Living Out Loud: : A Lion in Winter

The talk with a stranger

The old man picked a bad time to come into the store. We were short-handed on that Monday morning, and I was anxious to leave my part-time consulting job at Elgin Office Equipment downtown because I was up against deadline for a column I hadn't even started yet.

His movements were slow. He was stooped and shaky but well dressed in a suit. He was wearing a businessman's hat.

The man was thin. When he walked up to the counter, I noticed his striking blue eyes.

I don't usually wait on people, but the sales staff was busy with other customers, so it was up to me to help him. I felt irritated about it.

He was looking for some kind of fluorescent light bulb.

He took out a piece of paper from his suit jacket and had written down a description of it.

The writing on the paper was unreadable. I found it annoying.

"Do you have the old bulb with you?" I asked.

"Oh no," he said. "I don't drive anymore. Always take the bus into work. I'm always afraid I'll break the bulb somehow."

Feeling frustrated and having no idea what he was looking for, I continued to look at his handwriting on the paper. Then I looked at the old man's hands. They were shaking badly.

I looked at his face. His eyes were moist.

"I have Parkinson's disease," he said. "You probably can't read what I've written down. My handwriting is very bad these days."

"No, it's fine," I lied. "It would just be better if you could bring the old bulb in so I can figure out what you're looking for."

He looked at me for a little bit, his hands shaking, his eyes still moist.

"I know you're busy," he said, "but I lost my brother very recently and I'm shaken up about it."

I felt my irritation leave. The old man needed to talk.

He told me about his brother, 18 months older than he was. They practiced law together downtown. They served together in World War II overseas.

"We were as close as we could me," he told me. "Now he's gone, and I miss him terribly."

I asked him if he wanted to sit down.

"No," he said, "I know you're busy."

"I'm enjoying talking to you," I replied. "Let's sit down for a while."

And we did. He talked more about his brother, about what a sharp and fair lawyer he was and how he had died from Parkinson's slowly.

"The same thing's happening to me," he said.

All of his family is dead now, and so are most of his friends. He lives alone in an apartment in Hyde Park and spends a lot of his evenings looking at old photographs of loved ones who have passed on.

He told me he's 84 and is going to close up his downtown law office. With his illness and now with his brother gone, he said, "My heart just isn't in it anymore."

I asked him if he thought he would enjoy retirement. He laughed and said, "I don't know, ain't ever tried it."

With that said, the old man slowly got up from his chair.

"I won't take up anymore of your time," he said.

I noticed his shaking hands once again.

I walked him to the door and, as we reached the sidewalk, he turned to me to shake my hand.

"Thank you," he said. "I appreciate your listening to me."

After he left, I went back to my desk to try and finish up a project, but my mind wasn't on it. My eyes were filled with tears. I was feeling emotional and needed to take a walk.

During my walk, I thought of the old man and how much he missed his brother. I also have lost a brother, a twin brother, and maybe I should have told him that.

Maybe I should have told him I knew what he was going through. I'm not sure why I didn't.

I thought about how annoyed I was at first to have to wait on him and how short I was on patience. Someday this could be me — an old man dealing with a tragic loss late in his life and finding it necessary to talk to a stranger about how he's feeling.

He's a lion in winter now. Time is passing him by, and I think he knows it.

He needed someone to talk to. I'm glad it was me.

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