Someone stole my wallet out of my bag, right in front of my nose, on a crowded Chicago bus. I realized it was gone as I was entering the hotel lobby, fumbling around my bag trying to find it as I approached the front desk to check in. At first, it was that momentary panic of it being gone but not really gone, of course not really gone, it was just buried somewhere between my laptop and extra sweater. But no, as I tried to convince myself it was there, I realized that it had been on top of the bag, sticking out for anyone to see, and take, it might as well have had a blinking neon sign saying “take me.”
But this isn’t a story about the wallet, or the trip to the police station to report it stolen, or the hours spent on the phone with credit card companies.
I first called the nearest precinct, who forwarded me to place a report over the phone. As I listed the contents of my wallet, instead of saying “driver’s license,” I said, “my California driver’s license.” The woman on the other end, who until that point had been appropriately brusque, stopped me and said, “Oh honey, are you traveling here from California? When do you have to get on a plane?”
“Tuesday night.” Right. Getting on a plane. Without ID.
“Well, I can take your report over the phone, but listen. I’ll mail you a receipt which won’t arrive for a week. If you go to the station, you can get the receipt in your hands when you walk out, and it’ll make going through security easier. Oh good luck, honey.”
So, I arrived at O’Hare this afternoon armed with my police report and a temporary credit card—one that couldn’t be swiped so was basically useless, but that’s another story. I was sent out of the TSA Pre Check line and into the regular, very long, security line. I was the next person in line when a new agent arrived to open a new line. He was older, with silver hair and a soft face. Someone’s grandfather. He waved me forward with a smile.
“I’m afraid your first customer is going to be a bit difficult,” I explained my predicament, handing over my credit card and police report.
“Well, you’ve come to the right place. Do you have anything else with your name on it? Prescription medication? A checkbook?” I momentarily was distracted by the quaint idea of people carrying around checkbooks anymore. He unfolded the police report as I rummaged through my bag—an idea had sprung to mind.
“I might have something for you. It’s not very official, but…” I handed over the name tag from the work conference I’d been in town to attend. It hung from a lanyard in a flimsy plastic cover. My name was in the center, below the two acronyms “AACI” and “CCAF.” “I was in town for a conference and this was my name tag.”
“What sort of conference?” He picked up the tag to inspect it.
“The letter Cs in those acronyms are for cancer – a conference of cancer center administrators and directors.” I turned my attention back to my bag, rummaging around for something, anything else with my name. The man mumbled something.
“I have cancer.”
I stopped and placed my hands on the counter. His blue eyes were mournful, staring at a memory only he could see.
“I’m very sorry to hear that.”
He nodded, and asked if my boarding pass was on my phone. He helped me place it on the scanner.
“How are you doing?”
“Well, I’m here.”
Unsure of what to say, I nodded.
“Prostate cancer,” he said into the silence. “Ten years ago, they got it all out. But it came back. Six months of chemo, radiation, hormone therapy. And after all that, they say I don’t have a good prognosis. I said, come on, now you’re really giving me a fright.” He smiled wistfully at the memory, shaking his head. He slowly wrapped the lanyard around my name tag and credit card. “But there’s nothing they can do.”
My brain ticked over the scientific and medical reasons why he’d be told that. His age. Where the cancer had spread. The type of recurrent cancer he had. Had he gotten a second opinion? Where was he getting care? What about a clinical trial?
But I remembered where I was, looking at a person doing a job many would consider thankless, one I’ve probably cursed a time or two at some point during travel, alternately feeling sorry for the shit they have to deal with every day and feeling angry at some inconvenience they put me through. And yet, here was a dying man, smiling and telling me he just gets up and is glad to work every day and what else can we do, any of us, but just keep on living. “I figure the good lord will take me when he wants to, no matter what.”
We all dream about what we’d do if we knew we were dying, the scenario often involves fantasies of traveling or not working or fulfilling some childhood dream. We even do that when we’re not sick, ticking off items on a bucket list.
How many of us make sure we’re quietly living the kind of life we’d want to live, even in the face of death? Instead of spending all this time going after big Instagram-friendly goals, what if we spent time cultivating our contentment with our daily lives? Sure, if something is found amiss, we need to have the courage to change it, but those things that are found amiss are usually relatively minor, relatively fixable. Instead of looking for the giant, life-altering moments, what about looking at the everyday moments, because those are what make up life. Contentment doesn’t come from the big events, it comes from the places in between. But we need to find it, to look for it, to cut out the noise and ask what’s really important.
I hope that man feels like he is making an impact even when we don’t stop to acknowledge the person comparing our face to our ID photo. I hope we can all remember the lives around us and be awed by the stories in the world. When I need a boost in morale at work, I hope I can picture that man’s smiling face as he slid the neat bundle of my name tag, credit card, and police report back to me and say, “You’re all set.”
“Thank you,” I said, and I hope that he knows I meant for much more than helping me through security. “Take care,” I added, giving him one last look. He smiled a sincerely happy, and not mournful, smile.