Brief conversation with a widower


Time is the ultimate thief

Our allotment is always too brief.

I learned while in line

This wisdom now mine:

When we leave, we always leave grief.

Synopsis:  I’m a family doctor in Sioux City, Iowa.  In 2010, I left my position of 22 years to dance back from the brink of burnout.  While my one-year non-compete clause ticked off, I travelled and worked from Alaska to New Zealand, and now I’m back working part-time (54 hours a week) at a Community Health Center.

In theory, working part-time, I get two days off per week, except when I have call.

My natural body clock wakes me between 5:00AM and 5:30AM, and I can get a lot done before normal businesses open.  Today, I had to renew my driver’s license.

Most people hate the Driver’s License authorities in their states; I get along with a grudging coexistence.  This time I made sure I arrived early, and I parked in the cold and the rain at 8:20AM, listening to an educational CD on breast cancer.  At 8:27 a man walked up and stood by the door; I switched off the disc and went and stood beside him. 

He looked a decade older than me.  He complained about the office not opening on time right until the key turned in the lock precisely at 8:30.  I stood behind him in line and watched him dealing with the clerk to have his picture taken.  When it came to my turn, I gave up my old license, looked at the bottom lens, and received a ticket with the number 201 on it.  I took my seat beside the retiree at the front.

“I forgot and let my license expire,” he said, and announced he’d be moving to San Diego to live with his son, his only child.

We sat together and didn’t speak.  “I forgot to renew my license when my wife died,” he said.  “We were married for 60 years and I loved her.”

A moment of silence passed while the drama of the ultimate drama irony’s echoes washed through the drudgery of the routine.  I considered contrast as the essence of meaning.

“I bet you miss her,” I said.

He was about to answer when the PA announced his number, 200, for service at counter 8.

I waited and contemplated the enormity of what he’d told me.  I hadn’t told him not to pile too many stressors on at the same time.  Usually I’d tell a patient to wait for a year to move after such an emotional shock.  But he wasn’t my patient, and he hadn’t asked for advice, and I couldn’t say, for sure, that my advice, while qualifying as common sense, had good clinical evidence in large studies.  And it was a public place.

The automated voice on the Public Address called my name to counter 10.  I confirmed my address, height and weight and did the vision test.  My banter with the clerk lacked my usual verve.  I walked out of the office with my temporary license in my wallet, looking around at the mob of people who had gathered in the previous 10 minutes, congratulating myself on arriving early and finishing early and not getting stuck in the line.

As I exited I saw the widower walking slowly to his car, looking lost, and I thought about the meaning of time.

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