The Old Man and The Sea
This blog post is a free chapter from our latest book, Someone To Tell It To: Moved With Compassion. If you’d like to read more stories like this one, you can purchase the entire book here.
“Pain has a way of clipping our wings and keeping us f rom 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.” —Wm. 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 dolphins bobbed in and out of the water in the distance. A spirit of delight and serenity was everywhere. It was a picture perfect summer afternoon, mid 80’s, with low humidity. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky to ruin the sun’s tranquil glow.
Our family camped out in our familiar spot underneath the landmark fishing pier in Ocean Grove, New Jersey, the very same shady location my grandparents spent many summer mornings decades ago. Many photo albums had been filled because of this peaceful, sentimental setting.
My son Luke and I started building sand castles, imagining a world in which toy sea creatures ruled the day. Our eldest daughter Lillian tried desperately to pass the Frisbee into the gentle sea air, laughing hysterically as the breezes threw the disc in the opposite direction of her target. We smiled and laughed as if there wasn’t a worry in the world.
A frail 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 who had spoken. “You have such a beautiful family! Do you come here often?” I looked again and noticed a man, probably in his 80’s, hunched on a bench as if he was camouflaged from everybody around him. 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 exact spot for decades!!!”
“That’s 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 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 focus before then, he did now. Anyone who lives in the small community of Ocean Grove has a very special bond, one we all revel in together. 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 notice knowing this man lived two blocks from the Jersey shore, year round.
“I stroll 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 my house at 6:30 every morning to be outside. The summer is my favorite time of the year. I love watching families being families.”
I grinned, thinking it was interesting he loved the summer so much. Most people who live in tourist communities tend not to enjoy the busy season, full of heavy traffic, more noise and crowded sidewalks and shops; it drastically disrupts their everyday lives. 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 experience life with.”
Our conversation quickly changed from surface level to intimate in a matter of moments. Now he certainly piqued my interest even more. Too often older folks aren’t ‘listened to’ as they should be, too often they get all but forgotten, their wisdom and perspectives are not respected. But interestingly enough, I believe they are the ones who have the most to offer, because they are the ones who have experienced life the most.
I turned to Sarah and my parents and said I was going to go up on the pier for a few minutes. They had already noticed I was engaged in conversation with the man and knew it was important to me to continue the discussion. Sarah knows in moments such as these I am saying, “I need to be present with this other person for a little while, fully dedicated.”
So up on the pier I went. I sat down on the bench next to him, stuck out my hand, and exchanged more satisfactory greetings. For the next hour we sat and I listened. He related stories about his parents and how big of a risk they took moving from Italy to the United States during the Great Depression. He told me about his time in the service and how much it both shaped him and scarred him for the rest of his life. For an 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, “You must have a deep faith to have overcome what you have in this life.”
He went on to comment about how he does have a strong faith in God: “God has brought me through so much. I can’t not believe in God. 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 unhappiness. I thought we would have our entire 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. It’s one thing my parents always instilled in me, a deep desire to know and be loved by God. 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. Anyway, I remember reading about Jesus’ death and all he experienced in his last days. All of the damage I had been carrying was reconciled in that moment because for the very first time I realized God understood what it was like. God had felt it too, losing a child. I cleaned my life up. I met my second wife, an absolute godsend. There’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 inquired. “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 20 years ago. At least 20 years too soon.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“But, this is why I walk down to the pier every day. Sitting here is one of the ways I remember her, my son who died, and all of the other family memories we created 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. Seeing all of you awards me joy. I guess you could say I get out of bed every morning to live vicariously, indirectly, through everyone else. Their memories are my memories.”
“So what about church? Do you have a community of people you get to spend time with here in Ocean Grove?”
“I wish I could say that I do, but I 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. It means most everyone will be leaving town until next year, while I’m all alone here. The winter months are long.”
There was a quiet, lingering pause. Almost awkwardly so. I sensed there was something else he wanted to tell, but wasn’t sure if he was comfortable enough yet with me, or with anyone for that matter. For several moments we gazed out over the ocean vista, watching as motorboats thrust against the current, as if we were alternates in a daydream.
He broke the silence, “I stopped going to mass when I was 14 and I’ve never been able to step foot in a church building ever since. When I was 11 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 emotionally and verbally. I would even say spiritually.”
He fought back tears. I put my arm on his shoulder. He whimpered a few times, and then whistled. “I never thought I would be disclosing this stuff today.” We both chuckled, breaking the intensity of his revelation. “Talk about miracles, right?” I intoned, softly. Another few silent moments passed, but this time it wasn’t so awkward.
“Yeah, I have never been able to reconcile the priest’s actions. I’ve forgiven him. Atleast 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 times, especially at holidays. Thankfully, I’ve had other 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. But I’ve never been able to. Maybe I haven’t completely and fully forgiven God, I don’t know?”
We sat there for a long time. We explored other things too, some of the less stark details of our lives.
Toward 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 I was trained as a pastor and had co-founded a non-profit. I explained in greater detail about our mission and how we create a safe place for people. He then realized we had created a safe place for one another that special summer afternoon.
He wanted to know more and so he asked more personal questions.
“So how did you know you had this, if I can use the word, ‘calling,’ in your life?”
It was then when the conversation shifted. I told him I had served churches before starting our ministry. Now I had his sharp focus! I quickly made the connection that one of his burdens for most of his life had been with religious leaders. It was obvious they were the ones who had caused him his life’s greatest torment.
He became silent, very silent; it felt as if I had said something I wish I hadn’t in a crowded room heard by everyone.
Realizing the connection, I spoke up, “I am so, so sorry about what happened to you as a boy. I can’t imagine the amount of confusion and grief it must have caused you. I can’t imagine the feelings of betrayal you must have felt. I’m so sorry your priest stole so much of your adolescence and your innocence. It’s obviously affected so much of your life. I’m glad you’ve been able to reconcile your relationship with God and you didn’t project the priest’s actions onto a perfectly loving and gracious God.
“Sadly, I speak with a lot of people who can’t help but project. They are abused, physically, emotionally, sexually, and spiritually, and cannot see God as being perfect, affectionate. I just want to remind you and reaffirm that I believe God loves you so much. God was with you through every solemn moment you have had—the abuse, the loss of your son, your divorce, your time in the service, your time away from the church. God was there for all of it. God knows; God comprehends.”
We ended our time together shortly thereafter. He thanked me for the time we connected. I thanked him for the level of vulnerability and openness he provided. We hugged. Before I walked away he asked quietly, reticently: “Do you want to stop over before you go home this week? I’d love to show you my home. It’s small, but it’s a great location. Just a few blocks from the beach!”
I quickly and exuberantly responded, “Absolutely! I would love to stop by.”
“I’m home every afternoon. I stay in the shade when it gets too hot outside,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it.”
“Enjoy the rest of the day with your beautiful family.”
Our vacation was going to end in two days; I was intentional about visiting him. It was an opportunity, in my own small way, to break the epidemic of loneliness plaguing our society.
The next day our family went to the same spot underneath the pier at Ocean Grove. I looked for the man several times but didn’t see him. After lunch, we put our children down for naps at my parents’ home. I told everyone I was going for a walk. Sarah knew where I was headed; I had briefly expressed about my newfound friendship with the man. I arrived at his home and knocked on the door.
“Come in,” he yelled from the kitchen. “So happy you decided to drop in.” “I wouldn’t miss it,” I said. “Can I show you around my house? There isn’t much, as you can see, but it’s only me here and I don’t get too many visitors. It’s more than I need.”
It only took a moment or two to see his one bedroom home, but I knew it was important to him. He enjoyed being noticed by someone, by anyone.
“I made some sweet tea, would you like a glass? I thought we could sit outside on the porch. I have that huge oak tree out front which provides some great shade in the afternoon.”
The shade of the oak tree was suggestive of the shelter he felt with me.
It didn’t take long for our conversation to go to a very intimate, private place. The fact that he invited me over said to me he trusted me, despite my religious title.
For the next two hours, I listened as he revealed other significant stories from his life, happier moments—how proud he was of his two children and six grandchildren, the successful career path he had chosen, his love for “our” beloved Yankees and all of the historic players he was fortunate to watch in person. He expanded upon the places he had traveled, the sights he had seen, and some of the more memorable moments of his life. I cherished every second of it.
Knowing our time would be coming to an end, I could see he had something else he wanted to divulge. For whatever reason, I could sense it had to do with our conversation at the beach, so I asked him: “You had some time to think about our conversation from yesterday. Is there anything else you wanted to say?”
There was a long silence, a silence of reflection and contemplation.
“Thank you for asking. And thank you for our conversation yesterday. At one point, you had mentioned that one of your philosophical views, if you want to call it that, is ‘people don’t heal if they don’t first reveal.’ Can you explain more for me what you mean?”
I told how I believe people need to convey the deeper stuff from their lives. If they don’t convey the deeper stuff, often times the painful stuff, then the healing process cannot begin.People don’t heal if they don’t first reveal because you can’t just forget about the past or things that have happened to you. It’s almost impossible to forgive ourselves and forgive others without first talking it out with people we trust.
It was almost dinnertime and he knew I needed to go. Before I left, he looked me in the eyes and announced, “I know you speak with a lot of people in situations like mine. If I had words for them, tell them to forgive. Real, honest-to-goodness forgiveness. Tell them to move forward, to open up, and then to leave the past in the past. But definitely open up! Don’t hold it in because you are only hurting yourself and those around you. You have helped me to realize how much sorrow I have been carrying around for most of my life just because I was afraid to talk about it, sorrow that could have been relieved long, long ago. I’ve realized in the last two days I thought I had forgiven the priest, but I haven’t. I haven’t been able to step foot in a church because I was angry. If I did, it was almost as if he had won, and I never wanted him to win. But in the end, he was still winning because I was missing out on the very things God stands for. By letting go today, I’m finally saying the past is in the past. The past doesn’t define me. I guess… I guess I was angry at God without even knowing it. I’m now able to see the priest is God’s child too and he was obviously in deep pain himself. He wouldn’t have done something so horrific without having been hurt himself. It’s crazy but it has taken me over 70 years to come to this place.”
We said our last goodbyes. I told him I would write him and try to maintain a connection. I stepped off the porch. He yelled, “One last thing. Tom, I know you are a writer and you often write other peoples’ stories. Please write my story. Use my life as an example. This is one final way I feel like I can leave a legacy.”
And so I write his story today.
I wish I could say I maintained a strong relationship with the man, but days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months. I wrote him a few times, but never heard back. Writing was impossible for him because his eyesight had deteriorated rapidly.
When we returned to Ocean Grove the next summer, I walked down Broadway hoping I would see him out on his front porch. A neighbor was watering her plants. I asked if she had seen the man that day. She responded with a doleful look on her face, “He passed away several months ago. He was such a kind man.”
People in pain, unheeded and unheard have forgotten their intended reason for living, to fly, to soar on wings like seagulls. Compassion is about entering those places of pain, those places most troublesome, helping others to keep flying.
I’m thankful for our divine appointment on a picturesque summer day by the sea. The old man did leave a legacy; he left a legacy for me.
I write this for him, so his legacy can be larger, still.