The Only Thing That Really Matters
Ghostwriter, speaker, columnist for Inc.com
Who am I?
I'm the guy who always buys something from the Schwann's driver because I made a purchase the first time he knocked on our door... and now I don't know how to say no.
I'm the guy who buys chocolate-covered pretzels at a school fundraiser... because I can't look a kid in the eye and say no.
I'm the guy who couldn't walk past a run-down country store when its elderly owner caught my eye through the window... because walking by was a form of rejection I couldn't bear to inflict.
So I opened the screen door and stepped inside.
I smiled, said, "Evening," and glanced around: Metal cabinets, creaky wooden floors, fluorescent lights, scratched yet spotless windows, shelves filled with an eclectic mix of canned goods and boxed goods and auto supplies... and that lingering odor of fried food that always manages to smell a couple days old in small town diners.
So I headed towards the candy section. Chewing gum is always a safe choice.
Before I got far he said, "I have a few pieces of chicken left and some mashed potatoes," his gravelly voice almost but not quite masking an underlying trace of earnestness and hope.
Who am I? I'm the guy who didn't want to... but still said, "Hey, that sounds great." I don't like gravy but he was clearly proud of his – he told me he made it the way his mother used to make it – so I said yes to the gravy, too.
As it turned out his mother's gravy was decent. Not great, because this is not that kind of story, but decent.
I sat and ate as he wiped the counter. "You know, it's actually past my closing time," he said. "Decided to stay open a little longer. Kind of special."
"Oh really?" I said. "Why's that?"
"Today's my last day. I'm closing my store and retiring."
"Hey, congratulations," I said, but when his smile faded I thought I had said the wrong thing.
"Well, I suppose so," he said. "Been here a long time. Done this for 34 years. Didn't turn out quite like I hoped, but what the heck, I can't complain."
I told him I would leave so he could close but he waved that suggestion away and we talked for a while. At first I thought he seemed lonely, but then I realized I had him wrong.
Who was he?
He was a man who liked when families stopped in on their way home from church; he wanted to attend but couldn't afford to close his store. He was a man who knew hundreds of people but few of them closely, a situation gratifying yet lonely in almost equal measure.
He was a man who still made his mother's gravy... because then it felt a part of her was still alive.
I'd like to say we became lifelong friends but this is not that kind of story either. Still, I did add a small link to his very long chain of connections with strangers and customers and friends, and that was enough.
We walked out the door together. He closed and locked it behind us. Mine was the only car in front of the store so I asked if he needed a ride somewhere.
"Nah," he said. He pointed down the street. "See all those lights? That's the retirement party folks are having for me. Decided to make 'em wait. Spent years waiting on other people. About time they had to wait on me."
He smiled. We shook hands and he shuffled away. I saw neither eagerness nor hesitation in his step; just a calm acceptance of whatever came next. Things change, and that's okay.
This is who he was: A man who owned a small store and never built a huge business... but did build a fulfilling life.
Someday, at some point, every door is closed, every key turned for the last time.
And that's why, when you think about it, the life we build along the way is the only thing that really matters.
Edited by: Lawyer Asad