People who we don't really know actually mean more to us than we realize, especially after they disappear.
They are, what I call, peripheral people. We notice them, we know of them, but we don't know them. For whatever reason, peripheral people become part of our lives because they begin to permeate our thoughts each time we see them. Maybe it's a cashier in the local supermarket who whistles while he's scanning the groceries or a particular waitress in a restaurant we frequent or even a character actor we see over and over again on television but never really know his or her name. Then one day they move into the next life or they fall into some invisible black hole that scoops them up, or they just drift off to another neighborhood.
There was an old man in my neighborhood who walked the same route every day on the sidewalk of the main street leading into our cul-de-sac, and as I rode by him, it seemed so comforting, for some reason, to see how he maintained his spirit and mobility by walking ever so slowly on the sidewalk, pacing himself, yet managing a smile and what became a familiar wave as I passed him each day. I never had an opportunity to speak to him, but he was always visible through the window in my car. And then, one day, I noticed he wasn't there anymore. Two days passed, a week, a month... and finally I realized he was gone forever. Where did he go? Did his grown children put him in a nursing home? Did he die? I missed him.
Then there was an usher at church. I never knew her name, but she always had a smile on her face when she passed out the bulletins as the congregation filed into the chapel. Every week, she was at the 8 o'clock service, and as she passed the collection plate to me, I always felt like she was my friend even though we never exchanged one word between us. Then, one Sunday, she was gone. Poof, just like that, and I never saw her again. I'm embarrassed to say that I'm one of those church-goers who show up and don't mingle or participate in outside church activities so I didn't quite know who to ask about her "disappearance." But I missed her.
There are many more peripheral people in my life that have come and gone that I miss, but a few stand out: the lady who always crossed the street at a busy intersection -- where I often got caught at the red light -- with her special-needs son as she was going to work each day at the local 7-Eleven; an elderly woman who often sat on a bench in front of a local department store at a strip mall asking for five dollars from strangers so she could help feed her grandchildren; a waitress who took my order at least a hundred times in the several years that I went to this mom-and-pop eatery but she became a vapor when the restaurant closed down to make way for a high-rise hotel; the handsome guy in my neighborhood who always walked his dog across the four-lane street from me as my dog was walking me in the opposite direction.
The most poignant memory of all is that of a 6th grade student who attended my son's elementary school. His name was Taylor Jones. He was class president -- a handsome African American young man who had such a bright future ahead of him. I didn't know who he was until, one day, I heard that he died from a gunshot wound. The sad news traveled rapidly within our small neighborhood community, as we all tried to digest this incomprehensible tragedy. That was 30 years ago, but I'll never, ever forget the end of the year when the school created the "Taylor Jones Memorial Sportsmanship Award" to honor one student from the school.
That award went to my son. I cried then and I'm crying now as I recall the memory of a precious life that left this world much too soon. I still have the plaque, and I have never forgotten Taylor Jones ... and I never will. I didn't know him, but every time I pass the church where we all sat silently at his memorial service -- or the elementary school that he attended with my son -- I still think of that brave young man who is now, no doubt, walking with the angels.
One day I hope to meet Taylor Jones in heaven so I can thank him for making my son, Allen, a better man today because it was Taylor who displayed unconditional compassion for his circumstances -- and was his friend in the 6th grade. Allen had a hearing impairment and had to wear hearing aids that year and was teased by so many of the kids. When he came home from school on many occasions crying, it broke my heart. So when my son got the Super Bowl Trophy at the end of the school year -- the "Taylor Jones Memorial Sportsmanship Award" -- it meant more to him than he will ever be able to articulate. We still talk about Taylor every now and then. Allen continues to hold his memory in his heart, as do I, even though I never had the opportunity to meet him.
There are so many more peripheral people who have come in and out of my life over the years that I think about, some more than others. I am blessed to have family members and great friends who occupy my daily thoughts, but the people who touch all of us from the periphery -- the people we never really know but who make our lives more fulfilled because they are just there -- are God's special gifts to all of us. They enhance our lives and comfort our souls -- and we don't even have to give back.
I will never know the names of my peripheral people because that's just the nature of how life works... or maybe it's just the way I lead my life, only allowing myself to actually become acquainted with the people in my immediate circle of friends and co-workers. I need to change that.
So... Taylor, as Dorothy once said to the Scarecrow in the classic film "The Wizard of Oz": "I think I'll miss you most of all." You are safe where you are now. You are the "voice of hope... from a distance