Friday, August 21, 2009

The Old Guy

I've know him now for about 10 years, this old man.

He was old when I met him, but still spry. Still working full time, even though he was hitting 80. He was writing a book and needed an all-around girl, an editor/typist/go-for who would help him out with this years-long project.

The day I went to meet him, I arrived at his house. I was smartly dressed, and courteous. I called him "Sir" and "Mr."because he had earned those titles and I have a deep respect for my elders. As we sat talking about his project, his wife came in and told me she'd backed into my car.

My brand new car, a 1999 Ford Taurus. The rest of the interview is a blur in my mind as I wondered what kind of damage was done. I do remember he wanted to start working immediately, as in, right that minute, when I thought I was only there for an interview. I gamely settled into what would quickly become our routine.

He sat on the couch, books spread all over the coffee table, while I perched in a winged-tipped chair. It was very Victorian, the way we were working. He didn't like a laptop between us and insisted on dictating while I wrote it all down by hand. His thinking was slow and deliberate, and there would be long pauses between sentences. I don't mean seconds, but minutes, enough time that I sometimes would wake with a jerk when he said something because I might drowse in the warm house.

Sometimes he took so long I would check to make sure he was breathing. I took in every inch of the living room. I stared hard at a bizarre picture over the fireplace mantle, a scribble that ultimately depicted the manager scene, complete with bowed heads and angels, if you could finally figure it out. I puzzled over an oil painting of an old woman. The painting was dark and black, the colors so faded you could scarcely tell they were there. I decided at some point that the woman was the old guy's mother. The two pictures did not go together at all. One was modern "art" and the other was not.

We worked this way almost twice a week for about seven years. He thought and occasionally dictated while I sat poised with my pen, ready to write, and prayed I did not fall asleep. It was not solid, not every week, and there were times we skipped months. He took a long break to recover from heart surgery. I had my annual illnesses in spring and fall. He agreeably waited until I was well enough to get back to work.

Occasionally we strayed and he would work on another writing project, an opinion letter for the local daily, something like that.

He continued to go into his office every day. I admired him for his efforts, working when he really didn't need to. Not giving in and giving up.

We had one spat during the course of working, when I was going through something and found my patience thin. We'd work for three hours and sometimes only come up with two or three paragraphs. It frustrated me. It was painstaking, deliberate work and sometimes as I waited for the next sentence I simply wanted to yank the words right out of him.

He seemed to comprehend that I was, truthfully, bored, and he made an effort to be more ready for me, to have his thoughts together better, and our hours planned so we could proceed. I gave myself a talking to about my attitude and we moved on, him thinking, me waiting, and eventually the book, all 600 pages of it, became a reality.

When our work was complete I did not hear from him much. I did not think about him growing old and feeble. I saw him as he was when I left him. I did not remember that old age is a wicked taskmaster, and at some point the crack of the whip breaks every one.

I saw him over Christmas, and he was looking much older. He was using a cane, and I could tell his vision, which had always been bad, was worse. He was still driving but I had long thought he should have handed over his keys. His is 90 years old, after all.

He called me this week to tell me he had a little project. He needed his girl for about 10 hours of work.

I found him much changed. He is confined now to a wheelchair, his eyes gone so that he cannot read unless something is in 24 point type, and even then he struggles. He hasn't shaved in about two months, I guess because he can no longer see to do it. His voice is still strong and he still has his wits, his sense of humor, and his desire to be a part of the human race. He has enough money that he can hire someone to stay with him and his wife, who is also quite unwell, and he can bring in someone to read to him, and call for me when he needs a hand.

But even the wealthy cannot stay the hand of time, and it has caught up with him.

It makes me sad, but happy, in a way, because he is still fighting. He will not go gentle into the night, this old guy. He seems to have accepted his blindness and the lack of use of his legs, but he is still fighting.

I wish I could tell you his name.*

*I have too much respect for him and his privacy to reveal who he is.


  1. When you first started your description I almost thought it was a gentleman here I worked for in the same capacity years ago. My friend is 94 now and has only recently begun to struggle with health issues. But we still have lively talks and visits!

  2. When I first starting reading this my feminist side kicked in...this guy thinks she has nothing better to do. He won't even let her go check her car! But then I began to see him through a different lens. He's of a different generation,and I'm reminded that we'll all be there one day.

  3. What an eloquent picture.

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I can feel the accelerated heart rate as you waited for another sentence, see the pictures on the wall. Feel the sadness and the joy at seeing a guy keep living, even with limitation.

  4. Great story!! I kept wanting to hit record on a voice recorder for you.


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