Friday, August 31, 2007

Tempus Fugit

Last night while jogging I wandered upon an older man, leaning onto a fence post for support.

He had a plastic bag in one hand but was using both to steady himself, completely motionless as I ran past.

Motionless, that is, except for his eyes.

His eyes looked up at me, their bright blue making contact with my blue-green (I looked over at him, concerned that perhaps something was wrong).

But I kept running all the same, making my way further and further from the lake until midway down the block I stopped. Turned.

And saw that he still hadn't moved.

So I made out that I was tired, and needed a break. Walked to a nearby newspaper stand and read the headlines, wondering if I should go back and ask him that age-old (no pun intended) question that could easily offend anyone with silver hair and an arched back.

"Are you all right?"

I ran over various permutations in my head, trying to determine the most inconspicuous way to determine whether or not I was, in fact, OK to continue on.

All the while hoping, of course, that he'd show some sign of life — even if only by changing that blank, terrified expression upon his face.

But, still, he didn't move.

So I walked back to him, relieved when he shuffled his feet — first his left, and then his right — and eased his right hand along the metal post.

He was walking again, ever so slowly.

And towards one of many nursing homes along the street. I go past many such "rehabilitative" centers on this route, in fact, and it's not entirely uncommon to see old women with walkers making their way to the lake front, or even men in their 40s to stare down at me — sometimes calling for my name, as they did last night — as I run past the neighborhood halfway house (the porch of which is encased in bars).

The one thing all of these people have in common — regardless of age, and regardless of gender or disability — is their solitude.

The people on the porch, for example, generally exist in groups. But they sit alone, never talking amongst themselves. Just shouting random words at passersby, or nodding quietly to the voice in their head.

And then there was this man, too, probably in his late 70s or early 80s. Either exhausted or disoriented or both, but trying nevertheless to make a go at things. I wondered if perhaps making it all the way to the corner might have been a tremendous feat, and part of me was ashamed to have even stopped — out of fear that he may have noticed my hesitation to continue on, and understood why.

I didn't want to embarrass him.

I imagined that once upon a time he may have been married. Happy, virile and strong. Successful in his career (was he a laborer? a writer? a poet? did he have a desk job?). And above all other things: proud.

As I resumed my jog, and pushed play on my iPod, and those melancholy tunes filtered in, I saw this old man become decades younger. Saw his hair turn from silver to black; saw him stand straight up and join me, jogging along busy city streets.

And then, as suddenly as the whole thing began,

He was old again. And I was, too, my knees stiff and my hair gray. I couldn't move and my lungs ached to breathe.

And cars were zooming all around me. People were laughing and shouting and crying and swirling and I couldn't hear myself think. I didn't know where I was, and all I needed — dear God, all I need — is to understand where I was going. Where I belong.

I was scared, and confused, and above all other things:



disgruntled world citizen said...

and then there are those old folks who just seem to love life. laughing and cavorting and being generally goofy. beautiful post.

M@ said...

I once lived in a "gentrifying" and "ethnically diverse" neighborhood in Washington, DC, where I was only once threatened once with a handgun.

I passed a homeless man in a park once who asked me to call for help. Naturally, I didn't get too close and called 911 on my cell phone as I walked away, concerned it was either a ruse or some nonsense from a crazy-homeless person.

He beseached me for to get help.

Later, I heard someone had died in the park and wondered if that was the same man. At least I called for help but it says something about our world when you hesitate to approach someone begging for medical attention.

Beth said...

This resonates with me on so many levels. The heart going out to someone alone. The fear of being that someone alone.

There's an elderly man who's been sitting on the bench near my coffee shop lately, and I always stop to talk to him. His eyes remind me of my dad's, and he seems to appreciate that someone notices him.

I hope someone will notice me.

Unacademic Advisor said...

Perhaps he was pleased that you noticed him and considered offering assistance. Certtainly there is potential for embarrassment on both sides, but there is also the chance that a kind word or even a look can make a person feel less neglected, less invisible and alone. I am glad that you turned around. I am glad for your empathy. And I am glad that you shared this moment with us.

Eli Edmundson said...

Beautifully written, very evocative! It is hard to know how to handle these situations, sometimes I think it just depends on how outgoing I'm feeling in the moment. I held my hand out for an elderly woman getting off the bus a few weeks back and she let me know she didn't need the help but I'm glad I did it anyhow, I only wish I had joked with her that she couldn't blame me for wanting to hold a pretty ladies hand, maybe she would have belted me but it would have been fun to see. Another time an older woman totally pushed my arm off an arm rest at a classical concert, not really related but a funny memory, I was sitting there first! My heart does go out to the lonely folks out there though, regardless of age.

Nice of you to share this with us, something to think about, and as I said already; beautifully written.

Glencross said...

I'm not looking forward to growing old in the UK. Here people just seem to dissapear into their little boxes and fade away.

In Greece I was really struck by the fact that old people are visible. We'd see them out in restaurants or just sitting outside of their front door, and people would stop by and talk to them. They're still part of society till the day they die. I think it's a mediterranean thing - probably just because it's warmer outside.

Winter said...

Celebrate every birthday as a funeral precession. Maybe it is the fear of being forgotten. Put away in a room alone, locked in your head, with nothing to keep you company but your memories.

And this post didn’t help with that fear any!

Beautifully written though. But I accept nothing less from you.

Pamela said...

I had some similar thoughts when driving home from central california on saturday -

saw a rumpled skinny guy beside the road --nothing looked washed ever...

Had he been held in his mothers arms while she sang lullabies? Did someone hold out their fingers to prompt his first steps. Who taught him first grade? Who sent him birthday cards. .... and on and on and on.....

What brought him to this place ?

radialrelish said...

Maybe his expression was terrified because you look just like someone from his old life -- probably a ghost now -- and he moved on then as you approached because he feared that it was true.

This is a wondeful post, keep it up!

Stacy said...

Your writing is more beautiful than your faux-toes and thats saying something.
My doctor /friend wanted me to go on anti depressants when I told her I cry when I see old people eating alone in a restaurant.