There were two occasions when I found myself living back in my home town because of the old man and his wife. I cared for them and I cared about learning more of what the old man had to teach me. After his wife passed away, he was only too happy to see me again.
Now, just to let you know, this went against every fiber of my being. Moving back home. To me, returning to the town I grew up in was the most mortal of mortal sins. Birds were meant to fly, not to remain in the nest.
But, as I hope I explained to you throughout this story, there was something special about this old man, and as his wife alluded to, there were things he wasn’t telling me. I had hoped that by moving closer to him and spending more time with him, we would develop a trust stronger than anything we had built up through the years.
So that’s what I did. Like I said, twice. And the second time was the time I got what I wanted and with his permission, quickly became the impetus for this entire story.
There was a particular afternoon from my late twenties I remember well. It was an afternoon I decided to visit the old man at his estate. He wasn’t expecting me, which was fine. I rarely announced my visits and by judging on the look on his face each and every time I did arrive, I thought it was a good idea.
Like so many times before, I pulled up the long driveway, past the blue and white booth and past the long white shed. I continued to drive past the pine trees and past the big white house on my left. I followed the advice of the sign that read, keep right, and drove by the small cottages and past the tiny playground. I followed the blacktop path until I made my way to the dirt parking lot. Which is where I stopped.
I placed my car in park, shut it off and opened the door. I lifted both legs, swiveled to the left and placed my feet softly on the ground. And that’s where I stayed for a good long time. I haven’t any idea why either. I just sat there with both legs hanging out of my car door and rested the left side of my head on the rear of my seat – looking up at the tips of the trees. They were swaying slowly in what was shaping up to be another beautiful autumn day.
As I sat there, I thought back to the time I had stood in that parking lot for all that time, the very first time the old man and I talked. Talked at the pond. I thought back to how much I had changed that day and how much that conversation had altered my perspective on who people were. I thought back to how just a few sentences could mold my outlook and how impressionable our conversations that followed would be. A different kind of appreciation I suppose.
I may have sat in the parking lot alone that day even longer than the day I had walked in circles the time before. I’m not sure, but what I am sure of was the feeling I had that day I sat in my car. I had the same feeling I had the day I entered that trail and found the old man sitting on his stone bench. Sitting on the stone bench – which is where I was sure he was right then.
I couldn’t stay in my car all day. Actually, I could, but I knew the old man wasn’t going to wait forever, so I slowly made my way out of the car and started heading towards the trail that led to the pond. I passed by the very spot where the old man had scolded me, and I passed through the entrance to the trail, which was now more groomed than it had ever been, and again, I walked and noticed the tallest sections of the shrubbery leaning towards the center of the trail, creating an arch of sorts. I once again made my way through, until I reached the opening that held the pond.
I looked across the water of the glistening pond – across the pond, to see the old man sitting on his side of the bench.
“Nothing ever changes unless there’s some pain.”
That’s what he said.
I sat down next to the old man on the bench and waited. I waited like I had always done. I waited for the old man to think about what he wanted to say and I waited for the first words to leave his mouth. I wondered if this day would be one where I replied or if I would just sit and listen.
At least an hour passed. The old man had gotten older and I felt as though perhaps times were changing. For so many years, I had relied on him to lead the way, to teach me and to initiate the conversation. I wondered, almost out loud, if the old man had run out of things to say when I finally heard the words leave his lips.
“How are you young man?”
It wasn’t exactly what I had wanted to hear. I had become accustomed to the old man beginning our talks with something much more profound. I was used to his wit and his habit of trying to startle me with something I could think about for at least a week or so. I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out why the old man seemed as though he didn’t want to talk that day.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“I’ve been wondering that most of my life.”
He just didn’t seem the same. He was hunched over more than he usually was and I could see by the way he was holding himself that he was getting tired. I felt as though I needed to initiate our exchange more forcefully than I had before.
“Who are you?” I repeated.
He only kept muttering the same thing over and over.
“Nothing ever changes unless there’s some pain.”
I had seen him like this before. I had seen him slowly lower his aged face into his waiting hands. I had seen him lose interest in everything around him to disappear to a place only he knew. I’ve seen him get up and walk away – leaving me in the woods alone. I’ve seen him like this before.
But today was slightly different. Today, he began to speak and to tell me things about his life.
That moment, the very moment the old man and I sat in the woods at the edge of the pond, he told me, very slowly and quietly, who he was. Or who he thought he was. He described his childhood in Germany with the most drawn out but vivid detail. He told me about the challenges he faced as a young man, the pressures he found himself up against and about how his view on humanity had changed because of things he experienced personally. One minute he was a young boy awaiting the world with wonder and excitement and the next, he was nothing more than a nonentity standing in line, waiting for who knows what, amidst strangers.
He told me of the horror, the darkness, about the friends he lost. He told me of his separation from his family and the nights wondering if he’d make it through. He told me about how he used to count the minutes and hours backwards to what he thought might be the end. He told me all of this and all I could do was to sit and listen. I suppose this is what I wanted to hear.
He told me of the boots, the mud, and the trenches. He told me of the concrete floors and of the bitter nights. He continued slowly but hastened his pace as he became less uneasy with what he was saying and with my reaction. He spoke more quickly as he described the smell he’d never forget and the memories of his inhumane treatment that continued to haunt him every minute of every day. He told me of the dragging of bodies and the screams, and about the people he never saw again. He told me everything. Or as much as he could remember.
But one thing he told me lasts with me to this day. One thing he whispered as I watched the back of his head shiver. In the woods that day.
He told me his soul had been stolen from him. He told me it had been whipped and battered, and he had been turned into the broken man I sat next to. He told me his soul had been stolen from him.
There was a day, much later than the one I just described when I was sitting alone in a place nearby. I was sitting by myself doing the things I used to do. I was sitting alone when my telephone rang. It wasn’t a long distance call, because during our goodbyes after our conversation in the woods, at the pond that day, I promised the old man that I would I would never be too far away. As we stood together at the edge of the pond that afternoon, I held the old man’s shoulders in my hands and looked him square in the face.
“I will never leave you here alone. If you need me, I’ll come.”
I said it to him and I meant it. And I hadn’t.
When the old man called that day, I was quite surprised. He didn’t call often unless there was something he urgently needed help with or unless he wanted to sit and chat. And while I was talking to the old man on the phone that day, I heard neither the urgency or the concern in his voice.
He simply invited me over for some tea.
To which I kindly obliged.
His living room was just as she had left it. He hadn’t moved a thing. It was set up long before I ever arrived and I’m sure it will stay that way long after I leave. It was the way things were on the old man’s estate. That’s the way he chose to live his life – in memory of everything.
We sat across from one another that day. He on one couch and me on the other, directly across from him. We hadn’t said a word to one another. I merely handed him his tea and we sat facing each other in the living room that day.
I knew what the old man wanted.
To which I kindly obliged.
We sipped our tea and I continued to watch the old man. I watched as he moved his lips, pressing them into one another in a fashion as if he had something to tell me. He would move his jaw in such a way that led me to believe he was going to sigh. Neither of those things happened that afternoon.
We sipped our tea as I watched the old man look around the room at everything he had collected through the years, at the memories he had created with his wife. I watched him as he scanned the wallpaper – the wallpaper he had hung a few years after he and his wife had married. The wallpaper he had hung that evening as his son played with some toys in the corner of the lighted living room. I watched him as he fixated on the collection of photos, their frames collecting dust while resting on top of the piano. I watched him as he fixated on those photos. And I watched him as he let the tears roll down his cheeks.
I sipped my tea and watched the old man place his cup back in the saucer. I watched the old man as he pushed himself up by resting both hands on the coffee table so he could sit up straight on the couch. I watched as he held himself as high as he could and then he gave me a smile – a smile I hadn’t seen very often, but a smile that shared a lifetime.
And I watched as the old man sat back on the couch and lay his head to rest on the pillow. The pillow I had fixed for him earlier in the day.