We called him Old Grumpy… and with good reason. He was the most miserable old coot I’d ever met and I had the displeasure of seeing him a lot. Every day at 3:00 he’d come into the cafeteria-style restaurant where I worked while I was in college. He’d make his way through the line, never speaking, pointing at what he wanted; he’d pay without a word to the cashier; and he’d sit in the dining room, silently eating his meal.
Between the lunch and dinner rushes, 3:00 was obviously not busy. I’d use the time to fill salt and pepper shakers and wipe tables down, so I’d be moving around Old Grumpy’s table as he ate. No one liked to wait on him… there were audible groans when he walked in the door. But I was stuck with him, so I sort of made him a project... not out of the kindness of my heart, I'm sorry to say, but because I was always up for a challenge. My goal was to make him speak to me… or at least smile. My dad used to say I could hold a conversation in an empty elevator and I put my small talk skills to the test with Old Grumpy, let me tell you. I’d flit around, chatting away, telling him about my day, my classes, anything that popped into my head. I was lucky if I got grunts or nods in response. He never spoke. He never smiled.
Then Old Grumpy stopped coming in. I noticed, of course, and I was surprised when I realized I kind of missed him. After a couple of weeks I was actually worried, but I knew nothing about him – not even his name – so there was no way to check on him, to see if he was OK.
After about a month, he returned. I was really happy to see him and told him so. I didn’t expect that anything had changed, so you can imagine how shocked I was when he spoke… when he asked me to sit down at his table! I sat, wondering what on earth was coming next. And I’ll never forget, not for the rest of my life, what did.
He told me that all the times he’d come in to eat had been between visiting hours at the hospital. His wife, to whom he’d been married for 55 years, was dying of cancer and he told me he had to leave the hospital every day because he needed a break – from the sadness, from the anger, from the feelings of helplessness. He said there were days when the only smile he saw was mine and that he'd found himself looking forward to seeing me… to hearing my stories, my laugh. Tears welled in his eyes when he explained that he'd stopped coming in because his wife died. Then he collected himself and added that because he felt the need to thank me for being a bright spot during such a dark time, he'd made a special trip to the restaurant that day.
When he finished speaking, I was crying. Typing this, 23 years later, I’m still crying. That day, tears flowing freely, I hugged him and said good-bye... and I never saw him again. But I have thought of him often. So very often. I expect I always will. I hope I always do. I count him among my greatest teachers… and the lesson he taught me among the most valuable I’ve ever learned.
Philo of Alexandria, who lived 2000 years ago, has been credited with saying, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Truer words were never spoken.