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“There aren’t any more chairs. Just pull one up!”
It was a crowded lunch hour as usual at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital. I volunteered there during the summers and each day encountered the same problem – finding enough space to eat. Doctors, researchers, military officers, and veterans alike all sat spaced out through the cafeteria. For a group of six high school students, it was hard to find a table to eat by ourselves.
I saw an old man eating alone at a table with three empty chairs surrounding him. I walked up to his table wondering if I could take two so that maybe, if others came down to eat, they could sit at our table too.
“Hi sir, how are you doing? Could I borrow a couple of these chairs?” I asked.
“Well I’m doing pretty okay. You know, life just comes and goes here,” he replied.
The response caught me off guard. I had only asked how he was doing as a formality, but the way he answered, saying the life just came and went, struck me. This man wasn’t okay. Maybe he wasn’t suffering from clinical depression, but he certainly wasn’t enjoying life as it should be. I looked back at my friends, who by this time had already started to eat.
“Umm, is anybody sitting here with you?”
“You think any of these people want to sit here with me while they stuff their faces? The chairs are empty.”
I noticed that he was wearing a red and black Chicago Bulls letterman-style jacket adorned with the years of Jordan’s championships.
“You watch a lot of basketball?”
“Oh you know it!”
He pointed to logo on the front of his jacket.
“Bulls all day baby! What about you, you like it?”
“Oh definitely, I see the Spurs whenever I can.”
We talked about basketball for a good twenty minutes that day, about the transition of the game, players then versus now, if Duncan’s Spurs could beat Jordan’s Bulls. I eventually had to leave to get back to work, but the next day I saw the man again and sat down to chat. We would talk for the next four days about nearly everything. He would tell stories of his service in Vietnam; I would tell him about the research I was doing that day; we’d talk about TV, music, everything. On the fifth day we talked and joked as usual and he told me that it would be his last day at the hospital.
“You know this is my last day here. I- I just want to thank you for sitting with me. It’s not like I don’t have kids or nothin’, but sitting here every day, seeing everybody else talking but realizing you’re alone, it’s tough. You helped me just as much these doctors did I swear. We live with our bodies but we need our minds too.”
That man, an veteran of about sixty with tightly curled white hair and a greying beard, a growing belly from years of retirement, and a rough, baritone voice, taught me a lot that day. He showed me that I, through a very mundane act, could provide unparalleled happiness. He showed me what it took to truly heal, and that I was capable of doing so. Knowing that I could, and did, mend a broken psyche showed me who I was and what I want to be.
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