The first time I saw William, two years ago, he was sitting alone in the dining room. Tall, gaunt and haunting, he reminded me of pictures I’d seen of men at Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Dachau. His eyes, sunken and non-expressive, looked straight ahead and he stooped slightly when he walked – something one would expect after 95 years of gravity pulling against the spine. Yet his most prominent feature was neither physical or even emotional, but existential, as if the forces of darkness and light waged a continuous firefight inside him. And although no bars or cells restrained him, he was isolated and imprisoned just the same. In the months that followed I would learn his isolation was self-imposed, born of anger, resentment and frustration, but I have my own demons to wrestle, and there are only so many hours in a day.
Until just four weeks ago, I never saw him smile or engage another resident in conversation. His modus operandi – like most assisted living residents – varied little from day to day, and over time he had devolved into a group of organs, connective tissue and cell clusters — his only real bridge to his fellow human beings were the three times each day meals were served in the dining room. Yet even then, he would always eat in silence, by himself. Always by himself. After eating he would typically return to his room. Sometimes he would sit in the lobby and read the newspaper or merely sit quietly staring off into space, but always with a sadness he wore like a dark and heavy cloak.
Even his clothes reflected his apparent contempt for himself and the world around him. Every day, William wore the same tattered pants and shirt with a light blue cardigan sweater as colorless as he was.
And for years, that’s how William lived — a sad and broken man who carried loneliness on his back like a heavy sack of stones.
Then, one day, he had an awakening – a miraculous series of events that brought peace and joy into his life like an explosion of wild flowers in the spring – a miracle that began with a simple act of kindness from another resident – and like all miracles, an expression of love.
It all began roughly six months ago when I approached William in the hallway on his way to lunch. I angled my wheelchair to intercept him as he entered the dining room.
“Hi.” I said, not knowing what to expect. He ignored me as an elephant would a tiny insect and continued to stare straight ahead without saying a word. This continued for the better part of five months.
Then, one summer morning, as we made our way to the dining room, and I steered my wheelchair toward William, he suddenly stopped walking, turned to face me and whispered, “Hello.”
At that moment, as I’d practiced it a hundred times. I raised my hand, and to my utter astonishment, he accepted it and smiled as we shook repeatedly.
Too excited to eat, I went back to my room, grabbed my video camera and returned to the dining room. I waited until most of the residents had finished their meals and left, then approached William.
“As you may know,” I said, “I’m building a video biography of all the residents. If you don’t mind, I’d like to ask you a few questions. It will only take 10 minutes.”
“OK, was all he said, and within seconds I had the camera recording his every word.
“What was the proudest moment of your life?” I asked, and he chocked back tears and said, “The day I married my wife, Elma. She’s gone now and I miss her terribly”
“Children?” I asked, and with a raspy, strained voice he nodded, “two boys – Ronald and Charles”
“Get a chance to see your sons very often?” I said.
He looked into my eyes, and without a single word, I understood the depth of his sorrow.
He then recounted the time spent during the war on an aircraft carrier, manning an anti-aircraft gun, and before I knew it, I had used up my 600 seconds.
It was probably the first time in a half-century he talked with anyone so openly, and as the digital components recorded the event, you could almost feel a catharsis building. It was as if William was sitting on layers of tectonic plates deep within his psyche. And as they began to shift, the structural pylons of a great dam gave way, and rushing torrents cascaded down long spillways.
When I turned the camera off , William asked for tissues as the tears ran down his face.
Today, William is a changed man. He sports a new set of clothes and his smile is as authentic as it is infectious. Now, at the end of every meal, I walk to William’s table to shake his hand. a tradition that has become as important as the food itself.
And we have bonded like father and son.
It has truly been one of the most remarkable experiences of my 62 years on this planet.
Yesterday, there was a visitor who joined William for lunch. “Isn’t that’s great,” I said to the women I share a table with.
“Not necessarily,” one of them said, “His visitor is a hospice nurse.”
I managed to make it back to my room before the swell of tears blurred my vision.
I know how this story ends: I’ve been in this place too many times; seen far too much pain and watched too many people as they are lowered into the ground.
Now, I can only wait, knowing that when William dies he will take part of me with him.
And I will take what’s left, stuff my grief in a place inside I no longer talk about — or search the hallways for someone else to say “Hello” to.