A Simple Smile

October 25, 2012
Gregory walked down the busy street, watching person after person pass by. All were too focused on their destination, their hectic lifestyles consuming them, along with their cell phones and iPods. Some of these people wore black business suits, white shirts, and fancy ties; some wore jeans and t-shirts, some had sunglasses, some carried backpacks and others carried briefcases. As Gregory examined each one he witnessed their differences in appearance, and that was all. They were all united, however, in their avoidance of each other.

The air was filled with a tantalizing scent mixed together from the various restaurants on the street. Gregory passed many of them and breathed deeply, taking in as much of the pungent deliciousness which surrounded him. His steps were anvils crashing to the ground, his legs tired from the journey. He continued to look through the crowd as cars rumbled across the cracked pavement of the street to his right. Further down the sidewalk, past many of these distracted workers, Gregory saw a hunched old woman laboriously walking with the crowd. As he had done with all of the people he had passed, Gregory smiled. He was expecting the small woman to not even notice he had done so, but she stopped, obviously surprised by Gregory’s uncommon demonstration of kindness, and smiled back as wide as she could manage. The deep wrinkles on her face curled up and framed her sparkling eyes. Her small spotted hands clung to two white plastic bags filled with dark green celery and tin cans.

In her eyes Gregory saw more life than he had ever seen in the eyes of the people he passed every day. Maybe she had grown up in a rural town not far out of Chicago. She was born at 7 pounds at her parents’ home, with blonde baby hair, and her deep blue eyes. She could have been a screaming, crying hell for her parents. Her father worked on the farm from dusk until dawn, and came in during the day only for the meals her mother had cooked while holding a screaming baby in her arms. Her parents would have loved her, Gregory was sure of it.

When she got older, maybe she had gone on adventures with her older sister and cousins, creating elaborate forts of blankets and boxes where they would pledge to secret pacts they would hold true to for life. For the rest of her life, her sister called her by the nickname they had come up with when they were playing cops and robbers. When she reached her teen years she went to high school, where she was an average student, barely passing her math classes but excelling in music. High school seemed torturous at the time, with hard classes and mean teachers, and she only could handle it because of the love of her friends. When she reached her senior year she had decided to pursue music in college. Her parents had not attended a secondary school and they had their reservations about the immense cost it would add to their bills. As the year drew to an end the benefits of college outshined the losses by far. Her parents submitted, and that fall she travelled to school to live on her own for the first time in her life.

She felt loneliness when she was at college, quickly losing contact with the only people who had gotten her through high school, and became a partier. She tried to fill the void she felt with friends and alcohol, but all failed. All-the-while she worked hard in her classes, and never fell behind despite the way her new friends knew her. Soon, she began to take notice of a handsome classmate who smiled at her every day. Gregory had reminded her of him.

They began to talk and date, and were very close by the time of graduation. She moved back to Chicago with her boyfriend, getting a handsome suburban townhouse with a yellow door and blue shutters. Now a woman, she had plans of joining a local jazz group and playing concerts on weeknights at bars. Not many months after graduation and the beginning of her search for a group of musicians, the handsome man asked her to marry him, and she quickly replied, “Yes!”

Now with husband and career, she felt like she had everything she had ever needed. She was a loving wife, and a successful musician. Within a few years she had 3 beautiful children, 2 boys and 1 girl, and she gave them all the names she had chosen when she herself was a child. Years continued to go by, and the kids got bigger and bigger faster than she could ever imagine. She often looked at them as they grew and couldn’t imagine that they had just recently been her small babies. They were financially sound, and lived in relative luxury. Her husband became a businessman, and spent his days selling his inventions from door to door. She cooked and cleaned and raised the children, as cultural custom dictated. She slowly was separated from her music by her duties as a parent, but rarely thought about how sad it made her to lose her first passion. Her children far overshadowed any joy she could have gotten from any other source. She lived her life day to day, every day.

When the kids reached adulthood, it was a turbulent time in America. There was a war brewing in Vietnam, and many people spoke of a draft being enforced by the government. She feared immensely for her children’s safety, her two boys, now men, would be drafted as soon as it passed. Her fears were realized as the military called for all 18-year-olds to sign up for selective service. Both of her sons were taken, shaved, trained, and sent to hell.

Long nights spent biting her nails down until they bled as insomnia carried her into the early hours of the morning were the norm for her now. She waited every day, worrying about her sons and if they were safe in Vietnam and Laos, or wherever the government had moved them now. One had become a pilot, flying helicopters and assisting the other troops. Her other son was conscripted in the front lines. She watched the news every day, waiting to hear of the new tragedies in Vietnam, torturing herself for her son’s sake. One day, there was a knock at the door. A large man in uniform casted a dark shadow over the welcome mat in front of her door. He solemnly placed a letter and a flag in her hands, shaking his head and offering a consoling, “I’m sorry, Ma’am.”
Her oldest son had been killed in action, his helicopter crashing in a field somewhere in Laos. She crawled into bed and wept for days.

Her younger son returned from duty, and slowly life began to resemble normality again. She still cried sometimes, but she was strong for the rest of her family. She began to play music again, writing long lamentations when she was home alone. Her body felt more frail than it used to, her hands slower than they had been when she played with the jazz groups of her youth. As her body was worn by age, so too her mind was worn by grief. She wanted nothing to do with the world any longer. Her son and daughter married and had kids of their own, leaving her and her husband alone, feeling like it had not been that long since they themselves were fresh out of school.

Months turned to years, and though time heals all wounds, some heal much more slowly. She and her husband often held hands in silence when their oldest son was brought up. He would have been 28 today, 30, 31, 35, 45, 50. Each year was a fresh opening of the wound. They weren’t getting younger, either. Her husband had turned to alcohol and cigarettes when their son was killed, and had been addicted ever since. She hadn’t the heart to tell him not to cope; she couldn’t even handle it herself without a drink sometimes. One day, her husband fell on the ground and wouldn’t get up. She called an ambulance immediately, and he was rushed to the hospital. The doctors told her that he had horrible liver damage and a tumor in his left lung.

Numb, unable to even fathom the idea of losing the handsome man who smiled at her across the college classroom, she was at a loss for words. Hard months followed, she couldn’t stand to watch him suffer. She cried often, feeling the dual heartbreak of her son’s death and the impending death of her husband. He stayed in the hospital for weeks at a time. At times he improved, and then he would get worse than ever. The doctors soon realized there was nothing that was in their power to do. She spent much of her time alone while was at the hospital praying to God for comfort, for healing, and for hope. When he finally passed away nearly a year later, she was heartbroken and yet somewhat relieved. By God’s grace, her love would never have to suffer again.

She lived out the next few years in complete, in her big empty house, where she stored the toys of her kids’ youth in the attic, and her piano gathered a layer of dust. She rarely left the home, and spent most of her time watching game shows on GSN, or walking around the empty rooms, taking in the memories which had now passed. She knew she would never get them back, never be that happy again. She missed her children, who had now moved far away to other states. She missed her oldest son and her husband, but knew they sat having coffee together in heaven. She sometimes felt guilty as she eagerly waited to join them.
Once a week, she painfully walked down the street to the grocery store and was passed by big businessmen rushing to their destinations. The times had changed very much, and yet somehow were the same as ever. She imagined herself when she was young, and she would laugh at them in her head, saying, “Life goes fast enough, silly kids.”
She wished she had known that when she was young.

Her walks to the grocery store were lonely, too. There are very few people in the busy streets of any town who stop to smile at the old lady who is cutting out precious seconds of their rushed time by limping slowly along the street.

This, of course, was all just an assumption. You can tell a lot by looking in people’s eyes, but after all, she was just an old woman Gregory had passed in the street.

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