It was 5:32 in the evening and the office cubicles were almost empty. I was still there though I was supposed to be on the road driving to the daycare to pick up Paapu, 2 minutes back. It takes around 20 minutes to reach the daycare, a little more if there is traffic. Daycare closes at 6 PM and the providers make it a point to mention “you are late!” even if it is by 4 minutes. Mommy guilt sucks.
“Shucks! Am late”, I thought, shutting down the laptop and hurriedly picking up my things.
I turned around while stuffing the laptop in the bag and noticed Rick* in the next cubicle was still working. He always did. He was in his place every day when I came in and he was right there, working intently even when I left. I give my 8+ hours all days in office, which meant Rick worked much more. I joined this new team recently and knew everyone in the team pretty well by now, except for Rick. He was old, maybe 55 or even 60. He wore neat and clean sweaters, although old looking and grey.He looked really close into the computer screen when he worked. If approached for an issue, he would offer his opinions and ideas. Then, he wrote them down and took prints to distribute to everyone concerned. “Just send us an email Rick”, we laughed sometimes. He spoke very matter-of-factly during meetings, and spoke defensively even at funny remarks made in a light moment. He hardly smiled.
Like everyone else (much younger to him) in the team, I began looking at him as a different case. Approached him only when it was truly necessary, never made small talk or tried to be friends. Although he sat right next to my cubicle. It was only casual ‘Hi’, ‘Bye.. Cya” and nothing else. Until that day.
I was just about to leave and noticed Rick looking deep into his computer screen and typing away. “Why does this man take work so seriously? Why doesn’t he just go home to his family?!”, I wondered and pat came these words out of my mouth, as if involuntarily.
“Hey Rick, do you have any kids?”
“Well, my son died 7 years ago and my wife might be leaving me very soon”
“Oh…”, and my voice trailed off.
I cursed myself really bad in my head. Why did I need to ask him about family? How insensitive of me.Argh!
“Uh..I am sorry. But, I am sure things will turn around for you Rick”, I mumbled a lame effort.
“It does not look like that to me”, he smiled weakly.
“It will be okay. You just keep up hopes”, I said as I picked up my bag and dashed towards the door. Rick turned back to his computer.
“Am late”, I thought again and hurried to the car.
I got in and switched on the engine and suddenly, out of nowhere, a huge wave of sadness hit me like a ton of bricks. Before I knew it, I was sobbing uncontrollably into my palms. What had I just done?!!
It took couple of minutes to gather myself back again, get down the car and walk back into the office.
Rick was there, lost in the computer screen and typing some code.
“I..I..I am terribly sorry I asked you the question… Can I give you a hug?”
He stretched out his arms slowly and then we hugged. “It’s gonna be okay Rick..It’s..”, I gulped the lump in my throat as I patted his back.
“Don’t cry. That’s alright”, he assured.
“It’s just that ..I might have judged you..and I feel really bad for that.I am sorry”, tears still rolling down.
“Rick, since I saw you here working all the time, I wondered if you cared enough to go home to your family..”
“Family.. I don’t have one. Because I don’t have anyone or anything to go to. Seven years back, life seemed perfect! Then, my son passed away, all hell broke loose and everything fell apart..just like that.”
“…things can get better..” I tried to say.
“I am 56 and I have less life left. I don’t see it turning up again for me, ever. One thing that keeps me occupied is my work and I try and keep busy at it. I am here early..and I leave late. As I said, I have nothing else to go to.” That weak smile again.
“I will send out good thoughts for you Rick, ask the one up above to set it right for you”
“Okay”, he said matter-of-factly, “Thank you”.
I walked back to the car slowly. The water in my eyes was drying up, but the pain lingered ..and I let it stay. I knew I deserved it. Realization, sometimes comes the hard way. And , it’s okay to hurt.
As I drove, the precept re-iterated in the head several times – Never judge people by their mannerisms or behavior. You never know what life has been to them..you never know the story they lived through..You never know where their smiles were left behind..You never know…
Paapu ran to me with a familiar delight as I stood there at the entrance of the daycare, arms stretched open for a hug.
Another day. Another lesson.
Such is life . It never stops teaching.
[ * Name changed to protect identity]