He smelled strongly of Aqua Velva. The wind blew the familiar scent my way, as I sat on the park bench at the Quick n Easy Car Wash on Broadway. I’ve known the smell all of my life. I remember as a little boy, spending the night with my grandparents, I’d hear my papa wake up early and head to the shower. My granny would start breakfast, and a bit later my papa would come out freshly bathed and shaved, smelling exactly like the smell that currently filled my nostrils. I looked up to see a dapper old man walk up to the bench beside me and take a seat. He was small and frail, but that clearly didn’t affect the way that he dressed. He was wearing a crisp, light blue Oxford shirt, with the initials JLR stitched into the cuffs. He wore the same polyester Wranglers that my grandpa always preferred, and slick, pointy toed, light orange ostrich Nocona boots. His silver hair was slicked down to his scalp with not a hair out of place. And then of course, his face was freshly and cleanly shaven.
I expect at one time, he was quite a handsome man. He had a strong jaw, despite his small frame. I remember watching my Papa wither away as his Alzheimer’s took him away from us. At one time, he was 6’2” and weighed 240 pounds. When he died, he was probably 5’5” and half of that weight. Judging from this gentleman’s big hands, I assumed that this was probably the case for him, as well. I was immediately drawn to him. It’s been three years since my Papa had died, and I miss him terribly.
The old man sat down beside me and crossed his legs, which is yet another thing he does that reminds me of my grandfather.
“Nice day out, isn’t it?” He smiles at me, and I smile back.
“Yes sir, it’s a nice one,” I reply. “Supposed to get up to 85° today.”
He seemed to close his eyes and take in as much of the sunshine as possible. I had been drinking a cup of coffee, and had finished it. I gently stood up and, with the assistance of my cane, limped over to the trash can about 10 feet away.
He said, “You’re an awful young man to have a limp like that.”
I laughed and replied, “Yes sir. About six months ago I was in a pretty serious car accident. Broke and dislocated my hip, broke my arm, broke a bone in my back, blew out my knee. It was a pretty bad deal.”
The look of concern on his face was sincere. “My goodness, son. That sounds awful.”
I showed him a picture of my truck after my accident, sitting in the middle of the road, looking like a crunched Coke can.
“Wow. My goodness, my goodness. You’re lucky to be alive, I’d say. The good Lord had his hand on you. That’s the only way you made it out of that deal alive.”
I nodded silently, having heard that now for the 1,000th time since November 8th, 2017. It can be hard to look at the last six months of my family’s life and think about how the Lord has had his hand on us. Since my wreck and injuries, if it can go wrong, it did go wrong. The devil can be such a convincing manipulator. He works on us constantly to give us doubt. He makes you question things like, “Where was your God when you were having the wreck? Why didn’t he save you from that?” I’ll be honest, I’ve asked myself that many times now. But I’m constantly reminded that I could just as easily be dead. I’m brought back to the present when the old man says, “I was working for a logging company in 1957. A chain broke on a truck that we’d just loaded, and one of the logs hit me from behind. Broke my back. I had a wife and a one-year-old son at home, and we didn’t have any money. I wasn’t able to work for six months or so. The church would gather up some money for us every few weeks, and that just barely fed us. We lived in a little two bedroom house in Henderson, and the landlord was kind to us and let us pay the rent when we could. It was a tough time. Took me a long time to get back to wear I could get back out to the logging camp. We ate a lot of beans for a few years.” He laughed after he said that last sentence.
I said, “Well, I was lucky, I suppose. I had several fellow employees donate their vacation time to me, so that I could continue to get a paycheck. And then when I’d went through all of that, I had some short-term disability benefits that kicked in and paid me until I could get back to work.”
He looked at me with an almost curt look and said, “Not lucky, son. Blessed. I don’t like the word luck. You’ve been blessed to have these things. You have a family?”
I replied “Yes, sir. I have three daughters and a wife.”
He smiled, “That’s quite a houseful of women.” We both laughed.
He said, “I had a wife and a son. My son lives in Atlanta. Some big high falutin’ job. Makes a bunch of money. He’s divorced, has a daughter and a son. I usually get to see them about once a year. Bert died in 2009.”
I looked at him and said, “Bert?”
He said, “Roberta. My wife.”
I nodded my head, silent again. Unsure of exactly what to say. He filled the silence and said, “I’ve got kidney cancer. Can you believe that?”
Surprised, I said, “Oh no…really?” He shook his head. “Yep. Diagnosed me with it last month. Said it’s spreading. Gave me about six months to live. Nine if I’m lucky.”
I found myself almost in tears for this man that I’d just met. I was having trouble finding the words. He looked at me and grinned. “Now don’t go getting sad on me. That ain’t why I told you that. After my accident, it took a while, but I got better and was able to live a long, good life. I’m old now. All my family is gone. My brother died several years ago, and then Bert. I’m not sad, so don’t you be, either. I get to go see my girl,” he said, followed by an almost childish giggle.
Few times in my life have I been rendered utterly speechless, but this is one of those times. Since my accident, I’ve had such a hard time. My wife and kids have had such a hard time. At times it felt as if there would be no climbing out of the hole that we’ve found ourself in. The stress of the situation has weighed on my wife and me. It’s caused fights and disagreements. It’s been hard for us to find any sign of the happiness that we had prior to November 8th of last year. But this wonderful little old man at the car wash has just rocked my world with his simple, yet powerful words. I looked at him, an old man at the near end of his life, sitting in the sunshine with a grin on his face. He has no fear of the end, because he knows that it’s not the end, but the beginning. I’ve never needed this man’s message to me more than I have needed it today. The timing could not have been more perfect.
I hear a loud whistle, and look up to see the man that’s been cleaning my vehicle, waving a towel above his head letting me know that my truck is finished. I look over at the old man, and I don’t want to leave. I want to sit and talk to him for hours. He sticks his hand out and says, “It was a pleasure talking to you. I hope that limp gets better soon. But I’ve got faith that it will.” I’m still struggling to find the words. I grinned at him with tears in my eyes, grabbed his hand and said “The pleasure has been all mine, sir. You’ll be in my prayers every day. And I can’t wait for you to see Bert.” His smile could not have been any bigger. He said, “Me too, son. Me too. What a great day that’s going to be.”
I knew that if I tried to say anything else, I’d probably break down and cry. I nodded at him, he nodded back at me. I turned and headed toward my truck. I tipped the gentleman that had been cleaning my truck, hopped in, and the tears began to flow. I grabbed a tissue out of the console and began to dry my eyes. How lucky I had been to meet this amazing old man, on this very day that I needed it so much. No, I reminded myself. Not lucky. Blessed.