Tonight I stopped at Panera on my way home for a salad and half sandwich. At the last minute I decided to sit in the restaurant and eat instead of taking it out. The place was warm and welcoming and smelled like coffee and shortbread cookies. I grabbed a table in the corner away from the windows and doors to keep the cold from outside as far away as possible for as long as I could. I booted up my laptop but found myself sitting and staring out the window on the far side of the restaurant. It was a dark and dreary evening and the traffic was ridiculous! It was nice sitting there knowing that I didn’t have to sit out in that traffic.
I’m an eavesdropper, although I prefer the more appropriate term “people watcher”. After staring out the window for a few minutes I began to look around. There were a few tables with people, most of them unremarkable. To the right side of the window I noticed an older woman just beginning to choose a table and sit down. She was retirement age, well dressed and well coiffed and like many women from that generation she looked like she had just come from a hair dresser who owned stock in Aquanet. She sat gingerly after brushing a napkin over her chair and the from small round table. I noticed that she had set a small canvas tote bag on the floor next to her and it had a beach scene and a name in some scroll that was impossible to read from my observation point.
I noticed her first because she had no food or drink in front of her. On second glance though she told a story. She was sitting there at the table by herself with a small frown on her face. It was clear that the frown was not an unusual expression due to the deep lines beside her mouth. She was tan and her hands were covered with sun spots. She was wearing a fuchsia cardigan sweater over a white turtleneck, black pants and dainty shiny black boots that had never seen snow. Her hands were folded in front of her and she was looking around the restaurant with a non-curious expression on her face. There was a child of about five walking slowly with a bowl of soup, her father following closely behind her, preening proudly at his little girl’s accomplishment, encouraging her with phrases like “Keep going Lexie” and “you’re doing great”. The woman watched the father and daughter walk by with no change in her expression. It was frankly a little annoying.
Just as I had begun to get bored with my subject du jour I saw an older man approaching the table. Now her lack of food and beverage made sense. He was carrying a tray with pastries and coffee and placed it on the table with some effort. He was awkward like maybe he had a bad back, leaning a little to the right as he moved around the chair across from the woman. Once he had settled the tray he sat down and took the woman’s hand in his. I felt a little disgusted with her because this man was obviously making an effort but she seemed not to care a single bit. The man sat and leaned forward, love and devotion evident in his every movement. He was gently squeezing her hand and trying valiantly to get the woman’s attention. She just sat there looking distantly over his left shoulder.
I shook my head and logged onto the internet but I couldn’t help but continue to glance back at the couple. He had moved his chair closer to hers and I noticed that at least now she was looking at him. Her expression hadn’t changed, she still looked incredibly unhappy but at least now she had thrown him a bone. He seemed so pleased to have gotten her attention and was now holding both of her hands in his while speaking to her softly. He leaned in and made a movement as though tucking a bit of stray hair behind her ear. This was purely a gesture of love and affection because there was not a single hair out of place on this woman’s head. She didn’t even acknowledge it! It was so frustrating to see her being so unresponsive to such a loving partner.
I had finished my dinner by then so I began packing up my things while surreptitiously stealing glances at the couple. Since I was standing I thought that my staring might be more evident. The man pulled the tray toward him and opened the coffees, pouring sugar packets into both cups. He took a plastic knife and cut the pastries into small pieces, carefully wiping the icing from his fingers with a napkin. His diva of a partner just sat there allowing him to do all the work. I began to wonder what this man must have done to cause her to be so very angry.
By this time we were the only people in the restaurant. The music had gotten louder, probably the employees trying to rev themselves up for closing time. I had completed my packing and had begun my move between the tables and chairs toward the exit. I gave the couple one more look before I pushed through the door and into the cold. I stepped off the curb passing a blue car that I assumed belonged to the couple as it was the only car near the entrance. I noticed a handicapped license plate as I walked by and assumed it must be due to the man’s infirmity. My car was around the side of the building and as I rounded the corner I noticed in the reflection in the window that there was a bumper sticker on the front of the blue car. From curiosity I stepped back around and read the sticker. It said “Working together to stop Alzheimer’s Disease”.
Suddenly it dawned on me. I moved rather more quickly around the corner looking in through the window to where the couple was sitting. The man had just placed a small morsel of pastry into the woman’s mouth and was blowing on a cup of coffee before leaning in to help her sip it. I realized then that my assumptions had been so very wrong. I had made a snap judgement without knowing the facts. I dropped into the driver’s seat of my car and felt the hot sting of tears forming behind my lowered eyelids. I was a little mad at myself for my own judgments. I was also sad for the man and woman and for what they must have gone through. Most prominently though I was incredibly touched by the obvious love and devotion of that man. I sat there clearing my tight throat while waiting for my car to warm up. I wondered how many people would be that attentive and caring. I pushed the tips of my fingers into the corners of my eyes wiping away the moisture and then put my car into reverse. Right before I shifted to drive and removed my foot from the brake I stole one more glance at the elderly couple inside. My headlights must have attracted her attention because the woman was looking out the window at my car. It was the same face, the same expression, the same woman but now I didn’t see a sullen old lady at all. Instead I saw a woman who had lost her memories and directly beside her, now close enough for them to touch shoulders, her knight in shining armor.