Holidays bring joy and pain

-A A +A
By Elroy Riggs

For all the joy and hope Christmas brings to some, it can mean the searing pain of loneliness to others.

I had just pulled onto I-65 at the Franklin exit when I saw a hitchhiker holding a sign that said "Chicago."

My wife's words were echoing in my ears, "Don't pick up strangers when you're out on the road."

Wives are like that. But he looked too old to be much of a threat. Besides, there was a nasty looking cloud moving in from the west. I pulled over and stopped and he climbed in beside me.

"Where are you heading, pilgrim?" I asked.

"Chicago," he answered. "Been visiting in Louisiana."

He was an elderly man, wearing a hat and thick glasses. For the next 20 miles or so, he didn't speak a word. Suddenly, he says, "It was 12 months today I lost my dear wife."

"I'm sorry to hear that," I replied.

"Twelve months ago today," he repeats. "It's rough, you know, this time of year."

I imagined it would be.

"How long were you married," I asked.

"Forty-seven wonderful years," the rider answers. I'm sure I detect his voice breaking. The man begins to cry. He takes off his thick glasses and wipes his eyes with his handkerchief.

By now, we're surrounded by semis. I'm concerned for my safety. I feel like I'm roller-skating in a buffalo herd, but here's an old man crying over his dead wife two weeks before Christmas. He finally stopped crying and put his glasses back on.

"Before she died," he begins again, "she told me I would be OK. She had congestive heart failure. You know, she knew she was dying, but I couldn't accept it. She pulled me close to her and said, 'You're strong as an ox. You can make it without me.' But it ain't easy."

"Any kids," I asked. He holds up two fingers then he starts crying again. This is a terribly delicate situation. I thought about changing the subject to get my rider's mind off his dead wife, but what would I talk about, the weather?

"I met her in 1954," he goes on. "Ever heard of the Louisiana Hayride?"

"The music place," I ask.

"That's the one. It was big back then. That's where I met her, my wife. I walked in and she was the first girl I saw. She was wearing a pretty dress. I saw her and noticed she was looking back at me, too, so I walked over, put my fingers under her chin and said, 'Hello, gorgeous.' That's how the whole thing started. I just can't believe she's gone."

"How old are you," I ask the man.

"Sixty-nine," he answers.

"You're not that old," I said, groping to keep up my end of the conversation. "Maybe you will find somebody else."

"That's what she told me before she died. She said I'd meet somebody else. I believe she's up there in heaven looking down at me now. Maybe she's even trying to find someone else for me," he said.

"Could be," I said.

We were approaching the Sonora truck stop. I said, "This is where I get off. There are semis leaving here every few minutes for The Windy City. Perhaps you can catch one."

I pull into the parking area and stop. I said, "Hang in there, pilgrim."

"I was doing good until Christmas," he says, his voice breaking off again. Off came the glasses again. He dried his eyes with the handkerchief again. He said goodbye and I drove away thinking, "At home alone at Christmas in Chicago. What did the poor guy do to deserve that?"

Elroy Riggs