"Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given circumstances, to choose one's own way."
~ Victor E. Frankl
My body stiffened as I walked out of my cottage into a cold, biting wind. Ice underfoot and dark, grey skies overhead. I was headed to the 'dump' - more politely named "the transfer station" - a stop to be followed by a visit to the dentist in a nearby village. Things must be done.
Perhaps completing a few tasks would convince me I was somehow improving my life. I'd feel the hoped for benefit of 'getting out of myself' - distracted from thoughts of unpleasant weather, the loss of my dog, the accumulating tensions expressed by clients struggling with pandemic fallout, my own aging...and whatever else I was piling onto the list of dark ideas fueling a blue mood. My preference would have been a return to bed with a cup of coffee and a book, but, I had to move.
I filled my car with giveaways and throwaways and off I went. More stress. What would I tell the man stationed at the dump gate, there to wave paid members through and stop those who don't 'belong'? This morning I had no sticker. Left behind on the old car I recently traded for something shiny and new, my windshield was bare. Would he turn me away? Could I convince him to let me in? Will he believe my story? Would I return to the house with a car filled with trash? Then what? More to fret about in an overly complicated world.
It just so happens I'm moving in a month and would prefer to skip a trip to Town Hall for a new sticker - to a building once open and friendly, barricaded and locked where a "Covid rules" notice reminds me conversations and papers will be presented through a tiny mail slot to a doubly-masked clerk I barely recognize as fellow human.
My attention wandered from Town Hall to a low-slung, maroon colored vehicle in front of me. I'm not a fast driver, but I'd caught up with an old - very old - pickup truck. With a glance, the oversized numbers on my new dashboard told me our speed - 29 in a 45 mph zone - no passing allowed. I slowed, creating space between me and a couple of banged up garbage cans, bundled plastic bags and lots of 'unidentifiables' loosely placed on the back of the truck. A plastic bag, apparently empty, became airborne, circled in the air for a moment or two, then flew off to the side of the road. With visions of one of the cans next to fly, I slowed again, adding more distance just in case.
I began a totally new conversation with myself...
"OK...there's a message here. You're supposed to slow down. Why must you always be in a hurry? Look at that truck! One pothole would collapse the whole thing in a flattened heap. Is he going to the dump? He must be. This is like "Sanford and Son". Oh, God, this makes me sad. What kind of life does this man have?"
I moved from stress to compassion. No longer in a hurry, no longer thinking about myself, I was mesmerized by what I was seeing and what it was causing me to consider - how really hard life can be, how people are struggling.
When I arrived at my destination, lost in thought of another person's life, I'd completely forgotten the gate challenge. With a promise of a Town Hall visit before my next garbage run, I was granted permission to enter, "...this one time."
I emptied the car, dutifully followed the rules placing bags and boxes in their rightful, well marked bins - "Household Trash", "Recycling", "Items for Swap Shop". I'm amazed at how doing something so simple ranks so high on the list of things that make me feel good - very good. The hoped for feeling of accomplishment didn't fail.
Walking back to my car, just a few feet ahead, I saw a man with a pronounced limp. Pushing a cart, grasping the handle with a rightward lean, he seemed to be lifting the weight of his body, perhaps as a way to lessen pain. It ran through my mind that without a cap, wearing faded, cotton baggy pants and an old jacket, too worn and too lightweight for any real protection, he must be chilled on this January day.
"May I help you?", I asked.
"No...I'm slow, but I can manage.", he said.
As he spoke, still clinging to the cart, he turned towards me with a big smile revealing several missing teeth. With what looked like great effort, he wobbled his way to gather more items for his cart. There it was - the truck I'd followed for 10 long, slow miles! This was the man who'd prompted so much wondering as I drove...
"How does he live...what is this life I see before me?"
When he spoke, the sun seemed brighter. My mood began to lift. I wasn't as cold as I'd been minutes before.
"It's a beautiful day, isn't it?", I said.
"Yes, at least it's not snowing", he said.
More smiling. He appeared to be a gentle man, a tone of optimism in his voice contradicting all that I saw.
He apologized for being slow, and patting his left leg explained that he was recovering from surgery.
"Was it a hip replacement?", I asked.
"No, it was my leg. The whole leg".
He lifted one loose-fitting pant leg to show me the metal rod where his ankle had been.
"From a farm accident...", he said,, "...many years ago. It got so bad I had to have it removed."
In the back and forth of our short encounter, my eyes drawn again to the old truck, I saw how much worse it was than first thought. Broken, cracked pieces of metal protruded from all sides. What had been a bumper, now only a large, loose flap, hung to the side of the headlight. Windows were cracked, the truck body mottled with rust.
My mind was racing.
"What a lovely person. What can I do? I must do something!"
The idea of sneaking a $20 bill onto his front seat crossed my mind, then just as quickly, remembering I had no cash, was quickly dismissed. I had nothing to offer but good wishes.
"Have a wonderful day,", I said. "I wish you a year of healing. The body is resilient, you'll get stronger. I know you will!".
M words felt empty. I was hoping he would know they were sincere. As I hopped into my car, I felt a deep sadness for all this man had to endure, but there was something else: joy. The joy you feel when someone gives you a gift you know must be cherished. The word "humility" came to mind. With thoughts racing again, but differently...I wanted to hold this moment, to not forget, to not move on too quickly, too easily.
The long, slow drive behind a rusted truck, the gentleness of a man's spirit, the generosity of a smile on a cold winter's day, were gifts meant to remind me of all I've been given. The concerns I carried with me that morning were more than manageable, they were small-minded and wasteful. As I drove to the dentist, a luxury of self-care this man did not have, feelings of joy and gratitude were tinged with shame and guilt and sadness.
Guilt that I would doubt for one minute how fortunate I am. Shame for forgetting. Sadness because of the hardships too many people must endure. This man's presence touched my heart. I felt fortunate as I thought of how willing he was to spend time with me. As I drove the 30 minutes it would take to get to the dentist, I began piecing together the story of his life...
Once he was young and handsome and vital, working in air so fresh and space so wide he thought he could do anything. Maybe he fell in love with the most beautiful girl in the world. Maybe he raised a family and tried to be a decent father. For years he worked, helping others, doing what he could to make life work. He was sure things had finally turned around the day he got a $5 raise. And, the time a man he worked for handed him a bonus of a new $100 bill, he went home to his family that night filled with hope. But, many more nights he lay awake wondering how to pay the electric bill, and, not in anger, but anguish, asked why he couldn't have what others had.
Now, as he was on the day we met, perhaps close to 70, I saw him as poor and lame and broken. I hoped he wasn't alone. I hoped he had someone waiting for his return.
The world is not always kind. The world may not reward or pay attention to decency. Honesty and sincerity can be taken for granted, mistaken for weakness. Those with little in the way of power or wealth or influence are used while they're young and strong, then left behind with barely a thought to their suffering.
Is it too dramatic to say meeting this man changed me? As long as I don't forget, it is not. A week has gone by. I've thought of him every day, wishing for the gift of one more meeting before I leave town. I want to ask him about his new leg. I want to say thank you.
Sometimes Winter is Brown
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