It was that time of day, too late for lunch, too early for dinner, when the food court had plenty of empty tables and chairs, when Thomas, with his tray of tacos and a drink, approached a table with a young man who was visibly distraught with streaks of tears running down his cheeks.
“Mind if I join you,” asked Thomas.
The young man simply shrugged his shoulders without looking up.
Thomas sat down.
“Anything a stranger can help with,” he asked.
“The stranger can mind his own damn business and go sit somewhere else,” mumbled the young man.
“Yes, yes, he could,” responded Thomas. “It’s just that one day I was feeling sad, troubled and full of fear when a complete stranger helped me put things into perspective and find the courage to carry on and meet my challenges head on.”
“Not today, old man. Not today.”
“Ah, but, that’s where you’re wrong,” said Thomas. “It is today. See, you are that stranger. “
The young man looked up at Thomas for the first time as Thomas continued: “See, I just got some rather awful news from my doctor today. Seems I have an advanced form of cancer and, I’m afraid, the doctor tells me I’ve only got about six months to live. I have been delaying going home to tell my wife the sad news, walking around the mall feeling sorry for myself and cursing God for being so unfair. Then, I happened to see you and I thought to myself, ‘Thomas, you are seventy-two years old; you have lived a long, happy and rewarding life, you have nothing to be so sad about. Just look at that young man; who knows, he too might have the very same sort of bad news and yet he is so young; he hasn’t had the chance to live the wonderful life you have lived. It could be worse’.
“Seeing you helped me put my bad news into perspective and to come to the conclusion that I am not going to sulk and be sad and feel sorry for myself the next six months. No, I am going to make the most of what I have left and, in fact, I am going to fight this damn cancer and to hell with what the doctor says, I am going to get past this and win this battle.
“See, you are that stranger and today is that day. So, I just wanted to thank you for helping me. That’s all.”
The young man stared at Thomas for a while before stating, “I am a heroin addict.”
“Yeah?”, Thomas replied.
“Yeah. My parents and sisters were coming over to my apartment this morning to take me to rehab but I snuck out before they got there. I came here looking for my next fix but the little shit wouldn’t give me any because I have no money and already owe him too much.”
“Sounds awful,” Thomas offered.
“So, what now,” Thomas asked.
“I don’t know, you got any money?”
“Sorry, spent my last $5.00 on these tacos. Want one?”
“Sure, I’m starving,” replied the young man as he accepted a taco from Thomas.
“You know, you are lucky,” Thomas stated.
“Yeah,” the young man responded with some anger in his voice, “what part of my story sounds lucky to you?”
“The part about having parents and sisters who want to help you.”
Thomas continued, “You know, the thing about rehab is, you can always just drop out if the timing is not right for you. You give it a go and if you are not ready, you drop out and go back to being a junky until the next time.”
“Been there, done that,” said the young man.
“So,” asked Thomas, “why not give it another go this time?”
The young man just shrugged his shoulders.
“I’ll tell you what,” Thomas suggested, “I can’t put off going home and telling my wife the bad news any longer. Why don’t you call your parents and tell them where you are and I’ll call my wife and tell her I am on my way home. Both of us will start our battles right now, today. I’ll fight this damn cancer and you fight your addiction, then, six months from today we will meet up right here at this exact same spot, at this exact same time and see who has won their battle.”
Thomas took out his cell phone, opened his calendar app and said, “By my calculations, six months from today is July 20th. Perfect, moon walk day. We meet here on July 20th at 3:00 pm and share our stories.”
“Moon walk day?”, asked the young man.
“Yes,” said Thomas, “In 1969 Neil Armstrong from Apollo 11 became the first man to walk on the moon on July 20th. So, we will meet up again here on that day and see which one of us made it to the moon. Deal?”
“You’re crazy, old man,” the young man chuckled. “Sure, deal.”
Both men then made their phone calls:
“Hey, Mom, this is Josh. I know, Mom. I know. Mom, I know. No. I’m at the food court in the mall. I know, Mom. Mom! Look, you can either come and get me at the mall or sit there and lecture me on the phone, it’s up to you. I will. I’ll be here.”
“Hi, Honey. Oh, I’m just taking care of a few things. I stopped to have a late lunch and am talking with this fascinating young man. I’ll tell you about it when I get home. I’m fine, we’ll talk when I get home. And, Dear, I love you. And thanks. Just thanks, that’s all. Okay, see you soon.”
“Everything good?”, asked Thomas to Josh.
“Yeah, everything’s good.”
“Great, now let’s eat these damn tacos.”
SIX MONTHS LATER – JULY 20th
Josh arrived at the food court a few minutes early and bought a tray of tacos. He sat down at the assigned table, waiting in excited anticipation.
An old woman walked up to him and asked, “Are you Josh?”
“Yes,” Josh replied tentatively.
The old woman reached out her hand with an envelope and said, “My husband asked me to give this to you.”
Josh took the envelope and removed the piece of paper within. It read:
Seems I will not be making it to the moon after all. Although the Doctor said I possibly had six months it has only been six weeks but my journey is nearing its end. I meant what I said in the mall that day, meeting you gave me the inspiration to push on; but, it also gave me the confidence to accept my fate and realize that I have nothing to be sad about – I lived a full life and I have lived these last six weeks without sadness or sorrow. I only hope that my last trip to the mall, that day we met, was a good day for you and that you have met your challenge and are walking on the moon. I have been rooting for you every day.
If it didn’t work out for you this time – maybe the next time – it was after all, Apollo 11 that finally made it with a number of previous missions necessary before reaching that final destination.
Good luck with your life and always shot for the moon.
Your stranger from the mall,
Josh wiped a tear away from his eyes and, looking up to Thomas’ wife, reached out a coin that he was holding in his hand.
“Here, I was going to give this to your husband, but I would like you to have it,” Josh said.
“What is this,” Thomas’ wife asked.
“In the program I am in, we get chips for certain milestones we achieve. This is my ‘Six Months Clean’ chip,” Josh explained.
“Oh, no, that is special, you should keep that,” Thomas’ wife said.
“No, please,” Josh persisted, “Thanks to your husband, I will be getting more of these in the future.”
“Maybe,” Thomas’ wife suggested, “You could give it to him yourself. He is in St. Joseph’s cemetery on Elm St. Grave-site number seven twenty.”
“Seven twenty,” Josh repeated.
“Yes, do you want me to write that down for you?”
“No, ma’am, that’s today’s date. Moon walk day. I can remember that.”
“Oh, so it is. That’s very clever of you to think of that,” she said. “Well, Josh, good luck to you. I know Thomas would be very happy to know you are doing well.”
TEN YEARS LATER
Josh laid his “Ten Years Clean” chip on grave-site #720 in St. Joseph’s Cemetery today.