Sometimes, the people we meet become a part of our lives. However, even a chance or brief encounter can have a lasting effect. Recently, I remembered such an experience during my first year of college. Although somewhere around two decades ago, for whatever reason, every now and then, that day comes to mind. The people we meet, even in passing might stay with us forever, even if we never see them again.
It was my sophomore year of college, and I was despondent. Covering my living expenses was proving to be difficult. Even worse, I didn’t think I’d able to pay the tuition for the upcoming semester. I was having no success in job hunting or applying for scholarships. I struggled to maintain a positive attitude, willing myself to believe something would turn up.
Following several nights of fitful sleep, I decided to check if any company near campus would give a struggling college student a break. One Wednesday morning, I set out to visit as many offices as possible. I would start with the Veteran’s Hospital which was approximately three-quarters of a mile from my dorm.
Armed with my résumé and list of references, I arrived at the human resource office just after 9:00 a.m. I felt a spark of optimism as I was allowed to see the manager—even without an appointment. Unfortunately, the meeting didn’t go well. I found the human resource manager to be cold, patronizing and outright condescending. She informed me that she did not have time for personal consults and instructed me to check the website for openings and apply there. She could have easily told her assistant to give me that information. I was well aware of the option to apply online, but I hoped a direct approach would bring me success.
I left the office feeling very dejected. I was not going to check the website, because I had no intention of dealing with that woman again. At any rate, I figured it would probably be a waste of time because I was convinced she wouldn’t give me a job anyway.
I sat on a bench outside the hospital trying to determine my next step. There had to be a solution. I was so engrossed in my thoughts, I didn’t notice the gentleman until he was only a few feet away from me.
“Give me some of that money you have in that bag there,” came a booming voice.
Now, I scare easily. I’m that person who jumps at my own shadow.
I looked up quickly. There stood a tall, and as some folks would say, “strapping” gentleman. I thought he was, perhaps, in his late fifties. Thankfully, there was nothing to fear—he had the most heart-warming smile. Most of all, it was the twinkle in his eyes that set me at ease.
“Don’t mind if I sit, do you?” he asked, while slowly lowering himself unto the other end of the bench.
“What is your name?” he asked, still smiling.
I didn’t know why, but something about him made me feel a sudden sense of calm.
“Well, you can call me Joe,” he added with a chuckle after I told him my name.
Joe was eager for conversation and was not shy about making himself the topic of discussion. He was born in Tallahassee, Florida and lived by himself. His wife “died a few years back,” and his only son was in the army.
“I don’t see much of him, and his three kids—my grandchildren,” he said as a look of sadness clouded his face. It was brief. A warm smile replaced his momentary flashback to heartache.
“Yup, my son followed in my footsteps. I fought in Vietnam in the 50s, 60s, and 70s,” he said shaking his head. “Never even had a real job. I was barely out of my teens when I went into the army. By the time I got out, I kinda bounced from one thing to next.—handyman, cook, gardener, carpenter, you name it, I did it.”
I expressed my amazement and appreciation.
“I’m just lucky I survived and that I’m not messed up in the head,” he said solemnly. “Well, I think I’m not messed up in the head. Some might say otherwise.”
“Yup I’ve been really lucky. I guess I should say blessed. All I have to fuss about is my blood sugar.”
Joe revealed he was 79 years old and had been battling diabetes for the last 37 years. These days he was sick more often than not. Some nights he would wake up feeling extremely weak and unable to move because of low blood sugar. But he refused to get frustrated or feel helpless and scared.
I wanted to understand how he could be anything but afraid, especially since he lived alone.
“Being afraid, what’s the point?” he asked chuckling again. “That ain’t gonna help the situation. All I think of is getting to the kitchen somehow and gettin’ me something sweet.”
Joe didn’t seem ill though, and he certainly didn’t look 79 years old.
He stared across the grounds of the hospital. There were only a few people milling about.
“I like to come here early. It’s nice and quiet. It gets too crowded after a while, and people get too testy and impatient as the day goes on.”
“That’s true,” I agreed. I didn’t care to say much. I was only interested in his story.
Joe explained that he was at the hospital that day for one of his regular treatments. He took a bite of the chocolate roll he removed from his shirt pocket.
“This here’s for my diabetes,” he said. “My blood sugar’s low today.”
He removed the shades he was wearing and used his handkerchief to wipe his face. He replaced his glasses and then turned to face me.
I thought how unfortunate it was that he didn’t get to see grandchildren. Even more, what a loss it must be for them because I was sure he was amazing as a grandfather.
“You know what the first law of nature is? Self-preservation,” he said, answering his own question.
According to him, self-preservation meant having a positive attitude and looking after one’s self. He strongly believed that his self-preservation theory was the reason he was still alive and able to manage on his own.
Being elderly, ill, and alone are enough to make most people depressed, but not Joe.
“I hate to see a frown,” he continued. “I believe in accepting everything and taking things in stride. You live longer with that attitude.”
He dropped the barley eaten roll into the garbage can next to him.
“Aint worrying ‘bout nothing. I take life day by day. Today is here, tomorrow might not be,” he added.
Joe was passionate about golf but couldn’t play anymore because of his health. He kept busy by taking care of his house and yard. As he put it, he got pleasure from knowing he did those chores only when he felt like doing them. He had laughed after making this admission.
“I don’t rush myself. That’s what’s wrong with this world. Everyone’s always rushing…”
Joe didn’t believe in thinking about what life would be like in the future.
“Even when I was young I didn’t believe in planning. I don’t look at it that way. I accept life as it is, come what may.”
He looked at me questioningly.
“You aren’t from ‘round here, are you?” he asked. Once again, he wasn’t expecting an answer, and so he continued.
“People here, they don’t care ‘bout no one but themselves. I talk to everyone; no one’s a stranger. If one o’ them things come down from space, then that’s different. But you down here on earth, you no stranger to me.”
I wondered if he believed in aliens or only made the reference for the sake of argument. Nevertheless, I nodded as if in agreement.
He shifted with some effort, as he tried to make himself comfortable on the hard bench. Pointing to a pile of rocks on the ground, he said, “You see them rocks there? If I put something under one of ‘em and you didn’t know which, you’d have to look under each of them. That’s just the way you do everything in life—one step at a time.”
I smiled and nodded again. I appreciated his simplistic approach to life.
Joe glanced at his watch. With a pained expression, he rose slowly to his feet.
“Well, they should be ready for me now,” he said, nodding his head toward the hospital.
He stared at the ground with his hands in his pockets as if contemplating something.
“Always keep your guard up,” he said. “Life’s not what it used to be. If you know the dangers in life, walk around them. Never leave yourself wide open for anything.”
Then looking directly at me he added, “It’s nice having someone to listen to you once in a while. You take care of yourself.”
I watched him walk away—hands stuffed deep in his pants pockets with a slight stoop in his shoulders. He had such a matter-of-fact approach to life. How many of us blessed with good health and surrounded by friends and family maintained such a positive attitude?
I wished I could have spent more time with him. I would have loved to know more about his life and his time in Vietnam.
As I left the grounds of the hospital, I felt renewed inner strength. Joe had lifted my spirits.
I understood the importance of making the most of life and appreciating my good health. Most of all, I wanted to nurture relationships with family and friends. I couldn’t imagine growing old and alone, and for that reason, I felt a deep sorrow for Joe.
I was eager once again to resume my job and scholarship search. After speaking with Joe, I was feeling really good.
My meeting with Joe is perhaps etched in my memory because I jotted down much of what he said. I asked his permission and he was more than happy to apologize. It was early in the conversation that I felt I needed to record what he was saying.
It’s been approximately 20 years since I met Joe, and I feel by now he has likely passed on. I wonder if he found the strength to maintain that resigned outlook as age and health took their toll. I doubt Joe thought about me beyond that meeting—or even that day. Yet, he has stayed with me all this time. Sometimes, I’m not even sure why. It wasn’t the most profound or insightful conversation. His observations about life weren’t even that unique. However, I realize that although Joe accepted his waning health, losing his wife, and those unpleasant chores, he was quite lonely.
As someone who has consistently chosen solitude over social activities, I feel Joe is my Jiminy Cricket. Only, not so much a conscience, but more like a guide. He’s a whisper of a memory reminding me that the isolation I enjoy today might not be such a comfortable state in the future.
Sometimes the people we meet become lifelong friends; many are part of our story for a particular season. Others like Joe, come into our lives for but a moment, and often at the right time. Had it not been for Joe, I would likely have spent the rest of the day wallowing in self-pity. I can’t recall now what ideas that newly inspired college student pursued that day. I guess another takeaway is never to discount the people you meet. You never know how they’ll impact your day or even the rest of your life.