Warning *** This is not a short ‘normal sized’ blog entry *** (for the shortened version please go to this blog at Happy Every Day)
I saw a man’s heart today. Well, not literally, but metaphorically.
I had regularly been talking to a fairly new acquaintance on my morning walk and he was telling me about the neighbourhood – he lives a few streets away from me. Phil has lived in the town all his life but in this particular area for less than ten years. I still feel like a newcomer in my street although I have lived in the same location for fourteen years now. This is because most of my neighbours have lived in the street for around fifty years. The ones who I now regard as friends in the area have seen the real changes in the community over several decades. They have watched as their older friends have moved on – whether through choice to stay with family or because their life time has run out.
Phil spoke of the way he used to be part of the neighbourhood watch scheme in his old community and how difficult it was to get people to talk to about anything. He laughed as he said that for most of his life he only really spoke in depth to about three people in the previous neighbourhood and now he stops and talks to so many different people each day.
‘I’ve got one real friend from over there,’ he said as he pointed beyond the fields with his stick. ‘He helps me out, you know, he does a bit this and that for me, you know, a bit of painting and the like.’
‘That’s nice,’ I said.
‘Yeah,’ he replied, ‘but we do stuff for each other you know, it’s like that. We help each other out. I’ll do something for him,’ he gestured vaguely in the air as if describing a particular task, ‘and he’ll do the next thing for me. We’ve been like that for years,’ he smiled to himself as he recalled the intervening years between his youth and his current age. I stood there quietly as I was excluded from his memories.
‘My mate, Jack,’ he continued, ‘he was helping me to put the guttering up before the rain came a few days ago, yeah he was helping and the wife was going to do the painting just where the water butt was going to be, and Jack said “I’ll do that,” – see, he’s kind like that, and before you knew it he’d done the whole of the side wall, not just where the butt was going. That really saved the wife some time. He did a good job, too.’
‘That’s kind,’ I said, ‘he saved your wife some work. It’s nice to have friends like that.’
‘Oh, she likes to do it, but he was just offering like, so she said “yes, thanks.” And then he did the whole thing. And blow me down, if after we rushed to get it all done before the rain came, like the forecast said, if it didn’t stay dry! You can never trust those forecasters you know.’ He laughed at his own observation.
I started to say something but he had more to tell me so I swallowed the thoughts and words that were about to flow from my lips.
It was evident that this morning all I had to do in this conversation was to listen and acknowledge his story at the right points to give him the encouragement to continue. Phil had greeted me with the observation that this was the last morning for a while that our paths would cross as the school holidays were about to start. I walk my son to the school bus stop and then usually meet Phil on my return journey home. He’d been enquiring about the end of term for a few weeks now. I think I’ll miss him and his dog Jasper as well over the summer break.
My attention was taken from my personal thoughts back to Phil as he explain that this was the first time he had done the guttering since they’d moved into the house five years previously. Although they’d only been living there for such a short time he was obviously pleased with the move. I soon understood why.
‘It’s been in the family for years,’ he commented, ‘the wife’s family. The house has been in her family for years. But it was a bit run down and after her old dad had died it kind of just got left alone and went to ruins a bit you see ...’ his voice trailed off a bit but his blue eyes were still sparkling as he thought about what he was going to say next.
‘Oh,’ I murmured, ‘that’s sad.’
‘I’ll tell you what,’ he said brightly, ‘it was really sad to see the wife each time we went round to her old dad’s house, the last time we went, before we put it on the market, she was sat outside the house in the car like and said “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to go back in there again, or come back to this street. It hurts too much. There are too many memories in there.” Then she cried and handed me all the keys.’
‘Oh dear, that’s sad. Poor thing.’ I offered my sympathy, ‘ How long did her family live there?’ I questioned.
‘Ah, um ... well,’ he hesitated while he thought, ‘it was her dad’s and his dad’s before that so they’ve been there for a long, long time. That was their family home if you know what I mean. But it got a bit run down and all so the offers from the estate agents were a bit silly.’
‘What were they offering – if you don’t mind me asking ...’
‘No, that’s all right. It was about £60,000.’
‘When was that? Was it recent? Because I know the market has been changing a lot recently but that sounds ridiculous ...’
‘Oh, that were about seven years ago.’
‘That was a rip off offer!’ I exclaimed.
‘I know, we turned it down immediately. Cheeky sods. It just upset the wife even more to hear that. Anyway, I was sitting at home, you know, over there in Jimmy’s End,’ he used his stick to point again, this time I had to duck out of the way as he had obviously misjudged the distance between us.
‘Oops,’ I moved backwards and smiled nervously as the stick returned to the ground. Jasper jumped a bit as the stick thumped the ground beside him. The dog had stood quietly all through the conversation. The occasional pat or extended leg to knee him out of the way when people were walking close by on the path were the only forms of contact that he had from either of us.
‘I was just sitting there one evening,’ he shifted his focus from the fields back to me, ‘and I turned to the wife and said “How’d you feel if we moved into your dad’s old house?” I tell you, she just looked at me and started to cry. “Do you mean it?” she asked me. Of course I said I did and that was that. We decided to move.’
I smiled from the inside.
‘That was the perfect act of love. I’m sure your wife really appreciates it.’ I commented with pleasure.
‘I guess it was,’ he agreed shyly. I believe he was starting to blush. He lowered his eyes for the first time since we had met that morning. He was thinking deeply.
After a few quiet moments he spoke again, this time with a hint of loving pride to his voice. ‘Yes, I guess it was,’ he repeated quietly.
‘It made the wife happy, so I just did it. It didn’t matter to me where we lived, so that was that.’ Again he paused, then after a deep breath he picked up his old tone again and said brightly, ‘You know, although it was in a state and we had to move in quickly like, because our old house was sold, well, it only took a few years to get it all sorted out. I just thought it’d be nice for her.’
Then Phil turned directly to me and said, ‘Anyway, I shouldn’t really be here you know.’
‘Why’s that?’ I questioned curiously. I couldn’t imagine what he was going to say next.
That’s when he shocked me. You see I’m not a prude but I don’t make a habit of looking at men’s bodies, especially on the street. I was standing there on the side street with a man and a dog and the man, Phil, had just pulled up his top and revealed his chest to me.
‘I had a major heart bypass 17 years ago, here – look at my scar,’ he put the stick under his arm and nearly hit me again in the process. I looked in double shock at his bare chest. The first shock was the bare chest and that he had uncovered himself in front of me on the street, the second shock was the impact of seeing the long, thick snake-like scar like a dark burn mark right there on his body. I was dumbstruck.
When I recovered the power of speech I said ‘Wow!’ Then I said it again, ‘Wow...’
While I was trying to take in the immensity of what I had just seen and heard Phil carried on speaking, ‘They told me that I had three months to live, that was 17 years ago, three months, that’s all. If I didn’t have the surgery I’d be a goner now. So, I shouldn’t really be here. Thick arteries they said. My old dad died young from it too. He didn’t make it to 50. Hereditary they said. The blood couldn’t get through right, something like that. Anyway, it was going to kill me in a few months they said.’
He had pulled his top down again but in my mind’s eye I could still see the scar travelling down his chest. I shivered and said a prayer of thanks. I was amazed by this man. We had been talking for months and I would never have known that he had been through such a major operation. He was always so bright and smiling with everyone. If I didn’t meet him at the right time in the morning then we’d miss our chats as he’d be talking with someone else along the way. He always had someone to talk to and something to talk about. This happy man was obviously glad to be alive – every day.
Phil told me his age before we departed, I’d guessed him to be in his late 50s but he was just a couple of weeks short of his 69th birthday. That made him happy as well. With pleasure shared we said goodbye for the summer holidays.
As I walked away I turned back to Phil and said ‘You have a great heart,’ I smiled at him.
‘Thank you,’ he said. He smiled back and raised his stick skywards in a friendly wave over his shoulder as he walked his patient dog Jasper towards the park for their regular exercise.
As I walked home I was thoughtful about how I’d just seen a man’s heart. Although I had not seen his literal heart I did still see his scars on his chest. But the heart I saw first was the loving heart of kindness. What a blessed gift.