By Jason Wright
A few days ago I had lunch with a buddy at a local restaurant. The food was fine, sure, but this is a friend who makes the menu irrelevant.
He's the kind of guy who makes you laugh so hard you're snorting Sprite and spitting chip shards before the entrees even arrive.
About halfway through lunch, we noticed an older gentleman being seated directly across from us. It was obvious it would be a table for one.
My pal and I said hello and complimented him on his unusual hat. Then he launched into a description of it, and we listened politely until we could return to our own discussion.
Even as our attention turned back to our own stories and laughter, it was impossible not to notice how slowly the man ate. It was as if he had nowhere to go and no one to go home to.
When our server cashed us out, we asked if we could also pay the gentleman's bill. After all, who doesn't like a free lunch?
As we waited for the server to return, we imagined all sorts of things about the man. Maybe he's on a fixed income? Maybe this is a rare lunch out?
A moment later we gathered our things and slipped out. My friend had errands to run and I had plenty of work to do. But didn't we feel so good about ourselves!
Let's have a parade. We bought lunch for an old man.
Soon I was back at my desk and my hands went on to other projects, but I couldn't keep my mind from wandering back to the restaurant. I had the unmistakable sense that we'd let a friend get away.
At the time, sacrificing $12 for his lunch and a tip seemed the least we could do. I'm afraid we were right - it was the least we could do.
It's certainly possible the man was grateful for the meal and that our very small gift allowed him to treat himself out again another day.
It's also possible that he likes to eat alone and that his trip to the restaurant was a much-needed break from caring for someone else or worrying about one of the thousand things that adds stress to the life of many seniors.
But what if?
What if he awoke that morning and decided to take himself to lunch in hopes of having some conversation?
What if he had a story to share, a lesson to teach or a memory to paint that just might have been a blessing for all three of us?
What if the least of his concerns was the gift of money, when what he really prayed for was the gift of time?
Maybe if I spent less time patting myself on the back for giving someone a free lunch, I'd have more time to extend that same hand to make a new friend.
Of course, it's conceivable if we'd asked to join him or invited him to our table, he might have politely declined. But we'll never know, because we were too absorbed to even ask the question.
You can be sure I plan to visit that restaurant again. When I do, I sure hope to run into that man and his fancy hat.
Maybe I'll offer to buy his lunch. But trust me, if I do, it won't be from across the restaurant.
Jason F. Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of 10 books, including "Christmas Jars," "The Wednesday Letters" and "The 13th Day of Christmas." He can be reached at email@example.com or jasonfwright.com.