My Seat Buddy

My church sends out an email whenever someone in the church dies.  I don’t usually read them, because I never know the person who has died.  But the other day I randomly opened one of the sympathy emails and read, “We are sad to announce…blah blah…Al Croft.”

Nope.  Don’t know him.

Then on Saturday I was at a church dinner.  The pastor stood up to say a few words at the dinner and spoke of Al Croft.  Apparently Al was a gentle man, who always had a kind word for everyone, salt of the earth, and we will miss him.  Al died last Thursday afternoon, while his daughter held his hand.

And this morning, at church, they announced to everyone that Al Croft had died.

And it wasn’t until halfway through the pastor’s sermon, that I suddenly thought…wait.  Al Croft?  I wonder if that’s my Al?

I’ll explain.

Every other Sunday I teach the preschoolers during the 8:00 morning service, while my family attends the service.  Then, they all go home and I stay behind to attend the 10:30 service by myself.

It’s a little odd to go to church alone when you have family that goes to church.  Families usually sit together, and it feels strange to send them off home, and then find a place to sit alone.  When I sit with my family, they like to sit on the side, 7 or 8 rows back.  I don’t like sitting there.

The one nice thing about going alone, is that I can choose where I want to sit.  My maiden name was Benson, so I’m used to sitting in the front row.  Schools assign seating based on your name, and Bensons are always at the front.  One teacher shook things up by seating us opposite from the usual, and I sat in the back for 6th grade science class.

I didn’t learn a whole lot in that class, other than the fact that when you sit in the back row, you get distracted a lot, and don’t learn a whole lot in class.

So, when I’m at church alone, I get to choose where I sit, and I choose to sit up front, where I can learn.  I sit in the second row, in the second seat, next to a man named Al.

The first time I sat in the second row, I sat on the very edge, so that I could lean my arm on the arm rest.  A man arrived at church and looked a little confused and then sat next to me, further in.  I realized from his reaction that I was probably sitting in the seat he normally used.  So I said, “Looks like I took your seat, didn’t I?” and I got up to switch and he gave me a grateful smile.  He likes the arm rest, too.

And every other week after that, for the past 4 years, I’ve sat on the second row, the second seat in.  Eventually, I learned that the man I was sitting next to is named Al.

Al’s in his mid 60’s, slender and not very tall.  Grey hair, lined face.  Very friendly and sweet: nice, nice man.  He is almost always in his seat before I am, and always makes a point of standing up and giving me a hug when I arrive.  “Good morning, Jackie!”  “Good morning, Al!”

Usually the service is lightly serious, but a few times a service, the pastor will say something humorous, and whenever that happens, Al gives a great big chuckle and turns to look at me while he laughs.  I like that.  Al makes a point of catching my eye, just so that we can enjoy our laugh together.

Sometimes, the pastor says, “Take the hand of someone next to you while we pray,” and Al and I hold hands.  Not always my favorite thing, because my arm ends up contorting in a funny way, and I want to let go of the person’s hand and wiggle my arm around, but I can’t, and then I end up completely not praying and thinking about my contorted arm instead.  But, I hold Al’s hand when asked.

Last time I was at the 10:30 service, Al’s family came to church.  I’ve never met them before.  They all sat in the 3rd row, where there was more room for them to spread out.

I thought how happy Al must be to have his family at church with him.  He certainly looked happy to have them there.  I saw that Al had a bandage on his nose.  I asked, “What happened?” and there was a flicker of “I don’t want to talk about it” in his eyes and then he grinned and said, “Oh, I fell down a couple of times.  Or…she did it!” and he pointed to his wife and they both laughed.

That made me remember a couple of months ago when the pastor talked with Al after the service and they both looked very serious.  I sort of wondered if something was wrong with Al.  And now that he was falling, I wondered again if something was wrong with Al.

But he obviously didn’t want to talk about it, and I was going to respect that.  After all, we’re just seat buddies, right?  I mean, I don’t even know his last name, even though we’ve sat next to each other and laughed with each other and held hands for the past 4 years.  So, I wasn’t going to pry.

I laughed at Al’s joke and he introduced me to his family, and they were very friendly and we all smiled a lot at each other and shook hands.  During the service, I heard them laughing together when something funny was said.

And that’s my Al.

So, it was with a bit of dread that I asked someone after church today, “Who, exactly, is Al Croft?”

“He was the man who always sat in the second row on the end.”

. . .

“Oh.  I see.  Thank you.  I sit next to him every other week, you know.”

I’m the sort of person who doesn’t always take things in right away, so after receiving the news, I went about my day.

But as the day has progressed, I’ve been feeling heavier and heavier hearted, thinking about Al.  Even though I didn’t know him well, it’s still sad when someone that you shared a seat with, and laughter with, and held hands with, and who was obviously a sweet and cheerful person is gone.  Sixty-four years old. No one should be allowed to die before 92, at the earliest.

I realized that there would be no room in my writing tonight for anything other than Al, so I went back to the church and took a picture of his seat.

I’m not looking forward to next Sunday.  Where will I sit?  On the end, in Al’s seat?  Or next to Al’s seat? Won’t it be strange to sit there alone?  I hope we aren’t asked to hold hands with the person next to us.

And who will catch my eye so they can laugh with me?