EVERY LIFE MATTERS

Emma Michaelson brushed a strand of red hair from her face and looked at her watch. It had been just over thirty minutes since she started waiting for a table at the crowded restaurant. If only she’d known there was a large convention in town, she wouldn’t have come on this particular night.

The popular establishment was bursting with customers so there was nothing she could do but be patient. Thankfully, she had been able to sit and fold her walker so it wouldn’t be in anyone’s way. With her condition, she certainly couldn’t have stood for a half hour. But now all the seating was taken in the waiting area, and new arrivals were forced to stand.

A few more minutes went by and then the door opened and a person stepped in who captured the attention of everyone. He was an elderly man, bent by age, who moved in such a slow deliberate way that it was obvious his mobility was an issue. But the reason every head had turned when he walked through the door was because the man was blind. He was wearing dark glasses, and he was holding a white cane that he carefully used to guide his steps.

He slowly made his way up to the front, and as he got closer, Emma noticed some significant scarring on the right side of his face. The hostess asked how many were in his party, and when he explained he would be dining alone, he was told it would be a one hour wait. Emma watched his shoulders slump in disappointment. He politely thanked her but said he couldn’t stay. Just as he turned to leave, the hostess called out Emma’s name to let her know her table was ready.

Emma unfolded her walker and carefully stood up. She watched as the man started to head for the door, and then suddenly she had an idea. She just hoped it wouldn’t offend all of those who had been patiently waiting for a table.

Emma turned to the hostess and said, “I know I told you I would be eating alone, but would it be okay if I invited a guest.” She nodded towards the man who was sweeping the floor with his cane.

The hostess could not help but smile. “I think that’s a wonderful idea. It would be no problem at all to seat you together.”

“Thank you.”

Emma turned her walker, and as every person in the waiting area watched, she moved as quickly as she could to catch up to the man.

When she got close enough, she discreetly called out to him. “Excuse me, Sir.”

The gentleman had no idea she was talking to him so he did not respond.

Just as he reached the door she got to his side. “Sir, I don’t mean to bother you, but I want to ask you a question.”

The elderly man was startled, but he turned in her direction. “Yes, okay. What can I do for you?”

Emma could feel every eye on her, and she did not want to embarrass him, but she genuinely wanted him to enjoy a meal without any more hassle.

As softly as she could and still be heard, she said, “First, let me introduce myself. My name is Emma Michaelson. I was going to be dining alone tonight, and they just informed me that my table is ready. I was wondering if you would like to join me. I would love to have some company, and you wouldn’t have to go somewhere else.”

The man smiled. “That is very kind of you. But are you sure you wouldn’t mind? I wouldn’t want to intrude on your evening.”

“I promise, you would not be intruding. I get tired of eating alone – but, I think it’s only fair to warn you, I’m quite a talker.”

The man chuckled. “I’m glad to hear that because I’m a good listener” He hesitated for just a moment and then said, “I gratefully accept your offer.”

“Oh, that is terrific!”

The two of them turned and slowly headed back to the front as everyone present broke into smiles.

Among the people watching was a dignified African-American man dressed in an expensive suit standing off to the side. None of the customers had any idea that his name was Cameron Foster and that he was the owner of the restaurant. He had stood silently and watched the kindness that had just unfolded with great interest.

The hostess stepped over to Mr. Foster. “Sir, did you just see what happened?”

Mr. Foster smiled. “Yes, I did, but I’m not surprised. I know that woman, and she is capable of incredible compassion.”

“You know her?”

“Yes, but it was a long time ago. There is no reason she would still remember me – but I will never forget her.”

After standing together in silence for a few moments, the hostess was surprised when Mr. Foster said, “That woman and her guest are not paying for anything tonight. It’s all on the house. And I would like for Laura Witt to be their server, even if they are seated out of her area. Whatever their total bill is, please double that amount and give it to Laura as a tip and then put an additional twenty percent into the general collection for all of the other wait staff to split.”

The hostess understood. Laura was battling cancer, and her medical bills were astronomical. She had just finished her latest round of chemotherapy treatments and, even though she was struggling with her health, she worked Monday through Friday at the restaurant, and then volunteered on the weekends with an organization that assisted individuals going through cancer treatment.

The hostess smiled. “You are a very generous person.”

Mr. Foster nodded. “I have good reason to be. And, after all, what good is having money if you can’t use it to help people?”

Once the woman and her guest made it back to the front, the hostess showed them to their table. She nodded at Emma as she gave her both menus.

After his cane was secured, the man turned in Emma’s direction and extended his right hand. “I’m sorry. I haven’t even introduced myself. My name is Henry Newsome. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Emma.”

They shook hands, and Emma said, “It is nice to meet you too, Henry. Have you ever been to this restaurant?”

“No, I haven’t. However, I’d heard so many good things about it, I wanted to give it a try. But, apparently, everyone else had the same idea tonight.”

“Yes, I’ve been here several times, but it’s never been this crowded before.”

Just then their waitress arrived. To Emma, she appeared to be in her early forties, but her appearance was striking. Her hair was less than a half-inch long, and she was extremely pale and gaunt with a long surgical scar visible on the right side of her head above her ear. Emma was touched that even though this person was obviously dealing with a serious illness she still found the strength and will to work. She made a mental note to leave as large a tip as she could possibly afford. But whatever was happening to the woman physically had no effect on her personality. She was bubbly and engaging.

“Good evening, and thank you for dining with us! My name is Laura, and I’ll be your server this evening. What could I get you to drink?”

Emma turned to Henry. “What would you like?”

Henry thought for a moment. “I believe I will have ice tea. Unsweetened, please.”

Emma smiled at the waitress. “And I’ll have sweet tea.”

Laura nodded and then gently asked, “Sir, would you like assistance with our menu?”

Emma spoke up. “I believe we can take care of that – but thank you for asking.”

“Yes, thank you,”  Henry added.

“No problem.” Laura left to get their drinks. 

“Were you interested in any particular type of food tonight, Henry?”

“Yes, I was thinking about a nice steak.”

“All right.” Emma picked up a menu. “Let me take a look. They’ve got a ribeye, a T-bone, and a New York strip.”

“Hmmmmm. That T-bone sounds good.”

“It comes with a baked potato, your choice of one other vegetable, and a salad. And, of course, we get bread.”

Henry smiled. “I’m really hungry. That will be perfect.”

“Now that you mention it, a steak does sound good. I think I’ll try the ribeye. I also want to point out that they have wonderful desserts.”

“Well, I might just have to try one……Listen, I want to thank you again for inviting me to dine with you. I wasn’t sure where to go when I found out they were so busy.”

“You are very welcome.”

“I hope you don’t mind, but I am curious about why you made such a considerate offer……Was it, by chance, because I am blind?”

Emma wanted to be honest with him. “Yes, that was part of it, but it was also your age and the fact that it appeared you might have some mobility issues. But I have to admit that I am very sensitive when I encounter someone with a disability.”

Without hesitating he asked, “Is that because you have a disability?”

Emma was amazed. “How did you know that?”

“I suspected it might be a possibility.”

“But what tipped you off.”

Henry smiled. “Your walker has a slight squeak.”

Emma laughed. “I guess I’m so used to it that I don’t even hear it anymore.”

Henry liked the sound of her laugh. It was real and unpretentious. “That is why I accepted your invitation. If I thought someone had offered just because they felt sorry for me or something I probably would’ve declined. But I realized you might be asking for a different reason.”

“You are right about everything. I have a neurological disorder that has weakened my legs, and I have to support myself with a walker to get around. For longer distances, I use a wheelchair. I was fortunate when I got here that I had a place to sit while I waited.”

Henry smiled. “I guess we have something in common.”

Emma sighed. “I suppose that’s true.”

Laura arrived with their drinks and cheerfully took their order.

After she left, Henry hesitantly said, “You mentioned that your disability is neurological.”

Emma usually felt uncomfortable talking about her health issues because she was afraid it made her sound like she was complaining and that was the last thing she wanted to do. But she realized that if anyone could understand the challenges of living with a disability it was Henry. “Yes, that’s right. Twenty-seven years ago, when I was twenty-three, I was diagnosed with transverse myelitis.”

Henry said, “I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of that.”

Emma laughed again. “Well, don’t feel bad. I’d never heard of it either. In fact, it is relatively rare. What happened was, I tried to get out of bed one morning, and my legs didn’t want to work. Over the next few hours, the symptoms just got worse and worse. It was scary because the day before, I felt fine – but then suddenly without warning, it just happened. The official diagnosis is an inflammation of the spinal cord, which for me meant that I would need to learn to live with severe weakness in both legs. Fortunately, for some people, the effects are not permanent – but for me they are.”

“Do they know what caused it?”

“Actually, there are many different causes, but in my case, I had a severe bout of influenza, and they suspected that was the culprit. It took a lot of physical therapy to be able to walk again.”

They chatted for a few more minutes and then Laura brought their salads and a platter of bread.

After she was gone Emma softly said, “I believe our waitress is going through some challenges herself.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yes, based on her appearance, she has probably gone through chemotherapy.”

“That is surprising to me. I would not have known just based on the sound of her voice. She seems very upbeat and pleasant. I guess it goes to show that people can deal almost anything with the right attitude. Obviously, that is true for you.”

Emma was flattered. “I could certainly say the same about you, Henry.”

The elderly man put his head down. “Unfortunately, it was not always that way. Many years went by before I could accept my blindness because of the circumstances that caused it.”

Emma was curious, but she didn’t feel like she had the right to press him on the details. However, she was relieved when he continued.

“I lost my sight during the Korean War in 1952. I had just turned twenty-one.” He paused for a moment to collect himself. “There were three of us in an entrenched defensive position. I’ve got to tell you; those two guys meant the world to me because we had literally gone through hell together.

“On that particular day, it had been a long struggle to withstand the North Koreans. They would attack us in waves, but our line held. Finally, they advanced again and one enemy soldier got close enough to throw a grenade. Before we could react, it exploded right on top of us. I took shrapnel to the face but my two buddies did not survive.”

Emma could not imagine living through something like that. “I am so sorry.”

Henry took a deep breath. “Tragically, that’s what happens in war. Some live, and some die. But it took me years to get over the guilt of being the only one to survive.”

Emma said, “I have often thought about how random it is that something happens to one person but not to another.”

Henry nodded. “I certainly know what you mean. Most people never stop to think about what it would be like to have a disability.”

“That’s true. In fact, most automatically assume you are born with a physical or intellectual challenge – but as we know that is not always the way it happens.”

“Yes, unfortunately, your life can change in a heartbeat.”

“So, what did you do after you recovered from your injuries?”

I spent my life working with organizations who assisted wounded veterans. I soon discovered that the physical injuries were easier to deal with than the psychological trauma. Too often the mental stress of war was overlooked.”

Over the next few minutes the conversation drifted to less serious topics, and before long, Laura brought them their food.

As she set each plate in front of them Laura said, “Please let me know if your steak is not cooked the way you want it.”

Emma looked up at her and could see the weariness etched in the waitress’ face. “Thank you, Laura. Everything looks delicious.”

Although she was exhausted, she did her best to hide it. “I’ll be back soon to check on you.”

As Henry and Emma ate their dinner, they continued to talk openly about their lives.

Henry admitted, “I don’t eat out that often since my wife passed away.”

“I’m so sorry. How long were you married?”

With a slight catch in his voice, he said, “Sixty-three years.”

“Oh, my God! I think long marriages are beautiful.”

“You’re right. It was beautiful. But I lost Sharon almost a year ago. She was an amazing person. We met after I came home from the war, and we got married two years later.

“My blindness was not an issue for her; however, her parents didn’t approve, and for the rest of their lives, they never accepted me. It broke her heart that they couldn’t appreciate how much we loved each other, but they did not think of me as a person – just as a man who couldn’t see.”

“That is impossible to understand.”

“What about you? Are you married?”

Henry was unaware of the sadness that clouded Emma’s face. “Almost but not quite……I was engaged when I was diagnosed. I thought he believed in ‘for better or worse’ but I was wrong. It didn’t take him long to decide that he didn’t want to have a wife with a disability.”

“That is terrible. I’m sorry you had to go through that.”

“In the long run, I guess it was better to find out what kind of person he really was before we got married.”

“Well, I don’t want to make excuses for Sharon’s parents – but it was a different time back then. Fortunately, people are finally becoming a little more accepting of those who have challenges.”

“Thank goodness! But it does seem like each time something new occurs that people are not familiar with or don’t understand, their first reaction is to jump to unfair conclusions that are based on fear instead of facts.”

Henry was curious, “You sound like you have experience regarding that type of situation.”

“Sadly, I do. For the last twenty-eight years, I have worked with HIV patients. In the beginning, it was shocking how these individuals were shunned by society. Sometimes even their families turned on them. The discrimination was absolutely heartbreaking. But, of course, in the early years, the real tragedy was the frightening number of patients who did not survive.”

“That kind of work must have taken a toll on you both mentally and emotionally.”

“It did – but in another way, it actually helped me cope with my own disorder. After seeing so much death and suffering, it made my challenges seem far less severe. It prevented me from feeling sorry for myself.”

“I know exactly what you mean. I lost my eyesight, but my two buddies lost their lives. How could I feel like a victim? My life was spared. I had nothing to complain about.”

“That’s right……So here we are, two people each living with a physical disability and yet we know we are blessed.

“That’s true.”

Emma shook her head. “No matter what my situation happens to be, I can always look around and see others dealing with difficulties that make mine seem insignificant. Every day the patients I work with amaze me with their attitudes. Even Laura, our waitress tonight, is a good example. She must be a very courageous person. I feel like I should be waiting on her instead of her waiting on me.”

Henry smiled. He couldn’t remember ever meeting a person who seemed as caring and compassionate as Emma.

They continued to eat and chat until Emma finally pushed her plate away and groaned. “I am so full I can’t eat another bite. How was your steak? Mine was delicious.”

“Same here. It was a wonderful meal with wonderful company.”

Emma said, “I’m so glad we met tonight! This turned out to be a lovely evening.”

Just as Henry was about to agree, Laura stepped over to their table and cheerfully asked, “Did we leave room for dessert?”

Emma took a deep breath. “I just can’t.”

Henry said, “I’m afraid I’m too full.”

Laura made an offer. “Why don’t you each pick out something and I’ll box it up to go. They’re complimentary so you might as well enjoy them.”

Emma was caught off guard. “I’m sorry. Did you say they are complimentary?”

Laura smiled warmly. “Yes! Your entire meal has been paid for.”

“By who?” Henry asked.

“The owner of the restaurant. He was watching earlier, and he saw how you two ended up dining together so he wanted to pay for your dinner.”

Emma said, “If he is still here, could we have a word with him?”

“Certainly.  I’ll bring him over.”

After Laura left, Henry said, “It is a nice gesture, but again I hope this isn’t just because we use a walker and a cane. I don’t want to be treated any differently than anybody else.”

“Me either. I don’t want to be rude about it, but this makes me feel uncomfortable.”

“Absolutely.”

They only had to wait a brief time before Laura and Mr. Foster came into view.

When Emma turned and saw who the owner was, her heart skipped a beat. She could scarcely believe her eyes, and without thinking, she exclaimed, “Oh my God!!”

Her reaction surprised Henry. “What’s wrong?”

“I know that man!! The owner is Cameron Foster!”

Henry was confused, but the excitement in Emma’s voice made him eager to find out what was going on.

As they got closer, Emma grabbed the edge of the table and struggled to her feet. Her face was beaming, and she could hardly contain her emotions.

When the two of them walked up, Emma held out her arms for a hug. “Cameron !! I can’t believe it’s you!”

With his eyes stinging, Cameron Foster hugged the woman he hadn’t seen in more than twenty-five years. He whispered to her, “I didn’t think you would recognize me after all this time.”

“I would never forget you.”

Although they were extremely curious, Henry and Laura waited patiently to find out how they knew each other.

Finally, Mr. Foster stepped back and held Emma out at arm’s length. “You look exactly the same. You haven’t changed a bit.”

Emma smiled. “Well, you sure have. You look so strong and fit!”

Mr. Foster nodded. “I feel good. My health has been excellent.”

Suddenly Emma remembered that not everyone knew what was happening. “Henry, I want to introduce you to Cameron Foster. A dear friend from years ago. Cameron, this Henry Newsome, a new friend I made tonight.”

Henry extended his right hand and they shook. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Foster.”

“The pleasure is all mine, Sir. I’m sorry you faced a long wait this evening, but it looks like it turned out well.”

“Oh, there’s no need to apologize for being successful – and I can understand why you are. Both the food and the service were outstanding.”

Emma agreed. “They certainly were.”

Suddenly, Mr. Foster had an idea. “Would you two care if Laura and I joined you for a few minutes?”

“If Henry doesn’t mind, that would be wonderful!” Emma exclaimed.

Henry smiled broadly. “Yes! Please join us.”

Mr. Foster called the hostess over and explained that Laura was going to take an extended break and that others would need to cover for her.

They took their seats, and Henry couldn’t wait any longer to ask the question. “So how do you two know each other?”

Emma hesitated not knowing if it was something Cameron was comfortable talking about – but the owner did not hesitate at all. In a voice filled with respect, he said, “Emma helped save my life.”

Laura was stunned. “What?!”

Mr. Foster took a look around the table and began his explanation. “I first met Emma twenty-six years ago when I was very sick.”

Henry immediately realized where this was going – but Laura had no idea.

The grateful owner continued. “I had just recently been diagnosed with Aids. As a gay black man in that time period, my options were limited. I ended up at a clinic in the inner city where I met Emma Michaelson. For the next eighteen months, she helped take care of me.

“It was very frightening because there were periods where I was not sure I was going to live. But she always remained by my side refusing to give up on me.”

Mr. Foster reached over and patted her hand. “In the very worst of times – Emma was my angel.”

Listening to her former patient brought tears to Emma’s eyes as she thought back to those horrific days when so many were desperately sick but were not receiving the care they deserved.

Mr. Foster said, “If I were to show you a photo of what I looked like back then, I would be unrecognizable. I eventually lost almost sixty pounds and my body was covered with sores and lesions, but that did not deter Emma. She treated me with compassion and, most importantly, with dignity at a time when I needed it most.

“And she did that while she was still learning how to deal with her own physical issues. She had just been diagnosed a short time before I met her. But never once did I ever hear her talk about her problems, let alone complain. Her cheerful upbeat attitude was something you could count on day in and out. However, because she cared so deeply, I watched her become hopelessly distraught each time she lost a patient – and tragically, that happened far too often in those days.

“But, thankfully, a multidrug therapy was eventually developed and those of us who were critically ill at least had a chance.”

Henry was shocked. “That is remarkable. And to meet again after so many years.”

Suddenly everyone realized that Laura was softly crying.

Mr. Foster turned to her. “Are you okay?”

She wiped her eyes and smiled. “Now it all makes sense.”

Emma didn’t understand. “What do you mean, Laura?”

Laura was happy to explain. “My cancer was diagnosed ten months ago. And since then, Mr. Foster has been so kind and considerate. I could never understand why he went to such great lengths to help someone like me. I’m just a waitress. I’m no one special and yet even when I was too weak from my treatments to work, he kept paying me. I never missed a paycheck. And he and the other wait staff made sure that I shared equally in the tips whether I had earned them or not.

“Every time I was in the hospital, he visited me and brought gifts and flowers. But when……” her voice choked with emotion forcing Laura to pause for a moment to compose herself. “When I got behind on my rent because of my medical expenses, Mr. Foster stepped in and paid all of it so I wouldn’t lose my home. But then I found out from my landlord that he had also paid my rent for the next year. I just couldn’t understand it – but I do now.”

Mr. Foster looked at Laura and smiled. “I was just paying forward the kindness that Emma had shown me all those years ago. I could see myself in you, and I knew what a difference it meant to me to have someone on my side that I could count on.”

Laura shook her head. “You have no idea what it has meant to me to be treated like I mattered.”

Mr. Foster said, “You do matter, Laura. That is what I learned all those years ago from Emma; every life matters. Whatever a person’s disease, disorder, or disability happens to be, it does not alter who they are, and, therefore, it does not alter their right to be treated with dignity and respect.”

Henry shook his head. “This has been an incredible evening. It is such a good feeling to know that there is still such kindness in the world. So often all we hear about are the negative things, but tonight has been a positive experience ever since I walked through the door. Listening to all of you has warmed my heart. Thank you for sharing your stories.”

Over the next hour, four people of different genders, ages, and ethnicities sat at a restaurant table and poured out their hearts to old and new friends who could truly understand what they had experienced in life.

Each one had been challenged in their own way, but they had found the strength and resolve to face their issues with courage and grace. Just as importantly, they refused to be consumed by self-pity and instead they chose to reach out and use their compassion to help others.

Ultimately, it was their willingness to look beyond themselves and to focus on those who were vulnerable and in need that defined their humanity.

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