By SEAN DIETRICH
The old man in the crowded hotel dining room was wearing dual hearing aids. He smiled and greeted me with a voice that was loud enough to change the migratory patterns of geese.
“You can sit by me!” he said, patting the seat.
Truthfully, I did not want to sit next to this loud guy — I didn’t want to sit next to anyone. But I had no choice. There were no available tables because the room was overrun with a girl’s soccer team.
Hell hath no fury like a girl’s soccer team attacking a continental breakfast bar.
The teenage girls were noisy, fidgety and flinging complimentary fruit at one another, achieving incredible distances with their cantaloupe wedges.
The team’s adult chaperones wore weary looks on their faces, expressions which seemed to say: “Point me to the nearest liquor store, please?”
So I sat beside the old man. I was tired. I was uncaffeinated. I was not ready for a conversation with a stranger. I tried to send him a “leave me alone” message nonverbally. But the message was not received.
“Hey, pal, wanna hear something funny?” he said.
I looked at the man. I was definitely not in the mood for funny. Even so, I am the child of quiet evangelical fundamentalists; expressing disagreement is not in my repertoire.
“Sure,” I said.
He leaned in and said, “I have really bad gas.”
I stopped chewing. “I’m sorry?”
“Gas,” he said. “I have bad gas. I just had to tell someone.”
I looked around the room. This had to be a prank. Allen Funt and his camera crew must have been lurking around here somewhere.
But it was no joke. The old man told the entire story:
He was chaperoning his granddaughter to soccer camp. Last night, as soon as they checked into this hotel, he developed severe chest pains. He laid on his bed but the agony became worse so that he was nearly crying.
So he drove himself to the hospital and walked into the local ER, clutching his chest.
“I yelled for the nurses,” he said. “I told them to take me back to see the doc, I was having a heart attack. ‘Hurry,’ I said, ‘I can’t breathe!’”
Medical professionals rushed him back, stripped him nude, put him in one of those check-out-my-butt gowns, and attached him to electrodes. This was not a drill.
“I truly believed I was dying,” he said.
The first thing he did was call his wife. “I love you,” he told her. Then he called his kids and said the same thing. Then his granddaughter threw herself onto him and wept as they wheeled him away for more tests.
“I told everyone goodbye,” he said. “I just knew this was the end. My dad died from a heart attack, both my uncles, too. I’ve been waiting my turn for years.”
But anyone familiar with situational comedies knows what happened next. What happened, of course, was that the doctor walked into the exam room, brandishing charts, and told the old man that his heart was fine, his pains were due to “bad gas.”
“Gas,” the old man said to me. “You believe that? I got gas.”
The nearby soccer girls began to giggle.
We were interrupted when his granddaughter asked how he felt this morning.
“Well,” he said, “a little tired, to be honest. But mostly, I feel like I’ve been given a second chance. Last night I didn’t think I’d be sitting here today, I cried on the phone all morning with my wife, just grateful to be alive.”
Then he said, “I feel like this day is a real blessing.”
I tried to take it all in. This had been an extremely weird way to start my morning. Even so, the man was right. Life is brief, which is a particular message that keeps getting sent to me over and again from someone Up There. “Wake up,” the message is always saying. “Live while you still can.”
When we finished eating, the old man stood. We shook hands. I wished him well. He returned the favor.
I expected him to leave me with some wise words. Maybe something poignant about living life to the fullest, or never taking a moment for granted, or remembering to carpe the heck out of each diem.
Instead, the old man sincerely urged me to avoid lactose, then made a loud raspberry sound with his mouth. Whereupon 39 giggling teenage girl soccer players pressed their lips together and filled the room with exactly the same noise.
Life is but a vapor. Don’t let it pass.