On Christmas Eve, driving to Target to pick up some last minute odds and ends, I was feeling a bit down. Although I’d gotten Ryan some nice things for Christmas – and the one thing she’d asked for , it seemed like a very small pile of gifts. This has been a rough year financially for me, and though Ryan’s been really understanding about not getting to do a lot of the things we’ve done in the past, it’s bothered me. A lot. As such, I’ve been feeling very ‘woe is me’ of late.
While I was stopped at a red light, lost in ‘woe is me,’ an old man hobbled across the street in front of my car, clearly struggling with a heavy bag. As he tried to step over a mound of snow at the curb, he stumbled and nearly fell. The panicked look on his face made my heart lurch. He had to put the bag down to steady himself but the ground was slippery and he nearly fell again. I watched him pick the bag up with his left hand, as there was something wrong with his right arm, but it was too heavy and it kept pulling him off balance (balance, which is, I suspect, precarious on his best days).
As soon as the light turned green, I drove quickly around the block and onto the street down which he was, by then, slowly making his way. I pulled up to the curb and got out of my car, reaching him just as he stopped to rest again.
“Can I help you with your bag? It looks awfully heavy.”
He looked at me with rheumy eyes and nodded. The bag did have some heft to it and though I said I could also carry the lighter ones he held with his bad arm, he shook his head, as he could manage those. I said I’d be happy to carry the heavy one home for him and asked where he lived. He pointed to the end of the street, some 100 yards away, and said his house was around the corner, just a little way down. He’d already walked quite a long way from the store and though I could have had his bags to his house in less than a minute myself, I thought it seemed a long way for him still to go. I suggested we drive.
I’ve never given a stranger a ride and though there was a twinge of ‘Diane, are you sure this is wise?’ running through my head, the bigger part of me felt he was harmless and I’d be safe. Indeed, it took him several minutes just to get into the car, as his old bones didn’t seem to want to bend. But once in, he seemed relieved to sit. I apologized for how messy my car was.
As he sat beside me, the strong odor of urine invaded the space. I saw how dirty he was and how few teeth he had and how his right arm was only partly there. And I noticed prescriptions from the pharmacy in one of the small bags he held on his lap, and a bag of oranges in the other.
“My bag is so heavy because I had to get my cats food. They didn’t have any. I have three little cats and they keep me company.” He looked straight ahead as he spoke, refusing to look at me. I smiled at him anyway.
“Your bag IS heavy and it’s cold today, so let’s get you home to your cats!”
We were at his house in seconds. It was the most dilapidated one on the street, the front yard and porch strewn with trash and broken furniture. He asked me to just drop his bags on the porch, by the front door, which I did, as he made his labored way out of my car.
“Thank you so much. And Merry Christmas!”
I patted his arm. “You’re so welcome! It was my pleasure. And Merry Christmas to you, too!”
“I’ll be spending it with my cats. They keep me company,” he said again.
The lump in my throat nearly prevented me from replying. “I know they’re glad they have you.” It was lame, I know, but I didn’t have any words. I got back in my car as he made his way up his porch steps, and once I was ‘round the corner, I rolled the windows down to air the car out.
And I cried all the way to Target.
While I was there, I picked up a dozen cans of cat food and put them in a gift bag emblazoned with a silly little snowman. Errands complete and back at home, I left the bag in the car, figuring I’d drop it off later. In the house, putting my odds and ends away, I opened the fridge and looked at the ridiculous amount of food, just waiting to be set out for my family, coming over on Christmas Day. And I thought about that old man, at home, alone with his cats.
The next day, after Ryan’s presents were opened, before everyone arrived, I loaded up plates and containers with ham, salad, sliced fruit, vegetables, little quiches and fruit tarts, some sweet treats, and a loaf of French bread – enough food for two or three days – and packed them all up in a big bag. I brought the food and the snowman-bag full of cat food to the old man’s house. He didn’t answer the door when I knocked, though I got the feeling he knew I was on the porch. So I left it all for him and when I went back around later to check, it had all been taken in. I felt a little better. Since then, I’ve dropped off homemade soup and chicken stew, crusty bread and fruit… and with every drop-off, six or ten cans of cat food. He never answers the door when I knock, but I don’t mind.
Ryan told me the other day that this was her best Christmas ever… that she’d gotten absolutely everything she’d wanted. It made me feel good. Then she said, “I’m so glad that old man met you on Christmas Eve. He needed you.” That made me feel even better.
And you know what? He might have needed me, it’s true. But I think maybe I needed him even more.