What Matters Most
Alisha woke that morning with Ralph’s question echoing through her head. “What matters most?”
Alisha, knew that her parents were always busy, they were always in a rush and never seemed to have enough time. That morning, at breakfast she watched her father choke down a bowl of cereal and frown at his phone. She tried to find the right moment and then asked, “Daddy, how do you know what matters most?”
Her father responded gruff and distracted. “I don’t know. I guess, What matters right now is that I read these emails and get this proposal edited.”
Now, sweetie,” her mother scolded, “Don’t distract your father when he’s dealing with work matters. And it is important that you eat your breakfast and get to school on time.”
“Business matters …” Alisha muttered to her self.
“Don’t chew with your mouth open, Ali,” her mother admonished. She added, “Manners matter. Now, are you visiting Ralph after school?”
Alisha nodded, careful not to open her mouth.
At school, during quiet study time after the math lesson, she asked her teacher, “What matters most?”
“Well, both the numerator, the number on the top, and the denominator, the number on the bottom, are important. You need both to … ”
“No, I mean what matters most in the world … maybe in life?”
“Well, I suppose that changes from time to time. Right now, what is most important for me is that you work on those fractions.” He smiled and pointed a stern finger at her desk.
By recess time, Alisha had decided that everyone had a different take on what the question meant and, adults especially, tended to answer in terms of what they wanted others to do. Most people seemed rather unsure.
“What matters most to you in your whole life?” She asked Joseph, the smartest kid in class.
Joseph paused and looked up from his book, pushed his glasses up and declaimed, “The most important thing is that I -”
Alisha held up her hand, “No, no. I asked what matters most for you, not what is most important.” She was not sure how, but she felt there was a difference between those two phrases.
“Joseph looked up at the horizon and Alisha worried that he was going to tell her there was no difference, but then he slowly intoned, “Well, what I think matters most is that I do the best I can in school so I can make the world a better place.”
His answer seemed a little canned at the time, but it turned out to be more satisfying than most of the other responses she collected throughout the day.
Her least favorite answers were:
“That the Steelers win the playoffs.”
“My American Girl dolls.”
“I hope my mom isn’t mad I lost my green jacket, again.”
“That you get yourself back to your classroom, young lady, the bell rang almost a minute ago.” This last answer was from Ms. Hainly, the yard monitor.
After school she ran all the way to the hospice home. When she burst in the door, Nurse Amy was sitting in the green high-backed lobby chair with her hands clasped on her lap. The tall woman strode over and cut Alisha off at the turn into the hall that led Ralph’s room.
“Ali, we have to talk.”
Ali knew that couldn’t be a good thing. Still, she let Amy guide her to the tattered sofa.
“Ali, we really appreciate you coming here to see Ralph. He enjoys your visits.”
She paused and stared at her.
Alisha wondered why adults always hesitate just before giving a kid bad news.
“The thing is, that Ralph, well, he’s getting more and more sick and your parents and I … and … Ralph think it would be best - ”
“Can I say goodbye?” Alisha, knew there was no stopping it.
Nurse Amy seemed to perk up at this.
“Ah…why yes. You can say a short goodbye and then I’ll take you home.”
Amy jumped up to go, but the nurse grabbed her arm and, in a severe voice that reminded Alisha of a whip, insisted, “Just five minutes, Ali. Then we have to go.”
Ralph was sitting up in bed reading a magazine. He tossed it aside when he saw Alisha. His smiled so wide the gap left by his missing front tooth showed. But, his eyes were black and puffy and Alisha could see he was tired.
“Kiddo!! I wasn’t sure I would see you again. ”
“She only has five minutes, Ralph.”
“Ok, pull up a chair, we have a lot of ground to cover.”
Alisha felt a helplessness well up inside her. Her eyes started to water and then she was crying like a big baby, like her little brother. She ran to the folding chair next to Ralph’s bed and leaned over and laid her head on the light blue camouflage bed covers. Ralph’s big hand patted her gently on the head.
“Come on Kiddo. I know this hurts, but really I’m not going to feel well enough for visitors any more. We don’t have much time. Tell me. What did you find out?”
She wiped her face and, with her ear against the mattress, looking upon to him, she told Ralph all the answers she got and how it was very confusing. The frail old man coughed when he laughed at the funnier answers. When she finished he turned serious, but the words came out soft and he smiled as he spoke.
“Now, Ali, I wish we had more time to spend looking for what matters most, but I really need a nap, so I need you to just listen to me.” He looked past her, at Nurse Amy, who was looming behind them, and held a finger up and continued.
“Don’t stop asking yourself what matters most to you. Ask yourself every day and make yourself answer, even if the answer changes from day to day. What matters most is that you keep asking yourself what matters most.” He smiled at this and added, “Let your answers guide you every day of your life. Do you understand?”
“I think so. You want me to answer the question I was asking everybody else.”
“Yes. And I also want you to keep asking other people what matters most to them. Most people you ask are not going to have clear answers. But there will be people who know what matters to them and sometimes you will meet people who have priorities that fit with what matters to you. And when you spend time with those people you can be and do anything together and you also find out ‘who’ matters most to you.”
“Today you matter most to me,” Alisha intoned slowly, in a sad daze.
The old man’s eyes sparkled and brimmed, “Ali, that’s what I like about you. You care about the people around you and the time you have with them. See? That’s why we’re friends.”
“I’m afraid Ali has to go. Her mom just texted me.” The nurse held up her phone as proof.
Even though she knew it was against the rules and she did not want to get Ralph more sick, Alisha stood up on the chair and threw her arms around her friend.
The old man’s voice broke as he said, “Amy? My immune system hardly matters now.”
The nurse must have nodded or made some sign. Alisha felt the wiry arms envelope her and the big hand pat and rub her back.
“Be good, Kiddo. And find what matters most.”