You walk out of the bathroom of a popular, crowded restaurant. It’s a small town and chances are, a few of the other patrons will recognize you in your church garb, so you raise your voice a little, hoping to be seen. Wanting to be heard. Wishing to be noticed.
Someone needs to do something about that, you remark loudly.
Others who have come from the bathroom know what you’re talking about. Especially that little boy who’s hand you’re holding. The one who is looking up to you, trying to figure out how to feel about what he just witnessed.
An old man. He’s shit himself. His eyes are glassy and washed out. His face is sunken in. And he’s stumbling around the bathroom like a drunk on the side of Maple Avenue. He’s shit his fucking pants and you’re in your church clothes trying to have Sunday lunch. You’re disgusted just to be in the same bathroom as him, and you want everyone to know it.
And they do. Some of them walked out muttering the same sentiments you just expressed. Some of them laughed. Some of them eww’d uncomfortably. They can relate. You all see what has happened to this old man. He’s ruining your happy, perfect, Southern USA Sunday lunch. And you all meet eyes and shake your heads in agreement and disgust.
Well, fuck you mister. Fuck you and your Sunday lunch. Fuck you and your church clothes. Fuck you and your prayers and your appearances and your holier-than-thou outlook.
That old man is my grandfather.
He is eighty years old.
He served our country, first as a veteran of the United States military, and then as a psychiatrist helping rehabilitate some of the most mentally unstable citizens in our society.
He is a father to three. He once leaped across a river to save his preteen daughters from being bullied and assaulted by some older neighborhood boys.
He rescues stray kittens. No, really. Like a damn cat whisperer. And he used to have the meanest horse on earth in his backyard, but that horse loved him. So did his pet goat. And babies love him, too.
And so do I.
He’s never raised his voice to me. Although, once, when he had taken in my mother, my sister, and I after my parents divorced, I didn’t clean my room like my mom asked, and he told me he was disappointed in me. My mom was going through a hard time, he said, and with her working full time, all she asked of me was a clean room. He said this calmly, while sitting down next to me, eye level, like I was an adult. No, he didn’t raise his voice at me. But that was the harshest punishment I’ve ever received. He is the only person on this earth who I would ever care about disappointing.
He has this laugh that’s famous in our family. It’s more of a chuckle, really. And it doesn’t show up much anymore, but every once in awhile, when we least expect it, one of those famous chuckles escapes and his eyes twinkle a little, and everyone’s day has been made. We fight each other to say the funniest things, to try and make him chuckle. It’s like a prize, an award, a gift on Christmas day, that laugh is.
And he’s pretty funny, himself. He has these one liners that get everyone going. Just the other day, he was at his first physical therapy appointment since he’s recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. And someone made a comment about how his pants were sagging and he said he used to wear suspenders but he didn’t anymore. Those suspenders got suspended, he said. And the therapist thought it was the most hilarious thing that had ever been said.
My grandfather is a good man. He pays his taxes. He donates to charities.
He has watched his wife battle cancer three times, and now he is watching her die from it. He has seen one of his daughters suffer physical abuse by the hands of a violent man, one of his daughters lose the one man she truly loved, and his only son go through a divorce and depression. He has witnessed more pain than you could ever know.
He has held grandbabies and great-grandbabies. He has kissed boo-boos and taken temperatures and made soup and dressed wounds on all of us. He is super grandaddy.
His eyes are glassy. You’re right, mister. But he’s not glazed over with liquor. He’s suffered through two lasic eye surgeries to try and correct the glaucoma that has stolen his vision from him. But those surgeries didn’t work very well and he still can’t see for shit. He used to be able to shoot a bullseye target with a pistol from fifty yards away. It kills him that he can’t even see to drive his own truck anymore.
And he stumbles. Just like that drunk on Maple. Except, he’s got a balance disorder that also comes from the Parkinson’s. He might have a glass of wine once a week. But he stumbles every second of every day. That same man, the one who once leapt over a river, now can’t get out of his armchair without the fear of falling on his face.
And his stomach issues. He’s struggled with them for over ten years now. And the doctor’s don’t know what’s wrong. They’ve tried for ten years to fix him and they can’t. They almost killed him once though, with a misdiagnosis. They didn’t realize his gallbladder was completely gangrene and he would’ve died except for a nurse named Sean who saved him (I’ll never forget you, Sean, as long as I live).
That old man is my grandfather. I’ve looked up to him my entire life. And he is deteriorating in front of my eyes, and I know it and he knows it and everyone else knows it, and there’s nothing any of us can do about it except watch as it happens.
Maybe he should’ve stayed home. Maybe he shouldn’t have come out that Sunday. Except, he never goes out anywhere anymore. He goes to doctor’s appointments and Sunday lunches with his family. That’s it.
Your Sunday lunch is ruined because that old man in there is stumbling around and he’s shit himself and you had to look at him.
Newsflash. His Sunday lunch is ruined, too. And now, thanks to you, sir, so is any bit of dignity he ever had left. He doesn’t have his vision. He doesn’t have his balance. He doesn’t have control over any part of his body. And now, he has no pride. You’ve stolen the one thing from him that matters to a man more than anything else.
How hard would it have been to offer help? A kind word? To say, sir, stay here and let me find out if there’s anything I can do. Let me talk to your family. Let me help you stand back up.
How hard would it have been to just stay quiet? To avoid shouting out, loud enough for him and everyone else to hear your disgust?
How hard would it have been to show your young son what a true Christian really looks like?
You just came from church. You’re looking dapper in your suit. Fresh. Young. I’m sure you just prayed with the congregation, said your Our Fathers, sang the hymns, shook hands with the preacher, and came in here feeling real good about yourself.
None of it matters.
Nothing you say or pray or wear or do will ever matter as much as what you just took from my grandfather. And what you just put on your young, impressionable son. Now he knows, when he sees someone who is embarrassed and unable to help themselves and may need lifting up, that he can make fun of them. And as long as everyone else agrees, then he can sleep at night.
It’s a cruel punishment from God, growing old is. I hope you are handed a better set of cards to play with than my grandfather has been given. God forbid you ever need the kindness of a stranger.
But, thank you, sir. For teaching me a lesson. I am kinder because of you. I will say less, look more. React less, help more. And should you ever find yourself in a situation like the one you just witnessed? And should I be there to see it happen? I will offer you my hand, sir.
In honor of that old man, my grandfather, the greatest man I’ve ever known, I will offer you my hand.