Monday, August 23, 2010

Strangers on a Train

I'm back from another few days away visiting my mom first then spending a couple of days with my girlfriend - the longest relationship I've had in my life outside of my family. Longer even than my husband and we'll have been married 20 years this year plus dated for several more before that. Jan and I don't see each other very often - if we're lucky once or twice a year. But, as in most friendships if they're good, you don't need frequency so much as a deep empathy and understanding that makes the few get togethers you have seem like no time at all has passed. Simply put, we get each other. We have the same sense of humour and the same types of interests in TV shows, books, movies, and musical theatre. We do differ on some things and we definitely aren't personality clones or anything (she's way more patient and understanding than I am by a long shot. Guess that's why she's my friend :) Still, we complement each other. What more can you ask of a friendship? And how vital it is to have those types of relationships. It is one of the joys in life.

Mostly those kind of relationships take time to develop. But sometimes you can connect instantaneously with the most unexpected people. I was fortunate to have both experiences happen to me this weekend: a chance to reconnect with a life-long friend and a chance encounter with a stranger on a train.

I usually don't end up talking with the person sitting beside me on my infrequent train rides. I'm too busy writing or reading to really pay much attention or put much effort into the superficial chit-chat that typically occurs during these encounters. But yesterday, for some reason, as I was writing I paused and glanced over at my seat mate. He was an older gentleman (in his late eighties as I was to find out) partially blind, using a cane, well-dressed and quiet. I remember thinking in that first quick glance: "I wonder what he's experienced in his life." I'm always especially interested in talking with senior citizens. Inevitably, there is some really fascinating thing that has occurred in their lives. They did live through the most turbulent of times during the twentieth century after all. This man was no exception.

When he saw that I'd stopped writing he smiled and asked if I was writing my memoir. I laughed and said I hadn't had nearly that interesting a life. I did say I was a writer and that started the conversation rolling since he admitted he'd often thought about writing a memoir. He told me things about his life that were the stuff of movies. How he became a doctor at age 40 and lived in the Arctic for several years with his young family while caring for the indigenous people of the area. He saw the last real evidence of how the Arctic people lived for thousands of years before the modern world began to invade. After the Arctic he lived and worked in Saudi Arabia. Before he became a doctor he spent time in Rhodesia and other parts of Africa that were still under British or Portuguese colonial rule. He told me about his adored older brother who was a bomber pilot in WWII and was shot down and killed. He spoke eloquently of how that devastated his parents - and him - to lose the shining star of the family. He told me he was still practicing cardiology though not in clinical practice because of his blindness but he still consulted with other doctors and helped patients with the psychological stress and after effects of having heart surgery. He told me he was going back to work after visiting his children - a four day train ride from British Columbia. I said, "Four days?? I hope you had a sleeper car." "No," he said. "Veterans can travel free on coach class." I looked at him, stunned. "You sat for four days on a train?" He shrugged and replied, "Those things don't bother me."

After the life he lived, I guess not.

He was an amazing, positive, awe-inspiring man. He told me that when he got to Toronto (a trip he made weekly) he was going to take the subway to a hotel I knew was at least an hour's subway and bus ride away. But, like the four day cross-country train ride, it was nothing to this fiercely independent man. I will probably never see this gentleman again but I will never forget him. In two hours he taught me so much about following your dreams, staying passionate about life and the power of the human spirit. Sometimes, a brief encounter has as much impact on you as the relationships that have sustained you for a lifetime. I treasure them both.


  1. WOW...what a random yet inspiring encounter. You never really know who that person next to you is unless you take a moment to find out. It sounds like you both potentially made a mark on each other's life journey, and you are definitely occurs less often than more! KUDOs to you for fostering that life long friendship as well....I'm sure it has and will serve the both of you for many more years to come. There is a certain peace and happiness achieved when you find a friend that, as you put...just gets you...and it's certainly something that everyone should get to experience at least once in their lives. Thanks for sharing...

  2. Sounds like quite the enchanting train ride. People such as the man you encountered, fascinate me. I often wonder if the younger generation can grasp, the endurance and hardship that transpired for our elders. (Hugs)Indigo

  3. Cool. Seniors are some of the awesomest people ever! A cute little old man comes out with these incredible experiences that we only dream and write about.

  4. Hi GMR - I'm more and more in awe of the people we encounter in life that we had no idea even existed before and then can't imagine never knowing. And that includes meeting them on line. Thanks so much for commenting!

    Hi Indigo! It was a lovely train ride. I wish more people took the time to talk - really talk - with our elders. So much to learn...

    Hey, Laura! We can only hope we'll be cool seniors ourselves one day. Or at least as independent and interesting as this man was. Yay for living a life that matters!