  By everybody, Linda means my brother, David, my niece, Jennifer, and any other person of significance who may have accompanied us to lunch at her table over the last 5 years or so, most of whom she remembers by name.  Linda has been a fixture at this Chik-Fil-A since we began visiting regularly with my Dad, at the beginning of treatment for the cancer that ultimately took his life.  NO VISIT to Piedmont West began until we had been properly fed, both literally and figuratively, at Linda's table.  Of course, you can get a Chik-Fil-A lunch just about anywhere these days but not one accompanied by the unique attention that Linda provides.

Over the years, she's been with us during our triumphant mornings of "remission", during our turbulent mornings of "not knowing what's next" and, ultimately, during the morning where we received the ultimate news:  "There's nothing more we can do."  And every morning was the same at Linda's table; all smiles and love, a hug hello and a hug good-bye.  She has been our rock in triumph and tragedy.  What prepares a person for such a pivotal role in the lives of complete strangers?  The truth is, I don't know.

Linda is a lady of color who appears to be somewhat older than I (I'm 54), so she was raised in and lives in Atlanta during a period of great metamorphosis.  I can't imagine that her life has been all roses and sunshine, yet she gives no outward sign that it's been anything other than roses and sunshine.  Her smile and care are genuine.  When learning that Dad was having a particularly bad patch in his disease process, she expressed herself the way only a genuine person can:  she became very quiet, moved to my Dad's side and put her arm around him in caring embrace.  That embrace is a treasured memory.  Coming from Linda, from outside our family's little circle, it meant so much.

On a follow-up visit to our table today, Linda asked if we had any plans for the Labor Day weekend.  Mom and I were a little somber because Dad died on Labor Day, two years ago.  Before Mom had a chance, I interjected, "Well, Linda, it's kind of low-key for us.  Dad passed on Labor Day."  Immediately, I wanted to take it back.  The expression on her face said it all.  Linda's face lost its animation, sorrowful that she might have caused us hurt.  It's the kind of thing one expects from a friend, from someone who really cares about you.  She does.

During lunch, I noticed that Linda has many "regulars", many friends whose names she doesn't forget.  And while I have seen others express their appreciation for Linda as my family has over the years (my brother and I learned after the fact that we had both been generously expressing it for a while!), there's nothing that adequately compensates another human being for their expression of humanity.  Gratuities don't do it.  "Thank you" isn't enough.  The ready return of a warm hug is a start, I guess.  What gets that job done, exactly?

Now that Mom sees the same hematological oncologist for her blood disorder who treated my Dad's cancer, we continue our tradition of stopping for an early lunch with Linda.  I remember thinking before we entered this time, "what if Linda isn't here anymore?"  And, for a moment, I felt the oddest sensation, the sensation of the potential for unforeseen loss.  Do I ever instill that feeling in ANYONE?  ANYWHERE?  for ANY REASON?  

How could we possibly see Dr. Mininberg without first seeing Linda?

"Have a safe trip home, Mr. Reece!"

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