At the beginning of a weekly pilgrimage to the grocery, my wife Julie insisted on going to a store other than the one we usually shop. She wanted a new hanging plant for the front porch, and a big grocery out by the interstate has a flower department that could put a fair-sized florist to shame. I nearly argued with her about going to that other place. What costs a hundred bucks there will almost always be ten dollars cheaper at our usual place, and besides, after years of shopping at Food Lion, I ve finally learned where everything is.
I held my peace though. Watching Julie fool with anything that grows from soil is a high pleasure, and ten bucks isn t a lot to give up if it makes happier the woman who has so enriched my life.
As it turned out, by going to this more expensive store where I can never find what I m looking for, I saw a miracle.
A real one.
I was rolling a cart down some aisle or other, wondering where among all those long unfamiliar paths the cat and dog food might be, when a youngish looking man in a wheel chair said, as I squeezed past, Hello, stranger.
I had not a clue who the guy was, and for a moment assumed he was just another of those overly-friendly types who howdies anyone who so much as glances looks in his direction. But there was a vague familiarity about the guy, and after looking him over one more time, something that made me wonder if the highly improbable might be true.
I doubled back and queried, Is that you, Billy?
It was my old friend Billy, clean-shaven and unponytailed from an overlong stay in several hospitals. The lack of hair and beard is why I didn't recognize him. He looked ten or fifteen years younger without the shoulder-length cut I remembered from the last time I d seen him.
Billy is someone I had learned to admire tremendously after spending a couple nights a week with him in a classroom for two years. A retired Air Force career man, he was one of the first people to sign up when I began teaching writing workshops in the local university s Continuing Education department.
He s one of the most gifted natural poets I ve ever encountered. Billy s got no formal training as a writer, but nevertheless, he has a profound grasp of what poetry ought to be. He and his wife live in the next county east of Rowan, but he was a regular in workshops he drove thirty miles to reach. Then one winter, after two years of steady attendance, Billy stopped showing up.
For a couple of weeks I wondered what had happened, thought maybe Billy had decided he d outgrown the workshops. But I figured he would surely have told me if he was going to quit. By and by I got in touch with his family.
And heard some awful news.
On his way to work one icy morning, Billy misjudged a curve and rammed a tree with his car. When I called, he was still in a coma, and his doctors had little confidence he d live. Worse, if Billy did survive the crash, the professionals were suggesting he might not be much more than a lump of semiconscious meat the rest of his life.
A few weeks later Billy s family let me know he d come out of the coma, but there was no reason to believe his wonderfully bright and perceptive mind, a mind capable of drawing such fine word pictures, would ever be the same.
Truly, the world seemed darker without Billy s creativity in it, without more of his poetry to read. I don t mind admitting I shed a few tears, thinking about the loss.
But in the course of our little reunion at the grocery, Billy made it clear if he ever was out of the world, he s for sure back in it now.
We talked about the workshops, and discussed one of his poems that especially impressed me. I repeated one more time my sense he needs to submit some of his work for publication, and confessed that while he was laid out in the hospital I'd come close to asking his wife for permission to send off a few things for him.
Billy s back, and he s already plotting a return to the workshops "someday soon."
Miracle doesn't seem to be too strong a word...
And the next time my wife wants to go to that other store, we ll give it a shot.
No telling who we'll run into.