Sunday, February 17, 2013

One Small Good Thing

He is very fragile. Alone, elderly and frail, he is like many of the City's unnoticed population, making their way slowly down the streets, with walkers and canes. I first happened to meet him almost 20 years ago, when he was a robust and demanding professor of literature at the same school where I taught a class in writing.

And just recently, we came across each other by chance, the way people in the City are sometimes wont to do.

How could his health have deteriorated so much in the interim? I wondered. Since the time we cordially shared that same office, how could so much in his life have changed?

While I had been off living my own life, the years had definitely taken a devastating toll on him.

I was shocked to find him slender, hunched over, using a walker, his proud face, frightened and haunted and strained. Yet when he met me, this 70+ man clearly wanted to convey an impression of dignity and he did. When we spoke, I realized that at heart, he was the exact same person I had known years ago, given to long discourses on esoteric literary topics.

In a sense, nothing had changed since we last met. Yet, in another sense everything did.

What amazed me the most was his determination to persevere. In one short encounter, he made me realize that I was fit and able to do things, ordinary things that I always take for granted, things that pose a major challenge for him and many others like him every day.

I offered to come and visit.

As I walked into his apartment, I surveyed all the medications that were lined up in rows on his kitchen counter, and I felt helpless.

“Do you need to take so many pills?” I asked with concern.

I also felt helpless to address all the medical ailments that he had developed, and I was outraged that he was not getting the care that he needed from his health plan, which was limited to in-network providers.

Yet he was humble, not even complaining about his health insurance but grateful for what benefits it allowed, and for the simple things that he was able to do every day.

Even though it took him all day, he told me, he did his laundry and neatly folded it. He took obvious pride in keeping his apartment in immaculate order. And he amused me with an essay he had saved from his teaching days, written by a student who meant to refer to a “rabbit’s foot” for good luck, but wrote instead of “a rabid foot” and “a rabbi’s foot.”

So now, I come over to see him, once or twice a week, lugging a bag of groceries from Columbia Foods, in order to make him a nutritious meal.   

When I arrive, armed with my ingredients, he is grateful. And so am to be able to do just one small good thing.

In our conversation, as I cook, we talk over each other and often miss each other’s words.  He speaks so softly that I can barely hear him; and with his hearing loss, I have to keep repeating the words I say.

Care-taking, I realize, has its innate satisfactions. It brings out my nurturing instinct, my ability to be of genuine help with the simple tasks that most adults take for granted.

“You're treating me like a baby,” he said to me amiably the last time I came over, when I just instinctively without asking cut the food I made for him because his hands were shaking so much that he could not do so on his own.

Yet he was smiling, his face relaxed, bemused by my endeavors.

And then, while we sat at the table and chatted, as we used to do when we shared an office, I found him laughing at and with me. 


  1. Lovely piece, Olya. Your professor sounds like a fascinating man. Gifts abound all around! He needs you and you need him.

    I know how hard it is to talk to someone with a hearing loss (my husband speaks softly and is hard of hearing, too) and what often happens is that they just give up and stop listening altogether. The conversations stop and that's just sad, because there's still so much to talk about.

    I hope you can keep it up, for his sake as well as yours.

  2. Thank you, Ramona, for your insight and for your kind comment!

  3. This is a good one, Olya. And he is no doubt as important to you as you are to him. We derive as much (or more?) from what we give to others as from what we receive.

  4. Yes, JAVS, what you say about giving is true. Now, if only this were the way of the world....

  5. Very moving piece! You show how this encounter was not just a coincidence. You are both sharing some Karmic lesson and will benefit from your friendships. The feeling tone is so real and you are not afraid to bring your feelings to print.

  6. You are paying it forward, indeed. The details you omit are as provacative as the ones you include: what happened to him? why can't his in-system insurance providers help him? where is his family?

  7. My mom, even in her dementia-riddled mind, still likes "to convey an impression of dignity." And "nothing had changed since we last met. Yet, in another sense everything did." Well said, Olya! A top post.

  8. Hi Olya,

    Fascinating post and great blog. I found you on Linked In and came to check you out! NYC sure has a lot of pleasant surprises!