Everybody has a story to tell: Go write it down

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What's the first line of your story? Have you taken the time to write it down?

Stepping off the treadmill after 30 minutes at a slightly brisker pace than my usual, I winced in pain, mumbled something under my breath that sounded like "ackk!" and looked up to meet a pair of empathetic eyes.

An older gentleman dressed in proper gym attire and sensible shoes, sat on a sofa, taking a break from the action or maybe waiting for a ride home.

"It's the knees," I said, rolling my eyes up to heaven. "They'll be the death of me yet."

He nodded and smiled.

I hobbled over to the hand sanitizer dispenser, grabbed a fistful of wet tissues and went back, as directed by the sign on the treadmill, to "sanitize" any critters I might've left behind.

"When did they start to bother you?" he asked.

"Excuse me?" I said.

"Your knees. How long have they been hurting?"

"Oh," I said, "Twenty years, give or take. I used to run. I don't any more. Now I'm glad just to be able to walk."

"Keep it up," he said. "It might give you a few more years."

That's how the conversation began, slowly, just skimming the water. But it quickly gained depth as we began to play an old game that I love, one my kids like to call, "Mom Asks Too Many Questions."

I started with my standard: "Where are you from?" The answer often says a lot.

"Well," he said, pausing to think, "I was born in Africa ..."

Within minutes, he recapped the bare bones of his life story.

His parents were French, but his father's business took them to live in Africa. He recalled how he'd loved, as a child, taking rides out into the countryside on the backs of his African nurses.

He grew up, went to medical school in the United States, became a cardiologist and practiced for years back East before retiring to Las Vegas.

"Now I'm here [in the gym] most every day. I walk 30 minutes and lift weights. I think it helps. I'm pushing 90."

"What a wonderful story," I said. "I can only imagine all the lives you have touched. Have you written it all down?"

He shook his head and smiled dismissively, as if surprised by the question. It's a common reaction. I've seen it a lot.

For years, as a reporter and feature writer, I interviewed and profiled people from fascinating backgrounds in all walks of life.

When I asked if they'd ever written their stories, they often seemed surprised, as if it never occurred to them to do so.

Occasionally, they would tell me things they had never told to anyone -- not even in their own families. The reason for this was simple: Apparently, no one else had ever seemed interested.

Too often, the people who are closest to us -- spouses, children, grandchildren -- assume they know our stories, so they don't bother to ask. Or they mean to ask, but wait until it's too late, and the stories are lost forever.

"You need to write that story," I said to my new gym buddy. "Don't worry about getting it published. Just do it for yourself and for your children and your grandchildren. They may not seem especially interested now, but they will be one day."

He looked away, out the window, across the wide Las Vegas Valley to a long-ago, faraway place in Africa.

Finally, he said, mostly to himself, "I miss riding on the backs of my nurses."

"That's it," I said. "That's your first line. Go home and write it down. Then just keep at it. The others lines will follow."

He laughed and nodded.

"Promise?" I said.

"I promise," he said. "And you keep using those knees."

Fair enough.

But between you and me? I think he got the better end of the deal.

Sharon Randall is a columnist for McClatchy-Tribune News Service (www.sharonrandall.com).


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