I met him because of the pandemic.
When I commuted to work every day, my walks around the neighborhood were infrequent. But when I began working remote, I walked at the same time every single day. And on my first walk in summer weather there he was: a small elderly gentleman shuffling down the sidewalk with the assistance of a walker, wearing a knit cap and pajama bottoms and a heavy flannel shirt.
I greeted him as I passed by. He looked at me, startled and uncertain, and did not answer back.
The second day when I saw him, he lifted his head and spoke first. “Hello,” he said, and still sounded a little uncertain. His English was marked with a heavy accent.
I smiled and said hello back, and I introduced myself and gave my name. “I live just down the street there,” I said, pointing to our house.
“I also live on this street,” he said, and smiled.
Every day thereafter, he greeted me by name when we passed, and I greeted him by name, too. We said our how-are-yous in passing: him always on his walker but looking a little less stooped daily.
Our acquaintanceship became a cheerful hallmark of my walks. When I was walking on the opposite side of the street, he would lift his hands from his walker and give me a big wave. Once, when I passed by and made a joke about how unbearably hot it was, he arched an eyebrow and said, “Today, I have walked around the block three times and it was not too hot so you are young, you will be okay!”
Later, when he saw me on one of my first miserable, shambling runs, he broke out in a grin. “Go fast,” he encouraged as I passed him by. “Keep going fast!”
Sometimes, he walked with a little girl that I assumed was his granddaughter. She patiently kept his speed, peeking out at me from behind him to give a grin and a little wave. I prayed for him, and for her, and for whoever his family was and whatever his life was as I continued by after I passed them. He even met my husband once, and waved at him too.
But now, suddenly, he’s not there.
During the summer, every now and again, our walking times didn’t quite align, so I wasn’t surprised to miss him on that first day. But as the days passed and I didn’t see him on the sidewalk at the usual time—even when I kept my eyes peeled, even when I scanned the sidewalk wondering if he was okay—I realized he was probably not coming back.
I don’t know, exactly, which home is his—he never told me. I don’t know his last name. All I know is that the man on the street that I spoke to every day suddenly isn’t there any more, and I think of him often.
I hope fall just got a little too cool for him and he is staying inside. But I worry that he’s sick. I think that perhaps he passed away, even though he seemed well last I saw him, and my heart hurts for his little smiling granddaughter.
I wonder what his life was like—what it was to live in our little suburban neighborhood as an elderly gentleman who spoke English as a second language, who watched as kids flew by on their bikes and neighbors watered their lawns. I wonder if he has a family that lives here still, or who they are, or if I would even know them if I saw them.
I wonder if he’d be surprised that the neighbor woman in his thirties whose last name he did not know notices he is gone.
We didn’t know each other at all, not really. We said hello and goodbye in passing. But seeing him—and now not seeing him—has made me think about connected we all are, all God’s children, even when we don’t know it. Has compelled me to start praying for almost everyone in my neighborhood I encounter on my walks.
The English poet John Donne once suffered a near-fatal illness that left him bedridden; from his position, he could hear the church bells toll to announce a death that he presumed was his own—but turned out to be another’s. During this period, he wrote the following familiar lines:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
The man on the walker that I spoke to every day mattered to God. Matters to God. And God knows him, knows his story, knows everything that I do not. God knows this about everyone in my neighborhood: the woman who sings to herself walking past our house in her long flowered dresses, the father who runs his children up and down our street to burn off their energy, the guy who lifts weights and listens to country music with his garage door wide open. God knows them all, loves them all, listens and waits for them all.
That is my great comfort. Meeting this gentleman, even for a small period, was a reminder to even in brief encounters treat all the people around me with the respect and kindness they deserve as beloved children of God. To really acknowledge them as individuals with struggles and lives and dreams. Who knows, after all, if we’ll ever meet again? Who knows how brief the encounter might be, or what it will come to signify? Who knows how God might use something so small?
Every person matters; every moment matters. I hope that I will be able to keep that in mind, more and more, as time goes by.