While in Starbucks yesterday I was seated next to an old man.
When I arrived at my seat he was by the window, in a chair that if I’m honest I’d have preferred instead of the one I sat in just opposite him.
He had a better view.
I looked around for another similar chair – but none were available. I’d have to make do with one by the wall.
He wasn’t drinking anything, and I assumed that someone was waiting in the queue to get drinks for him, but as time went on no drinks arrived. He was just quietly sitting there.
He was slenderly built, had dark thick rimmed glasses and neatly combed silver (not white) hair. The collar of his white shirt was unbuttoned, and over the top of it he wore a blue v-neck pullover with grey slacks and black polished shoes.
His freckled hands were resting, one on top of the other on the table in front of him, and his attention was on the car park. He seemed serene and peaceful, and while I worked on my laptop he made no movements that I noticed or said anything.
Instead he continued to watch the passing and parking cars and the people seated outside his window.
About half an hour into my stay an elderly lady arrived and with her back to me she began talking quietly to him. I couldn’t hear the words but she clearly seemed intent on privacy.
She then stepped back from his seat very slightly and out of the corner of my eye I saw him grasping shakily on the side of the table, which moved as he tried to lift himself from the chair. He steadied himself against the window and tried to rise.
The table moved a bit more and he sat back down firmly in the chair.
The lady stayed still, her arms slightly outstretched.
‘I can do it.’ I heard him say firmly but quietly to the elderly lady standing in front of him.
‘I know you can.’ She replied in a hushed voice, now shielding any view of him from the rest of the coffee shop with the angle of her body, but still not touching him.
As I looked at her from behind I doubted she could have lifted him or caught him. She was very slender, and looked quite frail.
Again he grasped the round table in front of him and leaned against the window with his right arm, raising himself from the dark brown wooden chair.
The small table again moved, and with nothing to hold on to on the side of the window he slipped and again sat down heavily.
I turned to see if I could catch their eye. Neither were looking at me, and the lady was now leaning in closer to him, still whispering.
They continued to talk quietly for a few minutes and he didn’t attempt to stand again.
‘Can I help?’ I asked in a hushed voice behind them. ‘I don’t want to get in the way if you want to do it yourself, but if you need help I can give you an arm.’
I was acutely aware that just by saying this I risked his humiliation – and I was probably the very type of person his wife was trying to help him avoid, but I found it impossible to not say anything.
‘No thank you’ he said, leaning forward and looking around his wife. ‘I’m OK but thank you for asking. It will just take a little time.’
‘Ok no problem.’ I said ‘I hope you don’t mind me asking – I just felt I needed to offer.’
I turned my attention back to my laptop and carried on typing, trying to ignore his continuing struggle out of the corner of my eye.
Over the course of a few minutes, with the gentle encouragement of (I assume) his wife, the man eventually managed to get upright, and stood to the right of me with one hand resting on the coffee table.
His wife started walking back toward the supermarket. As she moved away he turned to face me, standing upright.
‘I keep falling over.’ he said quietly when she was out of earshot.
“It’s silly really. I’ve been walking all day and I’ve been fine. At home I can get about OK – I know all of the rooms and I move about fine. Here, its different. It’s silly really.’
‘I understand.’ I replied. ‘I know what it’s like to worry about where you’re going and where you will sit.’
I looked him in the eye. ‘It’s not easy.’ I said. ‘I understand how you feel.’
I smiled – trying to absorb his embarrassment and make him feel he wasn’t alone, but it didn’t seem to be working. He still seemed like he needed to explain.
‘It’s silly really.’ He said again, now looking a bit sad. ‘There’s no problem at home. I used to be fine…’
He went quiet and looked after his wife, who was now out of sight.
‘Well you’re up now’ I smiled again ‘and it’s a nice day out there!’
He looked outside and nodded, then looked back at me with a slight smile.
‘Thank you.’ he said, and then turned to follow his wife.
I watched him as he walked away from me just in case – but he was right. He was walking just fine, and looked perfectly steady.
I’m not sure why early in the morning I’m still awake and still thinking about this man – or why I’ve been playing this brief conversation and meeting over and over in my head.
He looked like a nice guy, and his wife (or friend) looked like she cared about him. They were getting old together, and she wanted to shield him from embarrassment – whereas he just wanted to be the man he had always been – and be confident in his surroundings.
I can definitely relate to him, and his wife – and I also admire his dogged determination.
Even when it would have been easier and safer for me to lift him out of his seat he chose the difficult and scary alternative. He lifted himself, and stood up under his own steam, in his own time, and then walked off, un-compromised and unaided.
Maybe he should have accepted my help, but (although I’m glad I offered it) I’m glad he didn’t take it. He remained an independent man for another day, and in doing so lodged himself in my thoughts.