My husband and I have been 300 kilometres apart for the duration of this pandemic. Long story, but what matters is that after the first 8 weeks of living separately, we were more than ready to expand our germ pods to include each other. Plans were made, groceries were purchased, I even shaved my legs, and then came a tap-tap-tap on his office window.
Our family business is considered an essential service and my husband (hereafter known as HL for reasons best kept secret) could not in good conscience leave staff on their own to figure things out while he lived with me 300 kilometres away.
So he stayed put and together they set up shifts, accommodated physical distancing and arranged work-from-home options for those whose jobs could adapt. The only constant in the office was HL, always there behind his desk, ready to answer questions or just listen to staff, customers, suppliers, anyone who needed to talk in these strangest of times when nothing was sure and tensions grew daily.
On the day before he was set to join my germ pod, spring was keeping her distance too. The sky was endless grey, rain fell steadily and temperatures hovered just above freezing. He had decided to pack up his desk early and was getting ready to leave when the stranger tapped on his window.
“I’m in trouble,” a man called through the glass. “Can you help me?” He was older, our age group, well dressed, carrying a briefcase and clearly in distress.
Now, HL would be the first to admit that in the first weeks of the pandemic, he’d been a little cavalier about the protocols, arguing that it was perfectly safe to get into an airport shuttle with 5 other people because . . . reasons.
In the weeks following, however, he came to understand the risks and became very good at following government recommendations. Not only did he wear a mask and gloves, his cleaning and disinfecting skills had become the stuff of legend.
His best pandemic response to the stranger at the window would have been to stay on his own side of the glass, make soothing gestures and offer to call police to assist him. But none of that occurred to HL.
“Of course,” he called back then unlocked the front door and told the stranger to come in out of the rain.
The instinct to help is strong in this one.
The stranger thanked him and HL offered him a place to sit, a glass of water, a moment to breathe and a chance to tell his story, from a distance, of course.
The stranger, let’s call him George, took off his wet coat, set his briefcase on the floor and did his best to shed light on his situation.
George explained that he wasn’t local but had bought a condo in town and the deal was closing that day. He had to get to his lawyer’s office by five o’clock (it was now 3:30). Problem was, he didn’t know the name of the firm, only that it was on the Service Road. To make matters worse, not only had he lost his phone before setting out, his car had broken down along the way. He’d been walking on the Service Road for over an hour, hoping to see a sign, a name on a building, anything that might jog his memory.
Unfortunately, every office and business along the Service Road was closed. HL’s pickup was the first vehicle he’d seen in a parking lot and the light in his office had been like a beacon in the storm.
“It probably sounds ridiculous that I don’t even know the lawyer’s name, but my wife handles all those details.” He gestured to the briefcase at his feet. “Everything I need is in her laptop which is in this bag. But she’s in the hospital and I don’t know her password.”
Someone else might have had a hard time understanding his dilemma. How could he not know the day-to-day business of the family? But our household arrangement is identical. If you ask HL who holds our mortgage or life insurance or even who has been coming to clean the gutters for the last five years, he wouldn’t know because I handle all the details. If suddenly he couldn’t reach me and needed some important information, he would be as screwed as this stranger sitting at the reception desk.
George went on to explain that his wife had broken her hip the night before and was in ICU, awaiting surgery. He couldn’t see her of course, but he couldn’t call her either because her phone was dead and no one at the hospital would ask her for the laptop password. If he didn’t get to the lawyer’s office, if he didn’t close the deal on the condo, at the very least they would lose their one hundred thousand dollar deposit. Who knew what kind of legal action might follow?
In hindsight, his panic may have been unnecessary, but in that moment his fear was as real as the puddle gathering at his feet.
HL suggested he use the phone on the desk to contact the hospital one more time. For the next twenty minutes, George attempted to escalate the call, to speak to someone who might be able to get a message to his wife, always politely according to HL, but the person fielding incoming calls was unmoved. Staff had no time to carry messages back and forth. Sorry to disappoint.
They were busy, HL understood that, but still. . .
“Why don’t you try accessing your email?” he suggested and went into his office for his own laptop. He set it down on the desk near George. “Go ahead and use that. Perhaps you’ll find something useful. “
And everything could be disinfected later.
George did find some documents in his email, but not the name of the lawyer. All he knew was that the office was somewhere on the Service Road.
Taking out his phone, HL searched for a list of lawyers on the Service Road, and started reading out the names.
One of them rang a bell with George. “That’s it,” he shouted. “That’s where I need to be.”
A phone call was placed, a message left on a machine and now all he had to do was get there.
Outside, the rain fell harder. With no Ubers or cabs to be had, George would need to walk from our office to the lawyer’s office approximately 12 kilometres away.
“Thank you for everything,” George said, shrugging on his coat and picking up the briefcase. “I don’t know what I’d have done without your help.”
He headed for the door. No handshakes, of course. They had successfully maintained the rules of physical distancing the whole time. Why mess it up now?
George pushed open the door and HL looked out at the rain, wishing he had an umbrella to offer, a raincoat. Perhaps a garbage bag. He thought about me and germ pods and fabulous meals awaiting his arrival. Then he sighed and said, “Hang on. It’s too far to walk. I’ll drive you.”
George glanced back. “But we can’t distance.”
HL shrugged. “Are you sick?” he asked. George shook his head. “Neither am I,” HL said and grabbed his own coat. “Let’s go.”
They rode in silence, George in the back seat, ducking down when they passed a police car because no one was supposed to be driving around with people they didn’t live with and neither was sure the rules would bend for an old man with somewhere to be on a cold, rainy day.
When they reached the industrial mall where the lawyer should be, they drove slowly past the darkened offices of physiotherapists, dentists, a place that made signs and posters, eventually finding the lawyer’s unit. HL dropped George off in front of the door, watched him wave goodbye before heading inside, then he took out his phone and called me.
It would be another two weeks before we could see each other.
I understood completely. He could not have done otherwise. That’s why I love him.
But more importantly, his actions give me hope that no matter how long this global experiment we find ourselves in goes on, it won’t change who we are at heart.
Photographs and Illustrations:
ID 85642804 © Valeriy Kachaev | Dreamstime.com / ID 177231422 © Elena Preobrazhenskaya | Dreamstime.com/ ID 177239500 © Jonni Panggabean | Dreamstime.com/ ID 119347679 © Yuryz – Dreamstime.com