On Kindness, Very Elderly

“Mustard and onions!” he would shout as soon he’d gotten himself through the door, gingerly shuffling up to the counter. He’s pull out crumpled dollars and some change. It was $1.62, always the same order: hot dog with mustard and onions, shortened to just “mustard and onions.”

Sometimes we’d see him coming and start his hot dog before he’d even gotten through the door (we had time; the man was 94 years old and no spring chicken. It’s interesting, to attempt to race an old man by microwaving a hot dog to have it ready for him before he’s even ordered it). His hands weren’t as nimble as they used to be, so we’d open the mustard packets for him and carry the hot dog out to his seat.

He would regularly give us a $5 tip and tell us not to spend it on the opposite sex. “Don’t spend this on men,” he’d caution, and I’d smile and swear I wouldn’t. And I never did.

He had a tiny white Pomeranian-looking dog thing he’d gotten from the Dumb Friends League. The tiny dog was tethered to the man’s walker by his leash, and the both of them were parked outside the large side window while the man ate his hot dog at the tall table in the corner. We used to bring the dog a little cup of ice cream to eat while the man was inside. One time, he yelled at me not to bite his dog, which made me laugh, mostly because it terrified some tiny children waiting in line. Once, the dog ran into the parking lot, dragging the walker with him. That caused a brief upset, and both the dog and the walker were safely recovered, returned to their post on the sidewalk.

Over time, I learned that the man had been a captain in the Navy during WWII. We talked about that when the captain ran his ship aground while showing off for friends off the coast of Italy. The man shook his head, clearly disappointed by the captain’s idiocy. When I was dating a Marine, he told me that the best part about the service was that when I got bored with the man, I could send him right back to the Marines.

He was the bright spot on many days. When we had new people working, who didn’t understand the “mustard and onions,” shorthand, they’d panic, confused by the gruff shout. He lived nearby, and walked the block and a half to the Dairy Queen regularly, exercise and human connection.

This morning, I read a post on Facebook written by a woman who’d taken her young children to a Target store for a quick necessities run, only to find herself behind an elderly woman in line who was paying for each item individually, in change. The woman wrote about her initial annoyance, but then wrote about how the cashier’s patience and helpfulness with the change counting and the interaction struck her. When the woman was done purchasing her items, she asked if she had enough to purchase a reusable bag, which she did. The cashier repackaged the woman’s purchases with a smile, no hint of aggravation or annoyance. She watched her young daughter watch the interaction, and she felt compelled to find the manager to speak about the cashier’s actions. And then she posted about it, which is of course how it came to me this morning, via a newsfeed so full of cluttered self-important noise.

When I was in high school, first beginning my time as the Dairy Queen (a self-imposed title, to be sure), we used to have an old woman come in and purchase a child-sized twist cone. Then she’d linger by the counter, chatting. At first, I was annoyed. I had things to do – re-stocking candies and cups and spoons. My manager at the time, a fantastic manager who somehow commanded and compromised and inspired with her honest work ethic and beautiful handling of high school employees who knew nothing about the working world, always encouraged us to stay and talk to her. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that for this woman, we were human interaction, not just a quick pit stop on the way to other things. It wasn’t until I grew into more adult awareness that I realized the haunting reality of the loneliness that comes with aging.

It tears at me, now, to think of people, not just the elderly, who are alone. I see the posts about how they’ve put a pre-school in a nursing home, and I’m fascinated by the sheer brilliance of the idea. I don’t know why we don’t have those everywhere, because we should.

I shed a few tears this morning, thinking of the hustling, frantic pace of our world, and the isolation that comes with our own self-involved narrow focuses. Much in line with my recent ruminations on the disillusionment of life, I find it disheartening that we feel compelled to share these stories of small kindnesses as some kind of heroic behavior, because in my own idealistic view of the world, these would be commonplace courtesies performed not out of duty but out of sheer goodwill.

I looked forward to seeing that old man every day. I brightened when he came in. I took as much (maybe more) from our interactions as he did. I still think of him, from time to time, and hope he’s okay. He might not be, it might be that he’s passed away or moved to a nursing home, but some small part of me wants to tell him how much he meant to me, and how his presence in my life made me better, happier, more fulfilled.

Listening to NPR cover the death of Alan Rickman last night, I heard the voice of one of his friends describe him using all of the words we all aspire to: kind-hearted, funny, and so on, and I started to think about the legacy that I will someday leave behind. The totality of our lives is summed up not on paper, which will eventually be filed away somewhere and left to the dust, but exists in the impressions we leave on those around us.

We get back what we put into this world, unless we don’t, in which case we must take comfort in knowing that we’ve done and been the best we could have been. My Russian co-worker, who became a dear friend, told me that she felt very deeply that the only reason she’d come back from Russia to be here for 9 months was so I could come into her life and we could become friends. She appreciated my sense of humor and my outlook. She’s back in Russia now, and I miss her every day. I miss our discussions of English language, and her laughter and our shared plants, which mingled in my tiny garden and grew together.

She’ll never know how much that compliment meant to me, and how it drives me when I’m in need of motivation. This. This is the reason we need other humans. We need them because the ripple effects of the smallest kindnesses don’t go unnoticed; they carry onward, softening over time, but still changing their environments. The harder we work to bring joy to those around us, the more joy there is to go around. That sounds Pollyannaish, and I don’t care. Taking the time to make small positive impacts is something that can have a very real and valuable return. It’s important, and we don’t seem to do enough of it.

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