By Holley Kelley
I crammed a mani-pedi into my busy Saturday. I don’t really enjoy them, and the attendant kept telling me I was too tense and not relaxed as she filed. But she kept nicking me so how could I possibly unwind? Following the manicure, they moved me to the pedicure station, and it was a bit more settling. The workers do not speak very good English, but they converse with each other in their native tongue.
Nearly halfway through a lady came through the front door, smiling but on a mission. She was stressed but working at a fast-pace. She shouted to the staff, “He’s here, I’m moving these things so he can get in!” The workers just looked at her as she moved wheeled stools out of the walkway, kicked cords to the side, and confirmed his destination before she exited the building.
The front doors opened again, and the workers stood and watched as they reentered. “Come this way,” she said. I heard the familiar sounds, but I did not look up as they drew nearer. But the employees and everyone else watched on.
“Right here, this way,” she said again. “I know!” He bit back. “Where are you, Lynn?” He demanded to know. He was now directly in front of me and her, who I believed to be his caregiver, was standing right behind him. I saw an angry, hunched-over man, full of exasperation, using his walker, who was once probably about 6’2 in stature. He was ambulating with physical, verbal and mental aggravation through the maze of pedicure soaker chairs. He felt everyone’s eyes on him, though I never looked directly up—and he was looking down to watch his every step carefully. This frustrated man had long ago put up his heavy-duty forcefield and gruff exterior of stern conduct.
“I’m right behind you,” she responded. “Get BESIDE ME—beside me!” he commanded. She was breathing heavy, nervous and upset with his demands. The workers went to help move something as he turned to get beside the chair. “NO!” he barked loudly. They all giggled together, exchanging looks and mannerisms and spoke to one another in their language that the rest of us could not decipher. “Slow down,” he said, “you’re going too fast! Wait! This is dangerous!”
He was going to the chair next to me, and his back was to me as he was transitioning. They had taken his walker from him, and it was time for him to lower into the sitting position. He was yelling at Lynn, and the workers were all exchanging glances that I understood. Lynn went to move his legs into the tub. “DON’T TOUCH ME!” He yelled loudly, “Stop!” They finally got him into the chair, and just as quickly Lynn yelled almost patronizingly, “I’ll be back in an hour or so,” and she was happily and hastily gone. The attendant asked him, “Is the water okay?” To which he responded, “No!” And they all looked at each other and giggled but did nothing about it.
I looked with my peripheral vision as I watched him try to get comfortable in his seat. He was wearing a ball cap. He was looking down. And downtrodden. There was once an interesting man in there, and I knew it. I caught the letters on the back of the Velcro closure of his hat and then I looked away. That’s what I needed. USMC. I waited. I didn’t look up. I gave it a few moments, and then I said much to everyone’s surprise that I dare talk to him, “Thank you very much for your service.”
He didn’t look at me. I didn’t look at him. It wasn’t time to engage.
You’re welcome,” he replied in a gruff voice that was surprised that I spoke.
Still not looking at him, I said, “Is your water okay?”
“Yes.” He said still cutting me out.
“You served right? Marine Corps? I ventured.
All eyes were on us in amazement. In a much softer tone, he replied resolutely, “Yes, as a matter of fact.”
“Did you serve four years or more?” I continued this exchange giving him little choice.
“I served eight.” He said.
“Oh so must have liked it to sign up for more than four.” I replied.
I should have served more. I regret I didn’t. I should’ve. Wish I had. I should’ve done the entire thirty years. Always looked back on that…Yep.” He replied in reflection.
Now it was the beginning of a conversation. The entire shop was in disbelief.
“So you loved it? Was it because of the brotherhood? What made you love it?” I asked him.
“Well, yes, there’s that. But you know what’s going on for one thing. There’s so much. And you learn so much.” He shared.
This man who sat beside me who had just moments before been one of the most downhearted individuals I had been around in a long time, shifted to a person of incredible delight and elation as he reminisced his past. We talked about the passing of Barbara Bush and shared so many details of the Bush family. We laughed. The staff stared on and whispered in each other’s ears as if a miracle had taken place though I knew otherwise.
I found out the Marines had put him through law school. I asked about his friends who served with him to learn they had all pre-deceased him and he was the only one left. And I asked the question because it was okay to do so and I knew it, “What happened?” He said it was a stroke. And that he had been in a wheelchair and he hated that; and had evolved to the walker and only hoped to improve. He was in his late eighties. A former pilot, and a truly dynamic and interesting guy that actually still works part-time despite his ambulatory issues. It was an unbelievable exchange, and he forgot his problems as he laughed and smiled as we talked about him. He told me how difficult the grief had been following his wife’s death. We talked about why he was worried about falling and the fears associated with that.
I asked him what he wanted next in life? He replied, “I want to lose the walker and to fly my plane again.” I said, “Do you know the most important way to get there? Do you know how to do it?” He replied, “How?” I said, “Know that you can, believe that you will, make it so.” I reminded him how powerful his mind was and his thoughts. And I told him to stay positive. Keep his eye on the prize. And I told him since he hated being in that wheelchair so much that I wanted him to keep it, as a reminder of where he doesn’t want to be on days he might feel a little challenged. He had the brightest sparkle in his eyes and thanked me.
I paid for my mani and pedi, and I paused and looked back at him with a heavy heart before walking out the door. Only the gentleman looking back at me wasn’t the same guy who entered. He was now a proud, happy, brave marine. My heart overflowed with love and tenderness. I saluted him and said, “Take care, it was great meeting you and thank you for your service.” He smiled so pleased with honor and saluted me back and said, “It was my pleasure!”
I regretted leaving this stranger that I would never know again. But I felt like I left him in a better place than before we met. Perhaps we can all do that—give a little of ourselves and open our hearts. Sometimes we just have to let other people live through us—so we can breathe a little life back into them again. It’s called being human. Something we should all do...with flair, finesse, and FUNctionality.