As we made our way through the crowded downtown, Missy’s face lit up. She quickly waved, calling to a stranger in the crowd.
Did I say stranger? In moments, the excited woman had seen us, returned the wave, and come over to give an ecstatic Missy her hug.
“I used to work with her in school,” the woman said, looking down at the small figure in the wheelchair (our choice for long-distance travel). “But that was .. how old is she? … at least 27 years ago.”
Twenty-seven years ago. And Missy remembered her like yesterday.
I shouldn’t be surprised anymore.
Traveling with my disabled friend and ward gives me a taste of what true celebrity is like. I mean, I’m reasonably well known through this column. But everybody knows Missy. And she always knows them. Always.
A trip downtown can quickly become a chorus of that, especially at big events like Festival on Main. We’ll turn around and meet her old softball coach. Or a woman she met at the therapy pool. Or her long-standing “boyfriend,” a guy she’s known since they were in Tiny Tim together.
Mind you, she’ll approach and charm total strangers, too. But once she’s met them, she doesn’t forget them. There’s that look of mutual recognition, the surprise on the other person’s face, the beaming glee on hers.
“Well, hey, Miss! How are you?”
It’s a gift I kind of envy, along with her bump of direction. Travel through Longmont and she’ll quickly point the way to the spots important to her – her day program, her chiropractor’ office, the bowling alley, her favorite restaurant. Her speech may be infrequent and her steps slow, but the pointing finger is absolutely certain.
“Look over the’e!”
As I write it out, I realize how much sense that makes. It’s the same gift. Every face she knows, every place she indicates, is something or someone she cares about. And what she cares about, she doesn’t forget.
In nearly 41 years, that adds up to an awful lot of caring.
I wonder how many don’t see that power? How many just see the small, slight figure with the 100-watt smile and walk past, figuring they’ve summed her up in a glance? A lot of us do that as we go through our day, seeing glimpses and shorthands rather than people.
It’s understandable; the day is long and life is busy. But it becomes inexcusable when that shorthand becomes our sole perception of the world, an over-simplified shadow play of “theys” and “thems” and “those peoples.”
Watch any kind of social media after a major event – the Ferguson conflict, say, or a major immigration incident – and you’ll see it happen. At least half the commenters will have read no more than the headline. Many of the rest will have gone just far enough to fit things into the Procrustean bed of their expectations, whether the usual labels make sense or not.
That’s no way to learn. Or to live.
Truth is complicated. And messy. There are lives and struggles and facets and contexts we know nothing about, that lie hidden to the first glance or even sometimes the seventh. To ignore that is to take the easy way out, to live among stereotypes instead of people.
To avoid having to care.
I don’t mean to suggest that we’re all monsters. This often isn’t a reflex born of cruelty, but of haste and indifference. But reflexes can be retrained. In fact, that’s often a requirement to do anything useful with them.
Thanks to Missy, I’ve got my training regimen. Never forget those you care about. Always be quick to expand that category. And never assume that the first impression is the only one.
Meanwhile, I’d better go find my sunglasses.
After all, I’m traveling with a celebrity these days.