I once knew an extraordinary old man who walked the roads of my town every day. He was tall and skinny with thin white hair, unremarkable in appearances except for his beaming, brilliant smile and friendly wave.
The first time I saw him, his frank joy offended me. I assumed he had dementia and gave him a wide berth as I zoomed my car around him. I had places to go in a hurry and no time for a crazy old man.
I saw him nearly everyday after that, walking the same roads whether the rain fell or the sun blasted. He always wore running shorts and a tank top and waved cheerfully at every single car that passed as if they were his best friend. It didn’t take me long to realize I looked forward to seeing his smile each day. I started waving back.
I wondered who he was and what made him so happy. I planned to stop one day and walk with him to find out, but I never found the time. He became the friendly smile I could depend on, until he vanished.
I noticed his absence the first day, and by the second I was worried about him. A few months went by with no sign of him and I bitterly regretted not taking the time to stop. Then, suddenly, he was back to his walking and waving. I was so relieved I honked and yelled as I went by, swerving in excitement.
He was back, but he wasn’t the same. His smile still crinkled up his face from ear to ear. His wave hadn’t changed. It was the same inexhaustible greeting I remembered. If a butterfly’s wings could cause a typhoon on the other side of the world, his wave must have been responsible for many storms and hurricanes.
His joy was the same as ever, but his body was tiring. Instead of the jaunty, almost aggressive walk of a much younger man, he hobbled with a cane. His shoulders hunched and his gait was slower. He never stopped smiling though. I was grateful he returned and we resumed our ritual greetings. A few more years went by and I still never found the time to talk with him.
Shortly after I moved to a new place, he disappeared again. Worried, I mentioned it to one of my new neighbors and she told me he lived across the street from the apartments. She pointed out his house, a beautiful brick place on waterfront. I promised myself I wouldn’t miss this opportunity to thank him for all the smiles that had come to mean so much.
A week went by and still hadn’t found the time to visit. There were groceries to get and bills to pay. I assured myself there was no hurry, even though my feeling of urgency grew. I delayed too long.
One day I was woken up by an ambulance at his house. My neighbors and I gathered on our porches, speculating on what happened. I regretted not taking my opportunity to meet him and tell him how important he was to me. I hoped I might get one more chance.
Later that day I found out he had killed himself. I was in disbelief. “He was so happy,” I protested. “He was the happiest man I knew…” How could this unnamed man, whose joy in life was so intense it washed over to strangers, have taken his own life? I was told he had cancer, and perhaps didn’t want to burden his family with his illness.
This was all years ago, but the opportunity I lost that day still drives me to try to never take someone, or anything, for granted. Who knows how things would have been if I had taken the time to thank him? A miracle may have happened maybe, or perhaps nothing but the courtesy to show appreciation, which in itself can be a miracle.
What I do know is my delay cheated us both, and now we will never know.