There are so many seemingly inconsequential people in our everyday lives. The UPS guy, the lunch counter server, the mail carrier. The coffee shop lady. More often than not, we take these folks for granted, not acknowledging that it’s the little things that are so important.
This became reality last month, sitting bedside at Boulder County Hospice for a 30-minute lunch break that passed slower than a glacier through the arctic, realizing the person about to die was my friend.
Cheryl Sommers was in the bed, hooked up to oxygen and a morphine drip, knocked out because the pain was too much. Her face yellowed as if she spent a little too much time at a tanning salon. Advanced liver cancer had accelerated at a rate that surprised most everyone. Cheryl, included, I was told. She had a few hours, maybe a day, left to live.
She entered hospice care on a Monday. I visited on Tuesday. She died on Wednesday, January 7.
In her retirement, Cheryl moved from California to Erie, bought a home and converted half of it into Old Town Coffee. Her coffee shop quickly became an Erie community center (not to be confused with the shiny new Erie Community Center).
Over the last two years, Cheryl became my barista and friend. Each day, I’d make the slow amble across sleepy Briggs Street to her café for my large Americano (that’s three shots of espresso served with piping hot water for you Folgers “brewers”). It’d wake me up and give me a chance to chat with Cheryl about Erie business policy, a tough day at work, Barack Obama or anything else that happened to come to mind.
This morning java ritual was as regular as a bear’s hibernation.
She’d offer advice, cheer me up when I needed a lift and often ramble on a little too long while I tried to politely slip out the door. Through our conversations, I learned she used to be a teacher. She’d been jailed just a few years ago for protesting the School of Americas. She knew quite a bit about medical marijuana.
She had a family out West that she affectionately spoke about. She was a Democrat who opened her doors as a call center for the Obama campaign. She even shed a tear when he was elected. “I finally feel like someone represents me,” she told me.
I suspect I wasn’t the only regular who thought highly of Cheryl. There was a cadre of locals who’d swing in daily, each sure to have their own stories about the town’s coffee maven.
During her final hours, these are the people who surrounded her in hospice care. Jim, Linda, Matthew and others made sure she wasn’t alone as death neared.
While I sat next to Cheryl, I wondered if she could hear me or if the flowers we brought would add some cheer. Matthew, a local pastor and regular, was there when we arrived. I’d never seen him around the coffee shop, but we quickly started reminiscing about our favorite Cheryl stories.
During quieter afternoons in her shop, she’d often fall asleep in her chair facing the front door, book sprawled across her lap, Matthew reminisced, bringing up an image I’d witnessed dozens of times. It often took 10 minutes or more just to get your coffee, the lethargic service earning the nickname Slow Town Coffee around our office, I told him.
There were the times I’d make the trip across the street with a Starbucks in hand, just accompanying a coworker in need of some caffeine. The look on her face was priceless, as if I had committed a deadly sin by spending my money at the corporate java giant.
Matthew, two of my coworkers and I sat in her hospice care room, laughing and reminiscing about these moments that seemed silly at the time. And somewhat fittingly, it seemed as if we were at the coffee shop, enjoying a relaxing break from the day, only our barista was now just a silent partner in the conversation.
Matthew reassured me that Cheryl, despite her basically comatose state, could hear us. I hope he was right, because she deserved to know that her customers had become much more, even though many of us likely never took the time to tell her so. Eventually, the day’s work beckoned, and I left with some kind words for her and said goodbye.
So now I am forced into a Starbucks morning ritual. The service is fine, the coffee tastes good, but I’ll never get to know the baristas on a first name basis let alone befriend them over time. There are plenty of others around town coming to that realization too, that we’ve all lost a friend who just happened to serve up fresh coffee every day.