Friday, July 25, 2014
I awoke early this morning and, despite having not sleep more than three hours, I got up and dressed. I headed out the door to grab a coffee, intending to come back home and luxuriate in the wonderful feeling that is, climbing back into bed and reading. I also enjoy the silence of early mornings. The morning sun was just at the right angle to hit the lower trunk and limbs of the nine-storey tall trees outside my building. I made a note to myself to take yet another picture of these trees on my way back. I walked down the street, and as I turned the corner the morning sun shone directly on my face, breaking through the trees across the street, as if to say good morning. I hit the coffee shop, which was of course not busy and was heading home all in about four minutes.
I looked up and saw Tom, a man I am now happy to describe as a dear friend. Tom was instrumental in me discovering and solidifying what The Stranger Project 2014 was to become. I met him way back in January, outside that same coffee shop. That was on Day ten. We see each other fairly often as he lives in my neighbourhood. Tom is a cancer survivor. Sometimes I’ll sit with him as he goes through his morning routine; a coffee, a joint and a cigarette. Other times I see him in the early evening, doing another of his routines. Another local restaurant, always the same one for his ‘I’m only allowed one drink a day so' it’s a shot of Bailey’s in a coffee. Then a walk two blocks, stop at a park bench and have a cigarette, before heading home for the night. When I met Tom back on Day ten, I still wasn’t sure what this project was going to be. I hadn’t found the genesis for it yet, even though I had been doing it for nine days already. Tom’s story informed me; The Stranger Project 2014 would simply be the stories of the people I met daily, whether we had everything or nothing in common.
A few weeks ago I sat and chatted with Tom on his afternoon bench as he had a cigarette, after the Bailey’s and coffee. Doing his routine. Except on this day, he had a nice brown leather purse with him. It belonged he told me, to his girlfriend Barbara. I hadn’t heard of Barbara before. “She’s a girl, and she’s my friend. That’s all. We met at the cancer clinic and we’ve been friends ever since,” Tom explained. He asked me if I had met my ‘stranger’ for the day yet. I told him that I was just heeding out to do that. Barbara arrived and joined us on the park bench. “You should talk to Barbara,” said Tom. “She has an incredible story.” I smiled and introduced myself. Tom told her I was ‘Colin, the guy from The Stranger Project.' Barbara had heard all about it from Tom, and had seen Tom’s story featured in a few of the news stories that have been done about the project. She wanted to know why I had started it and how things were going. Barbara seemed genuinely interested in the stories I was gathering of other people. We chatted for a few minutes about meeting and chatting with strangers. She was easy to speak with and I felt at ease with her. I didn’t ask her to tell me her story. She was sitting with Tom, I was going off for a walk, and I didn’t want Barbara to feel obliged to chat about herself just because of our mutual association with Tom. I told her it was lovely to meet her, and we all said our goodbyes. That day, it was proving difficult to find anyone willing to speak with me, and I ended up circling back to the park bench about twenty minutes later, to see if I Barbara was still there. She wasn't. Over the past few weeks, I’ve gone out of my way checking that bench in the hopes that I’d run into her. I haven’t.
When I saw Tom this morning, the first thing I said to him is ‘You’re early this morning, starting the routine ahead of schedule?’ Tom looked at the ground. Then he looked up at me. “I’ve got some bad news,” he said. For just a moment, a split second in time, I waited for what I thought was going to be a punchline. “Barbara died this morning.” Tom had been there when his mother died from cancer. He was there with his father also. “I knew the time was coming,” he said to me quietly. I remarked that when I had met her, I thought she must have been in full remission if not cancer free. She appeared healthy and lively, and not at all what I would have thought as terminally ill. “When we met at the cancer clinic three years ago, we promised each other we’d take care of one another. I’ve spent a lot of time with her over the past few days. Last night, I knew. When I said goodbye, I knew it was goodbye,” Tom said. He had just gotten a call from Barbara’a brother thirty minutes earlier to say she was gone.
We talked briefly about the last couple of days. I asked Tom if he wanted some company while he walked to get his morning coffee, and while he would sit on the park bench to have ‘a moka, a toke-a, and a smoke-a’ as he liked to call it. “I think I’m just going to stick to my routine this morning. But thanks, I definitely need one of those,” he said, looking at the coffee cup in my hand. I told him to take care and said I hope to see him soon. I walked home and as I turned the corner onto my street, I was happy to see the sunlight was still shining on the trees outside my building. I took a few pictures of the light dancing on the leaves and branches.
It’s 7:15am now, and I’m back in bed, listening to some quiet music and thinking of Barbara. I wouldn’t have met her if it hadn’t been for this project, nor would I have met Tom. And while I’ll still go out and meet a stranger today, I wanted to share this story. This is my story of Barbara, another stranger who, even though I never got “her” story, has affected mine. Profoundly. Rest in peace Barbara. #notastranger