After two years of meeting with me for coffee every week, my cranky octogenarian pal Alfred seems – dare I say it? – happier. My narcissistic, goal-obsessed side would like to claim credit, but can a weekly watering of coffee resuscitate a dry cluster of prickles? There are lots of possible reasons, besides visits with me, why a small rosy bloom might be emerging these days among Alfred’s thorns.
One is that he’s been reaching out from within his solitude in a number of different ways, joining discussion groups and trying to connect with their members. Most recently, for example, he made a homemade get-well card for a guy in his apartment building who’d been hospitalized with a potentially fatal illness. This is the same guy who Alfred feels has slapped down almost every idea he’s presented at resident meetings. As you might imagine, after hearing so many stories about how Alfred’s nemesis had dissed him, I was surprised that he chose to make this gesture, especially since his plan was to take the card around for everyone in his building, door to door, to sign before sending it as a community message of concern and good will. For a person with serious social phobias, this was surely a first!
Over coffee two weeks ago, before circulating the card for signatures, he brought it out and asked me what I thought of it. His beautifully lettered message was decorated with a colorful hand-drawn flower blooming inside a black tunnel with a tiny circle of sunshine visible where perspective lines met in the far distance. The message read: “This is a very very dark time, but remember, there’s always some chance of light at the end.”
Could he have intended to send his nemesis a message of not-so-subtle gloom? Ignoring that possibility, I told Alfred that his flower and calligraphy were lovely, but the message might be a little … well, dark. He grimly squirreled it away in the depths of his bag without responding. However, when he went home that day he conferred with a neighbor in his building and – another surprise – actually accepted her revision suggestions, changing the message to the more conventional “We’re all thinking of you! Get well, and come back soon!” This isn’t Alfred’s style: he detests opinions and sentiments that might be called PC.
But yesterday over coffee he told me the story of the discussion with his neighbor, and shyly displayed his final draft. As we admired the flower (no longer coffined in blackness), he mused, “My life has always been ‘my way or the highway.’ This is the first time I ever disagreed with someone and then made a compromise.”
I asked him how it had felt to do that. “Not as hard as I thought,” he replied, with a rare smile.
Other stories about “Alfred” are at Crosscut.com: “Alfred gets to tell his story” and a story about the rivalry between him and his brother. Still another is here at Freestyle Volunteer: “Alfred Reaches Out.”