My secretary was out to lunch this afternoon when the man tentatively poked his head in my office.
"I didn't see anyone out there," he said, referring to the empty outer office.
I usually hear her door open and close but he'd been quiet, or maybe I'd been concentrating too hard. (Shut up. It happens.)
He was in his 70s I would say, with snow white hair and an earnest face that peered at me now with very blue eyes.
"How can I help you?" I asked. Something about his hesitant demeanor made me ask almost gently, with more caution than pep.
"Well, I used to work here, long ago. And I know *Joe Allen (*fake name for a man who works with my company who is also a pastor). He married me and my wife. He did my wife's funeral. I know that he's been very sick and I am trying to find out how he's doing. Cause I haven't heard anything lately."
I paused for a moment, looking into a face full of deep concern.
"I see," I said, still hesitating a little. There was no way around this. "Joe himself sent us an e-mail just this past Sunday," I began. "The cancer is back and the doctor has said that given the current circumstances, the average is about 10 months. "
William visibly reacted, his eyes welling up and his mouth pulling down in a hard quiver. My impulse was to come around my desk and pat him or hug him even, this grandfatherly man, but he was trying to recover himself so I stayed put.
"He also said he's leaving town to get a second opinion, and will be back in touch soon," I added, making the news more open-ended I hoped, and giving him a few more beats that were filled with something other than a loud, sad silence.
"I'm so sorry," I said. "Joe is truly a wonderful man. We've been so blessed to have him here, working with us."
"Yes. He is a good, good man," William quietly agreed.
"May I take your number or your address and let you know when we hear more?" I offered.
He hesitated, maybe thinking it was too much to ask, and started to decline my offer.
"It's no problem at all," I interrupted. "I'd be happy to let you know whenever we hear anything new."
He changed his mind, thanking me, and wrote his information down on my desk pad. I walked him to the door, he thanked me again, and I returned to my desk with a heavy heart.
The rest of the afternoon I wondered about William. Where did he go? Did he go straight back home? Was there someone there? Will he be able to say a prayer for his friend, or will he be like I am sometimes and just cry a prayer, knowing that God doesn't need spoken words to understand what constricts our hearts?
So, as it turns out today my job was a terrible one. I watched William take in my words and I saw the pain they caused. And in the silence that fell between us I prayed not only for Joe, but for William too.
Be nice to old people. It ain't easy.