His shock of white hair stood on end as he ran his hands through it. He wanted to talk about food, rattling off recipes from memory until I ran out of room on the cheap hospital stationery I’d grabbed from a nurse.
At 16, my cooking repertoire was limited to frozen burritos and microwaveable meals. Yet here I sat, discussing veal osso bucco and charlotte russe with a stranger.
My dad had undergone open-heart surgery at the Seattle Veterans Administration Hospital and while he dozed, I hoped to sneak out to the vending machine to snag a candy bar. “I’m starving,” I said to my mom.
I never made it to the vending machine. “Miss?” said the man in the bed next to my dad’s. “Do you have a minute?”
And that’s how I met the man who showed me the perfect gift for any occasion from Valentine’s Day to Christmas morning. No one is allergic to it. It’s truly one size-fits-all, and it doesn’t cost a dime.
It’s the gift of listening, and I admit, at first I gave it grudgingly.
“I’m chef Andy,” the ruddy-faced senior said. “I heard you mention you were hungry, and I thought you might like some of my recipes.”
That wasn’t exactly the kind of food I’d hoped for. But I pulled up a chair and he sat on the edge of his bed, his words tumbling out in a torrent. Andy had honed his cooking skills during World War II, and later fell in love with the art of haute cuisine. When he got out of the service, he traveled the world, sampling exotic dishes and making them his own. He learned ice-carving in Singapore and tallow-carving in Florida.
He spent his career as a head chef in a variety of restaurants including, a nine-year stint at the Ridpath Hotel in its heyday.
The minutes ticked by but I forgot about my hunger as I listened to him conjure up the meals he’d prepared. I dined on his memories and feasted on a banquet of recollections. Finally, exhausted he lay back on his pillow and took my hand. His eyes filled, “I know you gotta go, but I wanted to tell you one last thing. I’ve tried all day to tell somebody, but everyone is just so busy.”
He wiped his eyes. “My wife called today. She’s bedridden and can’t drive anymore, but she got the mail today and …” Taking a shaky breath he continued, “I made it. I got my master chef papers in the mail today. There’s only 30 in the nation, and today I found out I’m one of ’em.”
I hadn’t a clue what a master chef was, but I squealed anyway. I clasped both his hands in my mine, “Oh, Andy, that’s amazing! Congratulations, I’m so happy for you!”
He took a sip of water and beamed. “It’s been my dream,” he said. “Thank you. Thank you for listening, you’ve given me such a gift.”
The next day, Dad was moved to another room. I went back to say goodbye to chef Andy and got another stack of recipes.
Because I listened I found my passion. I discovered everyone has a story that deserves to be heard. I was the editor of my school newspaper, so I wrote a column about chef Andy. And for the most part I’ve been writing columns in one format or another ever since.
Today, the world celebrates love and often the most loving thing you can do is listen.
So listen to your partner, your child, a friend, a parent or grandparent. Listen with a quiet mind, without thinking about what you want to say next – without looking at your watch or surreptitiously checking your phone.
Listen with your ears to what they say. Listen with your heart to the emotion behind the words. Listen with your eyes to their body language, the fleeting smile, the twinkling eyes, the trace of sadness or anger in crossed arms or shoulder shrugs.
Truly listening is a loving gift that in the act of giving leaves you immeasurably enriched.