The Old Man & The Sea
We’ve been working hard on writing our next book (which is why you may not have seen us blog as much as before) – “Someone To Tell It To: Leading a Compassionate Life”, with the goal having it published in time for Christmas 2015. The book explores the meaning and depth of compassion and shares examples of acts of compassion in everyday life. Using stories and essays from our own lives and the lives of others, as we did in our first book, “Someone To Tell It To: Sharing Life’s Journey”, we hope to awaken in individuals and in churches the ability to live compassionately with everyone we meet.
Here’s an excerpt of one of the stories, this one written by Tom:
“Pain has a way of clipping our wings and keeping us from being able to fly … and if left unresolved for very long, you can almost forget that you were ever created to fly in the first place.”
– W. Paul Young
Seagulls circled overhead waiting and watching for one of our four small children to throw them a donut hole from Dunkin Donuts. Airplanes buzzed overhead with the latest advertisement: “Eat at Gino’s pizzeria, $29.99 for a family of five.” A school of dolphin bobbed in and out of the water off in the distance. The spirit of delight and serenity was everywhere. It was a picture perfect summer afternoon, mid 80’s, low humidity, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky to ruin the suns glow.
Our family camped out in our usual spot underneath the fishing pier in Ocean Grove, NJ, the very same spot my grandparents and spent many summer mornings decades previously. Many photo albums had been filled because of this very spot.
My son Luke and I started building sand castles, imaging a world where toy sea creatures ruled the day. Our eldest daughter Lillian tried desperately to pass the Frisbee into the crisp sea breeze, laughing hysterically as the wind threw the disc in the opposite direction of her target. We smiled and laughed as if there wasn’t a care in the world.
A decrepit voice in a thick Italian accent called out:
“You have a beautiful family.”
I looked all around me but couldn’t find the source of the one who had spoken.
“You have such a beautiful family! Do you come here often?”
I looked up and noticed an elderly man hunched over on bench. He smiled, waved, and sat up to the best of his ability.
“Good afternoon!” I said. “Yes, we do come here often. Our family has been coming to this very spot for decades!!!”
“That’s really great. This is such a special place, isn’t it?!”
Now the old man had my attention. He obviously had been here before and so I felt like it was important to take a moment and soak in, along with him, the beauty all around us.
“Do you live here?” I shouted as loudly as I could, sensing that he had some hearing issues.
“I do live here. I live on Broadway St. I’m here all year round.”
If he didn’t have my fullest attention until that moment, he did now. Anyone who lives in the small community of Ocean Grove has a very special bond that we all share together. And not only that, someone who lives there year round has an especially strong connection to the town, the people, and, of course, the beach. So many people come and go throughout the summer. Most folks who own a house leave as soon as the summer ends, so it grabbed my attention knowing that this elderly man lived 2 blocks from the Jersey Shore, year round.
“I walk to the end of this pier every day. I can’t move as quickly as I used to though, so it takes me a lot longer to reach the end. I leave the house at 6:30am every day. The summer is my favorite time year. I love watching families being families.”
I smirked and thought it was interesting that he loved the summer. Most people who live near touristy communities tend to not enjoy the busy season as it drastically disrupts their every day life. So I asked him:
“Why do you love the summer so much?”
“Oh”, he said. “I live all by myself. Most of my family has either died or moved far away. I don’t have anyone to celebrate life with.”
Our conversation quickly changed from surface level to intimate in a matter of moments. Now he really, really had my attention. There is almost nothing in life that brings me more joy and satisfaction than having deep, intimate, meaningful conversations with people, people of all ages, especially those who are older. Too often older folks don’t get ‘listened to’ as they should, too often they get all but forgotten about. But interestingly enough, they are the ones who have the most to share because they are the ones who have experienced life the most.
I turned to Sarah and my parents and said that I was going to go up on the pier for a few minutes. They had already noticed that I was engaged in conversation with the elderly man and knew it was important to me to continue the discussion. Sarah knows that in moments such as this one its almost as if I am saying, “I need to be present with this other individual for a little while.”
So up on the pier I went. I plopped down on the bench next to him, stuck out my hand, and exchanged more satisfactory greetings. For the next hour, we sat, we shared, we listened. He shared stories about his parents and how big of a risk they took moving to the United States during the Great Depression. He shared about his time in the service and how much that both shaped him and scarred him for the rest of his life. For that hour, time stood still. I can’t remember all the details of what we talked about, but I do remember talking with him about faith. At one point in the conversation, I remember asking him about his spiritual beliefs. I said something like,
“You must have a deep faith to have overcome all that you have in this life.”
He went on to share about how he does have a strong faith in God:
“God has brought me through so much pain and suffering in my life. I can’t not believe in Him. My wife and I lost a child when we were first married. He was only two years old. We were never the same afterwards. We couldn’t work through our grief together. Everyone grieves differently, you know? So we got a divorce. I became an alcoholic because I couldn’t handle the loneliness. I thought we would share our lives together. One day, I remember feeling as if God had totally abandoned me. It was around Easter so I picked up my Bible and started reading the Easter story. That’s one thing my parents always instilled in me, a deep desire to know God and to be loved by Him. We were strong Catholics so I went to mass every week, CCD, I read my Bible regularly, and we prayed at mealtimes and before bed. Anyways, I picked up my Bible that morning and remember reading about Jesus’ death and all that He experienced. All of the pain I had been carrying was reconciled in that moment because for the very first time I realized that God understood my pain. He had felt it too, losing His own child. I cleaned my life up. I met my second wife who was an absolute godsend. That’s a whole other story about how we met. Talk about miracles. She and I had two children together who now live far away. They are great kids and I love them very much. I just wish I could see them more frequently. One of them lives overseas and the other out West.”
“So how about your wife”, I asked. “Is she still living?”
“She is still living, but not physically. She’s alive and well in my heart and in my memories. She died twenty years ago. Twenty years too soon.”
“I’m really sorry”, I said.
“But, this is why I walk down to the pier every day. This is one of the ways I remember her, my son who died, and all of the other family memories we created right here. I look up and down the beach and I watch as all of these families’, just like yours, laugh and smile, cherishing their time together. That gives my life purpose and meaning. I guess you could say that I get out of bed every morning to live vicariously through everyone else. Their memories are my memories.”
“So what about church? Do you have a community of people that you get to spend time with here in Ocean Grove?”
“I wish I could say that I do, but I really don’t. Most of my friends have all passed away. Again, this is why I love the summer so much. I actually hate it when the end of August arrives because that means that most everyone will be leaving town until next year while I’m all alone. The winter months are hard, damn hard.”
There was a very long pause. Almost awkwardly so. I could sense that there was something else he wanted to share, but wasn’t sure if he wanted to go there with me, or with anyone for that matter. For several moments we gazed out over the ocean vista, watching as motorboats fought through the current.
“I stopped going to Mass when I was fourteen and I’ve never been able to step foot in a church building ever since. When I was eleven years old I attended Catholic school. The priest taught our class. After school finished, he would invite students into his living quarters. He started abusing us sexually.”
I could see that he was fighting back the tears. I put my arm on his shoulder and said that it was o.k. to cry if he needed to.
“Tears are one of God’s greatest release valves. “
He sniffled a few times, and then chuckled.
“I never thought I would be sharing this stuff today.”
We both laughed.
“Talk about miracles, right?
Another few silent moments passed, but this time it wasn’t so awkward.
“Yeah, I have never been able to reconcile the priests actions that day. I’ve forgiven him. At least I think I have, but I just can’t seem to bring myself to the place where I’ve been able to walk into a church building again. I’ve come close a couple of time, especially at holidays. Thankfully, I’ve had other Christian friends who knew the story and have given me space. I always encouraged my wife to go, along with our two children, which she did regularly. But I’ve never been able to. Maybe I haven’t completely and fully forgiven him, I don’t know?”
We sat there for a long time. We shared about other stuff too, some of the less intense details of our lives.
Towards the end of our conversation, he asked:
“So what do you do for a living? What gets you out of bed in the morning?”
I told him that I was a counselor and that I co-founded the non-profit Someone To Tell It To. I explained in greater detail about our mission and how we create a safe place for people. He then realized that we had created a safe place for one another that special summer afternoon …
To read more of the story, we invite you to purchase Someone To Tell It To: Leading a Compassionate Life, when it is published later this year.
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