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Small splashes

My father doesn't think what happened to him in a New York City diner Sunday was Earth-shattering.

"It wasn’t a big deal," he says to me over the phone as I borderline-interrogate him about the incident after hearing about it from my brother’s Facebook page.

"But it kind of was," I say.

He chuckles and changes the subject. I let him.

Because in a way, he's right. This occurrence that took just a few minutes to resolve didn't involve any Liam Neeson antics. My dad didn't foil an armed robbery or sprint into a burning building to save someone trapped inside.

I'm not entirely sure the moment between my dad and a stranger he'll probably never see again registered with anyone other than the two of them. These moments are like pebbles. They produce small splashes but barely register in the violent ocean that crashes around them. There and gone, too fast for a camera.

So, for a minute, I’d like to point out to the water where this small splash occurred.

My dad was in New York City to see my brother’s show, a Joni Mitchell tribute. Basically, someone performs Joni’s songs and he responds to them with his own.

It sounds like it went well. My dad’s encounter happened earlier in the day, though.

The two of them had gone to a diner for breakfast. My brother left for a bit to print some fliers for the show, asked whether my dad could stick around by himself for a few minutes. Of course, he said sure.

He sat there, my brother’s backpack tucked in a chair across the table. It was just him, the distant breakfast chatter of other patrons, and some cooling coffee mugs.

“I was about as isolated as you could get in that place,” he says.

The stranger interrupted.

He was big, my dad says. Strong. He hovered behind my dad, unmoving, staying just in his peripheral vision. Then he sat down, choosing the seat in the table next to my dad.

“He acted like I wasn’t even there in a way,” my dad says.

His eyes didn’t move from my brother’s backpack. Eventually, he reached for it.

My dad spoke up.

“I said, ‘That’s my son’s backpack,’” he tells me. "'He’s going to be back.'”

The stranger withdrew his hand but didn’t leave. Obviously my dad stood guard. As I said, the man was large. My dad’s 5-feet-7, has been a distance runner most of his life and, recently, has been putting up a valiant fight against lung cancer. This was no contest. If this stranger snatched my brother’s backpack and the laptop inside it, game over.

But there was something else about this man that helped embolden my father, something he sensed.

“I sort of judged him as not really wanting to be in the game,” my dad says. “He didn’t want to steal this thing.”

So … why the tentative attempts then? Who knows? my dad says. Necessity? Maybe he liked the color?

Whatever the motive, the man reached out to grab the backpack a second time. My dad headed it off. But not with an attention-drawing yell or a shove or his own defensive snatch of the bag.

Instead, my dad grabbed the man’s reaching hand, shook it. He looked him in the eyes and introduced himself. Nice to meet you.

It disarmed this guy. Completely. He stopped trying to take my brother’s backpack.

Then the almost-criminal and his almost-victim transformed into two dudes just talking. About the day, bowling, football. My dad’s a Buffalo Bills fan. The man chuckled at that. (That actually might be the moment my dad took the most offense.)

A few minutes later, the man left. My brother’s backpack stayed put, and dad went back to waiting for its owner to return.

Two days after it happened, my brother tells me he’s not surprised.

“I grew up watching this man almost uncomfortably go out of his way to make sure people felt good about themselves in their own skin,” he tells me. “I was shocked by the story, of course, but how he responded was not at all surprising.”

“I was,” I say. “Because I think I saw myself in that space instead of him, how I would have reacted.”

And really, that’s the only thing that bugs me about this pebble splash of a story, I guess: how I would have reacted without calm and a smile or a handshake, how I’m kind of embarrassed about that and annoyed that I’m embarrassed.

That’s a good thing. Grace is risky and brave and difficult, and I need uncomfortable anecdotes that show its power, its necessity.

Even if I have to listen intently to hear the small splashes they make above the roar of so many angry waves.

— Reach Mail Tribune web editor Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@mailtribune.com.