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By Rebecca Nabors Ledbetter
Ten years ago, I had lunch with a man who had a story he desperately needed to tell, but I didn’t know it at the time. I didn’t even really know him. We’d spoken briefly over the phone only to confirm a time and place to meet.
My father’s will had been released from probate and this man was the trustee appointed to handle the logistics of the trust that had been set up for me.
We agreed to meet at a restaurant across the street from where I worked. The day we met it was unusually cold and I remember wishing we could reschedule or conduct our business by phone. Not in the mood for lunch with a stranger, I grudgingly put on my coat and gloves and walked out into the damp frigid air thinking I would order a bowl of soup.
He was already seated at a booth when I walked in, and the hostess took me to the table. We exchanged the perfunctory introductions and I sat across from him. He was an unassuming man, average height, brown hair, brown eyes, no distinguishing features.
I ordered water; he was having a glass of tea. He answered, “Yes, thank you” when the server asked if he would like a refill. He ordered a salad, and I the soup I had imagined. We made small talk in between chews of the complimentary bread.
I heard the “click, click” of the briefcase that sat beside him, he opened it and pulled out a file with my name on it. I vaguely remember a flash of numbers and legal jargon as he explained the logistics of the relationship between a beneficiary and their trustee. Aside from that we didn’t spend more than ten minutes discussing it. He gave me his business card and began telling me about himself.
He had two sons, the oldest was learning to play the guitar. I remember him smiling when he shared that he and his wife thought this was odd because neither of them was musically gifted. He said he knew that I also had two boys and that this was something we had in common.
I nodded and smiled, half-listening, not wanting to encourage further conversation, I wanted to hurry things along, get back to work, get on with my day.
He walked with me back to work where I signed a paper confirming our relationship of the trust agreement and went to my office to make a copy for myself. Returning, I gave him the original and we shook hands as he promised to be in touch. Lingering a moment at the door I watched him walk to this car and drive away.
That lunch was on Wednesday. The following Sunday as I read the paper, I took my usual perusal over the obituaries and stopped at a name I recognized but could not place. I read it aloud several times then my heart stopped. It was my trustee, my lunch guy. I thought that I was mistaken. It had to be his father. My guy was young and he seemed healthy. The obituary did not give a cause of death, merely: “he unexpectedly passed away.”
My mind swirled with other explanations. Maybe a heart attack. Perhaps a car accident. But a terrible thought kept whispering to me — he killed himself.
The next day I phoned the bank where he worked and asked to speak with his assistant. In a soft voice she said she had terrible news and didn’t know if I had heard it yet. She confirmed my suspicion by saying that he had died because of suicide.
She continued by saying that everyone was in shock and blindsided by his manner of death.
She said, “The last we saw of him was on Wednesday. He left around noon to meet a new client for lunch. He didn’t come in on Thursday. I thought he was sick, but his wife called and told me what had happened. They found him in his car, his briefcase was on the seat beside him.” I sat silent and heard her say, “When I looked at his schedule, I realized it was you he was meeting for lunch on Wednesday. Did he meet with you?”
“Yes, he did.”
I began to ruminate over our brief exchange to the point that now I can replay it frame by frame. Sometimes I hit pause and think, what did I miss? Did he say or do anything that I should have seen as a red flag?
Common sense tells me no, yet I carry guilt which I have not been able to let go. I wasn’t fully present with him during that lunch. I didn’t listen to him with the attention he deserved.
I wish I had listened to the words he spoke, words woven together telling a story, his story. It saddens me to think that I could have been the last person he talked with about his son learning to play the guitar, the last person to hear him say “it was nice meeting you” or “we will be in touch.” The most disturbing thought is that the last meal he shared, the person he last broke bread with was wanting to be somewhere else other than sitting across the table from him.
If I were to see him now, I would want him to know that because of him I pay attention to people that cross my path. I make a point of them knowing that I hear them, I look into their eyes as they speak. Because of him I have volunteered at the Crisis Line and listened to the voices of strangers convey feelings of loneliness and the anguish that comes from it; all of them sharing the need to be heard.
He is the reason I remind others to listen to stories that people tell, because they might be the last one to hear them.
If you or someone you know is in an emergency, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or call 911 immediately.
Rebecca Nabors Ledbetter is a writer from Birmingham, Al. where she lives with her husband, Dean. Rebecca, who has a journalism degree from the University of Alabama, says she write to leave a legacy for her two sons, Christopher and Zachary. She’s currently working on a memoir titled “Falling Forward” in which she tells her story of navigating life as an only child.