It was a quarter after nine when I finally pulled into a parking space outside my apartment last Thursday night. Like most February evenings in the Midwest it was cold, adding another layer of despair to what had been a very long day, not to mention a long winter. My responsibilities at work required my attention past our regular hours and I had to spend a few additional hours in the car afterward. Needless to say, I was looking forward to a little me time and couldn’t wait to plop my butt on the couch.
I leashed my dog, Sparky, who was a little too excited to exit the vehicle and accidentally knocked over the chocolate shake I was drinking. Cursing silently I opened the door allowing him to jump out (he always hops over my lap for some reason) and I turned to the backseat to assess the damage. Luckily, the amount spilled was minimal and I sighed heavily, thankful I didn’t have to spend more time off the couch cleaning.
As I shut the door and led Sparky over to the trunk so I could grab my laptop bag, I noticed a man limping down the sidewalk roughly six or seven cars down. I paid him little attention because wrestling with my bag and keeping an overly excited dog away from passing cars is always challenging, but by the time I slammed the trunk the man was gone and I didn’t think twice about him.
Sparky and I walked our usual route, perhaps with a bit more urgency this time because all I could think about was getting out of my work pants, slipping into the same comfy sweats I wear every night, and pouring a tall glass of wine before slouching in front of the TV with a mindless show on.
We circled back to the front door so I could grab the mail and found that same man I saw earlier rifling through his own items in front of all the boxes. Sparky, being the attention loving and friendly dog that he is walked right up to him. I gave him a little tug before the man said with a slight quiver, “Oh my, what a cute dog.”
I told Sparky to say hi and let up on the leash a bit so the gentleman could give him a little pat on the head. Suddenly the man dropped his mail without a thought and nearly shouted with excitement over how cute Sparky is and asked me his name. Based on his demeanor and the way he spoke, I could tell this man had either a social or mental disability.
When he bent over and extended his hand to allow some friendly sniffing, I noticed an untamed mess of hair barely covering a growing bald spot and caught myself critiquing his appearance. His clothes were worn, to say the least, and his face was unkempt and scruffy. A couple of bags laid beside him along with one that was crumpled which contained the remains of a meal from Burger King. I regret having rushed to judgement of this man because what happened next broke my heart.
After asking for Sparky’s and my own name several times, he bent even lower and Sparky began licking is face. With a heavy sigh and a look of despair on his face he said at least a half-dozen times, “I am Paul, I am Paul, I am Paul,” almost as if he was saying it to assure himself that that in fact was his name. Then without warning, in the middle of complimenting Sparky’s hair, he started to sob heavily in mid-sentence.
Barely audible, he fell to his knees, dropping the bag wrapped around his shoulder. Initially I pulled away but realized Paul meant no harm and was hurting in ways I didn’t understand–until he composed himself enough to tell me his own dog passed away a few days earlier and he just received her ashes and paw prints. My heart hurt in that moment.
For the next forty-five minutes I spoke with Paul, who continued to tell me his name throughout our time together, and explained to me that his beloved pet was seventeen when she passed. He whimpered and sobbed periodically–I’m certain he was loud enough to be heard at the end of the hall–and grilled me, making sure I was a good owner. With tears running down his face and snot dripping from his nose, he reminded me again and again to spoil Sparky and never stop enjoying the time I have with him.
When it was time to part ways I had forgotten all about my couch and wanted to stay with Paul longer. I felt guilty that I couldn’t help him through the pain he was in and wanted to stay in the lobby until he was relieved from some of his grief…but I didn’t know how. I asked if he would like to join us on a walk from time to time, maybe even throw the ball around, but I think he was too broken to agree.
He said, “When it gets warmer I promise to look for you two and take you up on the offer…my name is Paul.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him I was leaving in a month.
With a reassuring smile and a heavy heart I said goodbye to Paul, hoping we’d get one last chance to converse before my move. Eventually I made it up to my apartment but paused at the door. I no longer wished to indulge in my lazy and selfish habits, I only wanted to go back down and help Paul, but there was nothing more I could do.
The night, and the days since, have not been the same. I knew that I too would someday feel the same way he did and reminisced about other moments of loss where the pain was far too great to keep myself together.
I came to two strong realizations that night: people, and this life in general, can surprise us in many ways and make us see things in ourselves we may not even know are there–we should not close ourselves off to others as they may have amazing things to offer.
The second realization is that love is a double-edged sword. It reveals a happiness we never would’ve known existed in its absence, but is responsible for an unbearable sorrow only known when it leaves. The only solace we have after it’s gone comes from the memory of the joy we once held.
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