I flew into my day on autopilot. I turned off the clock radio and stole an extra fifteen minutes in bed. I made a lunch for my daughter and called up the stairs to stop dawdling so we wouldn’t be late. I shoved the dogs out the back door and tapped my foot, waiting for them to finish and come back inside. I dropped her off at school and drove away.
This is how I start too many days. Cruising without really paying any attention to the horizon.
Yesterday, I took a different route, down a side street I don’t normally travel. I joined the queue of cars waiting to merge onto the busy street that would take us downtown. The wintery morning was overcast and dark, so I could see into lighted rooms in the houses on either side of the street. A movement caught my eye and I noticed a man sitting at the table in his kitchen. He was having his breakfast, munching through a bowl of cereal, looking around the room as he chewed. The way you do when you see without seeing rooms that are as familiar as your own hand. He looked up at the ceiling, took another bite, back down at his bowl for another spoonful, gazed to his right toward the clock on the wall and then to his left at the window and, startling us both, straight into my eyes.
At that moment the traffic opened and I drove away.
I thought about the man as I went through the rest of my day. He had looked so content. I wondered if the rest of his day had been as peaceful as the few minutes I’d witnessed.
I wondered if he appreciated the splendid ordinariness of his morning. Probably not. I know I hadn’t.
For all I know, as soon as I looked away he choked on his Wheaties. Or the furnace, with a great shuddering, gasping groan, gave up the ghost. Or the toilet overflowed. Or, his wife walked in and said, “Charles, I’m leaving you. I can’t spend another minute watching you chew and swallow.”
The man had caught me watching him. Did he wonder about the nosy woman in the car? For all he knew I could have driven straight into oncoming traffic, or had a flat tire or run out of gas. Did he wonder if I appreciated my reliable car or the short commute or a life easy enough to let me fritter away time staring at people in houses?
Ask any of us and we can provide the details of the times when things were bad, when we were caught off guard and left stunned by bad news or bad situations. We can narrate, again and again, the highlights. The awards, the surprises and the days that we got the recognition we deserved.
But most of us, like me when I’m late for a meeting or the man who sat down to his breakfast, forget that every day we munch and drive and daydream our way through irretrievable moments that disappear as quickly as they arrived.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap writes for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org