- Posted December 10, 2013 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
The written word: Your personal essays
“What do you think you’re doing?” I scolded him. I was raised to address my elders in a deferential manner, but there was no one to bear witness to our exchange. Without acknowledgement, he opened my car door and unceremoniously claimed the shotgun seat. I stiffened, the seared-in-brain childhood chant “stranger danger” mockingly echoing from the recess of ancient memories. The facts, however, did not add up on my oft-rehearsed abduction checklist: I had neither been cunningly lured in the back of a van, nor had any candy offer been extended.
Temporarily reassured, I quieted the irritating refrain. I also conceded that even though my fortuitous travel companion classified as a bona fide stranger, I doubted he’d have the strength to flatten an anemic palmetto bug. The man was much older than I had initially assessed – his cloud-like bright white full head of hair had thrown me off. As it is often the case, his hands bore the true indicators of his advanced age. Arthritic fingers with their telltale sinuous shape, bulging purple veins tracing a relief map of joys and sorrows, spotted skin reminiscent of abstract dot art, and a slight yet persistent tremor all added to well over 80 years.
I relented and internally decreed that doing an old man a small favor would be karmically repaid at a later time. I put the car into gear and merged into the languid summer traffic.
“So…” I clumsily broke the silence, “where to?” I swiftly inquired, wishing to offload my unwanted stowaway without delay.
“My name’s Frank,” he offered as an unrequited conversation starter. Unfazed by my silence, he persevered. “I was in the mood for a cheesesteak sandwich like the ones they made in Philadelphia back in the 30s, so I figured I’d walk over to Publix and get all the fixings…” he trailed off, noticeably wheezing.
I could have picked up where he left off, given him a chance to catch his breath, but I did not. I didn’t want to give the old man – Frank – the impression that we would consort for any length of time beyond the absolute necessity. My life was on a straight-line trajectory that left no room for idle chitchat with random old men. Had I been coerced, I’d have been hard-pressed to describe my specific destination, but I trusted I would know when I got there. In exasperation, I squeezed the steering wheel, whiting my supple knuckles maintained almost creaseless through a rigorous regiment of placenta-based moisturizing. I dented the fine upholstery with my impeccably manicured fingernails and clenched my teeth to anchor my muteness.
At a lingering stop-light, I glanced to my right, slightly recoiling to both widen the distance separating me from the stranger, but also – and especially – to get an overall picture of the old man. The snapshot illustrated on his hands spread out to his entire figure, composure, and attitude. The man embodied a battlefield of defeats and victories with countless casualties and collateral damage. Far from exuding the coveted peace one would expect from an overdrawn conflict, the old man had seemingly settled for armistice.
“… ever had one?” Frank interrupted my reveries, “a cheesesteak sandwich?” he probed with the enthusiasm of a child on Christmas morning. “Did you, did you?” he insisted. I pictured a miniature old man, looking up expectantly while tugging at my skirt, nagging in the endearing way that children innately use to get their ways. “Did you?” he pestered me one more time.
Maybe all I needed in my life was a break, a ceasefire, my own armistice. If I waved a white flag at my obligations and self-imposed accountability, would anyone care? Would anyone notice? I relaxed my grip on the steering wheel and let my hands slide from the clockwork 10 and 2 positions to a lazy 6:30. I intentionally lowered my shoulders, noticing for the first time that my resting position is in fact a permanent shrug. I reached down to press the control that reclines my seat and leaned onto the headrest. I felt my world closing in as I realized that I could not recall experiencing unbridled excitement – especially not over a sandwich. My straight trajectory had earned me a perfectly checked-off task list. Career: check. Travel: check. Money: check. More money: check, check, check… Maybe I could afford to veer off for a little while.
“Did you?” Frank tirelessly repeated, like a broken record.
I sighed, and smiled. I realized that Frank would not let it go, would not let me go. What perplexing series of event culminated in our accidental meeting – could it be fate? Maybe meeting Frank was intended as a checkmark on my lifelong itinerary all along.
I drove Frank home that day, all the way up to his little apartment seemingly forgotten from the rest of the world. I carried his shopping bag to his sparsely stocked kitchen, attesting to one who doesn’t plan many meals in advance. To repay me for the ride, Frank invited me to stay and have lunch with him. Not only did I stay that day, but I also came back. Frank had lured me in.
A superb raconteur, Frank had me believe that he was instrumental in the creation of the inaugural Philly Cheesesteak. That sandwich was the first of many artery-clogging meals I shared with Frank. More importantly, that story was the first of many inspirational, humorous, and heart-wrenching stories with which Frank regaled me with obvious enjoyment – equally mine as his.
Frank and I were lucky to have found each other. I provided him with solace and companionship during the last years of his life, while he imbued my reality with purpose and richer aspirations, free from pernicious
Frank’s life journey was truly unique, but his story is not. He was a Silver Orphan, one of 11 million seniors in the U.S. who live alone, marginalized from mainstream society. Most still have family members, but about 15 percent of seniors who need care have no family support.
By 2030, the number of people over age 65 will soar to 71.5 million – one in every five Americans. Yet, over half of America’s communities have not initiated preparation to deal with the aging population.
The worth of a society is measured by how their weakest members are treated by the collective. Government assistance is not sufficient; a successful social resilience model must include redundancy through overlapping social networks. Unless the young and strong reach out to the old and meek, we will soon be engulfed in a tidal wave of Silver Orphans. Decades after he first asked the question, Ernest Hemingway’s words would ring painfully incriminating: “Who is calling who a lost generation?”
Martine Lacombe is the author of Silver Orphan – a book club favorite on the graying of America. She lives in Fort Lauderdale.