Within six months, Eva had regained her strength sufficient to begin dancing again. However, she now was driven like never before. She committed herself to dance every day except Sundays. Her passion only grew with time. Her mother made sure that she balanced her school work and what other activities she could convince Eva to participate in. But she seemed a ‘fish out of water’ anywhere else but the studio. Here she was the happiest. Her talent, rather gift for dance, became evident, not only to her own teachers, but regionally. Eventually, at the young age of 18, she was asked to join the Pacific Northwest Ballet Company. No one worked harder than Eva. Yet, no one could have enjoyed themselves more. When she was dancing, she became lost in her real self. She could express in form and motion what she could never find in words. She somehow felt the drive to fill a lifetime of desire in a few short years. She did just that.
Arthur knew that he did not have much time left. But he had few regrets. The one that did surface on occasion was that he would not be able to see his grandchildren grow to adulthood. He kept up on their progress. Mark was an excellent student and, like his father, was drawn to sports. He played Little League baseball and was the short-stop on his middle school team. Arthur was especially proud of Eva’s accomplishments in dance. He tried to go to every recital that his work schedule allowed.
Work; Arthur buried himself in work. It was who he was. It was what he knew. Some people, with the realization that they had only two years to live, would quit their job and attempt to fill their lives with as many extraordinary experiences as they could, travelling, skydiving, bungee jumping , etc… Things that they had meant to do for years, but had ‘put off’ because they were always too busy with the mundane. Arthur was content to work. He had already passed through more extraordinary experiences than he cared to remember. People still needed him; and he needed them to need him.
It was a little more than a year since he had added to Eva’s life when a stranger walked into his shop. Arthur, not looking up, said he’d be with him in a minute, as he put the last screw in the air filter casing on an old roto-tiller. He got up, wiped his hand ritualistically on an oily rag and approached the service counter. The man was older, older than Arthur by a number of years, but Arthur could not guess his age because of the youthful look in his eyes. His eyes; there was something familiar about his eyes. Arthur searched his memory for some glimpse of recognition but before he could do this the man exclaimed, “Arthur, it is so good to finally meet you,” And extended his hand to shake Arthur’s. Arthur, somewhat embarrassed as he stole a quick glance at his greasy hand, hesitated as he raised it. The man noticing his hesitation, with firm resolve, reached forward and grabbed it with both of his hands and only then said two words. “Thank you.” Arthur felt it immediately. He knew the sensation only so well, but had never sensed it in reverse. It was as if the river that had been carrying him for years was now flowing upstream. Arthur looked down at hand held firmly in the stranger’s hands, then, slowly he looked up into the stranger’s eyes and only now recognized him. With tears blurring his vision, he saw those eyes; that were his eyes, also mirrored with tears.
Arthur was speechless. The man, continuing to grasp his hand, finally broke the silence. “Arthur, as I am sure that you now realize, we possess the same …. ability.” He faltered on the word ‘ability’ which Arthur, only so well, understood. “You now stand there as shocked as I was when you gave me such a gift so many years ago in the hospital. For years, I tried to understand why you did it. How could you give so much to a total stranger, without even any explanation of who I was or how I was suffering, but you did. Your reason still remains a mystery to me; however, I am resolved to leave it as such.” He motioned to two wooden chairs next to the door and they both sat, positioning their chair to face each other. He continued, “I, like you, knew when I was going to die. It is never exactly seven years, but occurs usually within a month.” He added, “Possibly, you already know this.” He continued, “When you found me, however, I was terrified and angry because I still needed to live for a long time. That day in the hospital was not my time, I knew that I still had a few years, but that wasn’t enough.” The man paused a moment as if to consider the best way to proceed. “I have a son, had a son,” he corrected. “He had sustained a closed head injury in the war and could not care for himself. I was his sole caretaker. There was no one else.” Tears again filled his eyes. “You see, I could not die, I had to be there for him.” He took Arthur’s hand again and continued, “You gave me the time I needed. Without knowing why, you gave it to me.” The stranger’s eyes silently conveyed a gratitude beyond words.
“I have suffered with COPD, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease for many years. That day that you saw me in the hospital was from a particularly bad exacerbation. After you left, however, I recovered quickly, to the amazement of my doctors. I returned home to care for my son and continued to do so until his death 6 months ago. Without your gift, I could not have been there for him. I have spent the last five months looking for you; to thank you with the only gift that I had left. The gift of time.” He stopped and with a look of genuine satisfaction stated, “I have given you all the time that I have.”
Then the question came to Arthur’s mind. The question that he could never ask before because of the certitude of its answer. Since he was 21, Arthur had known the approximate day of his death. Now, for a brief moment, he experienced uncertainty. He had no idea how much time this man had given him. Torn between the relief of uncertainty and the habit of having known he struggled to ask and finally blurted, “How long? The man, understanding their lifelong shared dilemma, their gift that remained a curse to the giver said with a wry smile, “More than a few years, but less than seven.” And, in so doing, magnified his gift to include uncertainty.
Arthur was now just like everyone else; ignorant to the length of his life. In that moment he felt a freedom that he could not even remember having felt before. He audibly uttered a thank you. But the words fell flat compared to their intention. The man briefly shared a few other thoughts and insights that only he and Arthur would understand. Arthur, in turn, could voice his feelings about their shared ability and felt so relieved in doing so. An added gift was knowing that he was not alone. The fact that someone else had walked the path that he was on encouraged him. He would never feel alone again. And then, as suddenly as he had entered Arthur’s life, he stood, wished Arthur well, and was gone.
He stopped speaking and appeared to be lost in thought. There was a faint smile on his face as if he were remembering a cherished experience. In the silence, I wondered how many years had passed since this ‘reversal’ had occurred. There was no way to tell. The late afternoon sun still gave its warmth despite the occasional breeze. Hours had passed as he related this most extraordinary of stories. One could only wonder how it would end. But I felt that he had more to tell me, his audience of one. He had entrusted me with the story of his life; to not let it die with him.
He chuckled as the memory concluded and looked again at me and began, “It was only last year when I was able to see Eva perform as lead ballerina in the Pacific Northwest Ballet Company’s production of the Nutcracker. She was transcendent. It was the singular greatest moment of my life. She moved perfectly. Every moment of every day that she had prepared was fulfilled in that performance. In her lifts, gravity ceased. It was as if her partner was holding her down to keep her from flying. I sat mesmerized by her focus and form. But her presence was not at all technical; each moment was filled with emotion. I felt as if she were giving her whole life to us, to me; every sadness and every joy. I never felt more alive. That was the gift the he gave to me; to live to see her dance.”