On Saturday, after helping Mary put in at the Trail of Tears boat launch, I drove down to Cape Girardeau along the back roads, arriving in this cool old town and finding a wifi cafe without even using my iPhone to look for it. As I walked up, I was greeted by Paul, who was sitting out front finishing his morning coffee. He asked a few questions about my trip and then offered to buy me a coffee and talk awhile. Paul, like Galen a few days ago, is an enviably hale octogenarian: he goes to the gym every day, and is clearly doing just fine physically. He grew up in Worcester, MA, lived in California (both Oakland and Riverside), and came here with his wife, who had returned to the area to care for her parents, and has now herself died as well. Paul is lonely enough that our conversation dispensed with small talk almost immediately. He told me that he’s been contemplating suicide, that he has figured out how he wants to do it, but he hasn’t yet gotten up the courage: he had thought 9/9/09 would have been a good day for it, but he somehow couldn’t manage it. He told me he’s done the things he wanted to do in his life, has traveled and seen the world, and he doesn’t know why he should keep living. He described going to the cemetery and seeing a headstone with some name on it, a name that means nothing to him, and wondering what life is for, why it matters at all that any one person lives.
It was hard going, this conversation, and I have been thinking about Paul ever since I met him. There was a terrible disjunction between the grief and depression he was expressing and the jaunty engaged warmth of his manner. The guy is taking computer classes, considering moving to Florida, and buying coffee for strangers, along with planning suicide! I invited him to join me on my journey, utterly seriously: he could drive the car, he wouldn’t have to paddle (although he looked like he could probably manage the kayak also!) And I told him I would take him with me in any case, hold him in my heart as I went, and that matters to me, even if it seems meaningless to him. I am afraid I didn’t do much for Paul, and I very much regret not being able to do more. Could I have described the birds flying yesterday — how beautiful and precious it was to watch them wheel and turn against the silvered clouds — in such a way as to rescue Paul from his darkness?
While this very conversation was taking place, there was a whole table of folks listening to a man hold forth about his own powerboat journey down the river. A grizzled beefy guy in a fisherman’s sweater and overalls, who looked every inch the seafaring captain of legend, there was something about the way he carried himself, the way he talked without listening, that felt like the perfect object lesson in how I do not want to behave — in talking about my own journey or about anything else.
How does one authentically share with others the gifts one has been given without becoming a blustering blowhard like this guy seemed to be? Is it possible to convert others without evangelizing them? Is it aggressive arrogance on my part, an unseemly missionary urge, to believe that Paul’s life would be better if I could authentically communicate my experiences and perspectives to him? My insights might not save him, whatever that means, but at least they might give him succor?