It began with a quick search of the classifieds for a used car. I was in my mid-20’s and I desperately needed a new vehicle. One of the ads immediately caught my attention — a Honda Civic with low miles and a good price. Sensing that I was not the only suitor for the car, I quickly called the owner and made an appointment to check it out that night.
Little did I know that that phone call would commence a lifelong friendship.
As I walked through the home of the car owner, two shiny, gold objects grabbed my attention. Upon closer inspection, I realized they were Emmy Awards. Being a television reporter and a former theater arts kid, the questions bounced around my head like a pinball. Who was this guy? Why did he have two Emmy Awards? Was he famous?
I learned that he wasn’t famous but he did rub elbows and decorate the television sets that surrounded some famous people like Carol Burnett, Dinah Shore, Merv Griffin and many others. I also learned that he performed with Perry Como and Judy Garland. I also learned that he agreed to sell me his car.
Days later after we completed the sale, we agreed to meet up for a tennis match. I had about 40 years on the retired man, named Robert, and I figured I would take it easy on him. Instead, the septuagenarian ran me around the court like a ballboy and kicked my butt. Then, we enjoyed a meal and a long conversation. We became instant friends, separated by decades but joined by a mutual love of sports, the arts, good food and wine. He became a confidante and a pal and a man who took my family out to dinner whenever they visited me and offered a room in his house for them to stay in.
Whenever I left Robert’s home I always experienced a smile thought — “He’s a good man.”
A lifelong bachelor, maybe Robert saw me as the son (or grandson) he never had. Whatever it was that made our connection strong, it survived the years and the many moves of my career. No matter where I lived, I always made a point to call Robert every few months to catch up and whenever I was in town, I stopped by for a meal and a tennis match. And no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t overcome his dirty slice on the court.
Robert attended my wedding, got to know my wife and doted on my kids, when he had the chance.
Then, about three years ago, I noticed that Robert began to tell me the same stories over and over. I figured that he was just getting older and becoming more forgetful.
One day, when I called his home, he wasn’t there. It took me awhile to track him down but I found him at a nearby assisted living facility. Looking back, the signs were there. He was having trouble driving and would sometimes make comments that he didn’t know where he was moving to. It’s often the small, incremental changes that we miss and write off as normal when, in fact, they are indicative of something much deeper.
Robert and I enjoyed a few get-togethers at his new place and he seemed comfortable. Or at least as comfortable as someone can be who’s forced to live under someone else’s roof. Again, his behavior continued becoming more erratic, with comments about not knowing where he was going and when I called him a few weeks ago, I learned that he’d been transferred to a home for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia.
When I picked him up for a brief visit on Thanksgiving, he looked like a shell of the man I’d known just a few years earlier. He was gaunt, stooped and lacking the usual crispiness in his attire and demeanor. This was a man who prided himself on his appearance and the disease robbed him of that ability. We visited for a while and he told me stories that must have comforted his brain but made little sense. Still, he retained the smile and laugh and eye contact that I came to expect and appreciate throughout our friendship and, when I dropped him off at the home, I still thought to myself, “He’s a good man.”
Robert will never be the same friend that I came to know and love over the past two decades. Regardless, my life — and the lives of my family — have been enriched by his generosity and warmth. All that came from a phone call about a car, a fateful choice that will always make me smile and strive to be a good man, too.
(Photo credit: FootMassagez via Foter.com / CC BY)