The Elderly Man


Not sure why this affected me so much. It was a five second incident this morning that has bothered me all day. Maybe in its telling I can find some understanding…and maybe a little peace.

I was minding my own business, deleting those infernal emails that keep popping up like pesky garden weeds in my inbox. I was early for a doctor’s appointment. Because he is associated with a university hospital across the river, my doctor’s office is part of a massive complex where several doctors practice. The waiting area is huge; there are three or four large squares of chairs situated across the spacious lobby. I had opted for a seat in the middle square near the door I knew was my physician’s.

People moved in and out but it was not particularly crowded. Some folks chatted quietly, others were reading the well-worn magazines scattered around. Many were glued to the big screen TVs hanging from the walls, anxious to hear the latest news about Hurricane Florence as she made landfall, battering the Carolinas. I perked up. My oldest son and his precious family live in Durham. I wanted to check out the most up-to-date storm tracking models.

I think that’s when I first heard him. He was asking his companion whether she was nervous about the storm. He said he had seen some pretty frightening pictures of the gusty winds and torrential rains wreaking havoc in Wilmington. He was hoping he would get home before it reached New Jersey. He anxiously checked his watch. He shook his balding head, wondering aloud if his doctor would be “backed up today.” He didn’t want his friend caught in the storm either—especially if his appointment made her late getting home to safety.

His companion may have been his daughter or granddaughter. I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure she was family.  She was very kind. She smiled at him and gently explained that the hurricane was devastating Wilmington, North Carolina, not Wilmington, Delaware, and that its fury was still very far away. He laughed at himself, then, amused at his mistake. He began to tell her about family vacations to the Outer Banks, expressing concern for places he had visited along North Carolina’s pristine coastline.

I furtively glanced up at him, curious to see who the speaker was, then returned to my phone task, smiling. He was an elderly gentleman with an obligatory walker and hearing aid to prove it. He leaned toward his friend and chattered away, flashing a charming, slightly toothless, grin her way between his stories. He was thoroughly enjoying his wait…and so was she. The minutes ticked by. His doctor—and mine—were obviously “backed up.”  

Suddenly, from an adjacent seating area, harsh, angry words were violently slung across the room. “Shut the______ up!” Then a few more expletives exploded for emphasis, poisoning the lobby space even more. I froze in my chair, hesitating to look around, my heart racing in fear and annoyance both. What was happening? The ugly words hung oppressively in the air.

Summoning my courage, I looked up and around. Except for the talkative old gent across from me still engaged in a tale, the room had gone completely and uncomfortably silent. Every other waiting patient was awkwardly busy doing something—anything—in his or her lap. I couldn’t identify who had shouted because my view of the other seating area was partially blocked by plants and people, but I definitely could identify to whom the anger was misdirected.

Blushing, the sweet companion across from me tenderly laid her arm around the old man’s shoulders. “I think we need to be a bit quieter,” she said with a forced smile. “I think we may be bothering others.” A tear tricked down her flushed cheek and she quickly brushed it aside. I felt my own eyes fill.

Now I have to be honest. I suppose the old guy may have been talking a little louder than a non-hearing impaired person would, but he was not uncomfortably loud. And I was right there, likely the closest to them. I had noticed him, probably because he was easiest to hear, but he was not bothersome in any way. I rather enjoyed eavesdropping on his conversation. It reminded me of the many days I sat with my mom in similar waiting rooms. We, too, had prattled on. I wondered if we had irked a person or two ourselves.  

I caught the embarrassed caregiver’s eye. “I’m sorry,” I said, meaning it. She gratefully smiled in my direction. I think she was relieved that not everyone agreed with the rude shouter.

The man beside her was confused. He looked over at me too. “What’s wrong?” he asked simply. He hadn’t heard her. She patted his hand and explained once again that they had better keep their conversation to a minimum since they apparently were too noisy.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” he so innocently replied. He flashed me that sweet grin, one surrounded by his graying, grizzly whiskers. “I got this hearing aid thing ‘cause I don’t hear so good anymore and I guess I can’t tell if I’m talking too loud or not. Didn’t mean to bother you, miss.”

I shook my head and assured him he hadn’t troubled me a bit. I directed my attention to his friend and repeated my words. She smiled again. I wanted her to know that neither of them had done anything to deserve that hateful, verbal barrage of abuse that had come their way. And I was grateful her little old gentleman was just deaf enough not to have heard a word of it. I only wish she had been too. I wish I had been.

When they left, she touched my shoulder and thanked me for my kindness. Really? All I had done was to feel her pain. 

So I have been replaying this scene all day. Am I upset because I was reminded how awful people can be to one another—especially to such a dear old man? Am I concerned that there seems to be no old-fashioned kindness, common courtesy, understanding, nor respect for our elders anymore? Was I shocked and offended that some person thought it was okay to spout obscenities in a room full of strangers? Is it that I’m really sad about the world we are passing on to my grandkids? I’m sure these are all true. But there is more.

I think this scene has exposed something in my heart that my loving Father wants to change or refine. Not again!

You see, I left the office today quite stirred inside, but I kept reminding myself how supportive and kind I had been to the couple across from me. No one else seemed to see how embarrassed and uncomfortable that poor woman felt. No one else came to their defense and tried to encourage them. I was pretty proud of myself. I felt like a good Christian.

But, honestly, that was easy for me. I’ve loved and cared for the elderly for years. I am very conscious of them and their unique needs because of my many caregiving roles. I readily identified with that caregiver. I’ve been that caregiver. Feeling her pain and pouring my love out to her was no big deal. Feeling protective of that gentleman was quite natural.

But God didn’t just love those two folks in that office. And I think this is the rub. There was someone else in that lobby that needed grace and love extended to him as well. And loving someone so hateful and harsh IS a big deal for me. That is not easy for me.

I can’t excuse that unknown shouter’s actions, but I can imagine the underlying pain and brokenness that his actions reveal.

I wonder what would have happened if someone seated near him had looked him in the eye and whispered, “I’m sorry” and meant it. Someone who recognized how much grace and understanding that angry man needed. Someone who could beautifully represent Jesus, the only one who could really heal his dark heart and rescue him from his tumultuous rage.

Someone like me.

I think that’s why I have been so uneasy today. I missed an opportunity. I wasn’t tuned in to my King. I didn’t love like He loves.

So I am reminded once more that I don’t get to pick and choose who the Father wants me to love. While I don’t think it was a wrong or a bad thing for me to encourage the lady and her charge, I think I just quit too soon. I think there was more Kingdom work for me to do in that office.

Forgive me, Father.

—Eileen Hill

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