On her way down to the hospital food court for supper, my beloved, Pearl, ran into Bev Welsh at the elevator. Bev didn’t notice Pearl. She pushed the down button and studied the lit numbers above the door.
“Bev?” Pearl asked. Bev stared blankly at her. “It was one of those moments,” Pearl said later, “I could see her mind trying to figure out who I was.” It took Bev a couple of heart beats solve the riddle of Pearl. After all, it had been 40 years since our lives intersected. We were miles from the city where we met, and we all were bewildered by medical procedures. It takes a moment for the mind to cover those distances.
Bev and her husband, Bill, were our youth group leaders in Windsor, Ont. Young parents of two babies, they devoted themselves to our group of nearly 70 suburban teenagers. They helped shape our values, faith and maturity.
It was the 1970s — the hay days of post-war mainline Protestantism. Leading up to Christmas of 1975, our youth group ran a “toy workshop.” We repaired used toys and fundraised for new ones to be included in the church’s charity hampers. The workshop was headquartered in Bev and Bill’s basement. One night, Pearl, Bill and I were on a final run to the Woolco department store to make a few last-minute purchases. Bill was at the wheel of their blue Ford station wagon.
I was 15 years old and deeply infatuated with Pearl. Bill had noticed. On our way to pick her up, he asked me, “Are you going to ask her out? You might as well get it over with. If she says ‘no,’ at least you know where you stand.”
Inside the store, he taunted me with meaningful glances and encouraging winks. Our shopping completed, Bill not so subtly backed the car into Pearl’s parent’s driveway. He stared straight ahead and said, “I’ll just wait here, David. You should walk Pearl to the door.”
At the back door, beneath the porch light, I blurted, “Do you want to go out with me?”
This is where Pearl’s and my recollections of that night diverge. Pearl claims that she responded enthusiastically, “Yes!” Then we went inside for tea.
I, on the other hand, remember her saying, “Sure, why not.” Then she left me standing outside and happy as puppy.
It seems unlikely we would leave Bill, waiting outside in his idling Ford, while we sipped tea. Given the narcissism of adolescence, it’s not impossible but unlikely.
Back in the car, Bill asked, “What did she say?”
“Sure, why not,” I reported. Bill chuckled and shook his formidable head from side to side. On the drive to my house, he repeated, “Sure, why not,” trying out various inflections of voice. I think he admired Pearl’s response.
Pearl and I have been “going out” for more than for 40 years. Bev and Bill taught us how to play euchre at their kitchen table. We babysat their children, Debbie and Terry. In exchange, Bill lent us his orange Datsun 260Z to drive on dates.
Four decades later, on the sixth floor of Toronto General Hospital, Pearl and Bev found themselves standing side by side. The elevator is situated in a lobby between the Urology Ward and The Head and Neck Ward. Bill was recovering from prostate surgery. Across the lobby, I was recovering from another re-arranging of my face. What are the odds?
Debbie, Bill’s daughter helped him over to my room. She is now older than Bev was during our toy workshop days. She is so much like her mom was then that I had to keep reminding myself that she was not Bev.
Bill looked solid, in spite of the post-surgical walker propping him up. His grin and mischievous sparkle were bright and warm as ever. He stood at the end of my bed, enquiring of my health and waving off my concerns about his own wellbeing. A splotch of blood stained the front of his hospital gown.
“Sit down, Bill,” I said.
“I’m fine,” he said, and then, “Maybe, I will sit a little.”
We reminisced and marvelled at the long odds of running into one other in a Toronto hospital after so many years. Pearl and I recounted our competing narratives of the night when Bill had backed his car into Pearl’s driveway. I hoped that Bill would finally settle the dispute in my favour, but he just smiled, enjoying the vagaries of human memory. We told Bev and Bill how instrumental they were in shaping our lives. We marvelled at the impossible mercy of our paths crossing again. We did not speak of the soft tears that wet Bill’s and my cheeks. What was there to say?
The unexpected reunions on the Camino de Cancer — made true and vulnerable by hospital gowns and suffering — are small, polished stones. From time to time, we take them from our pockets, as we do the memories of our youth. They grow warm in our hands or we put them in our mouths, where they quench our thirst.