| An Uncommon Friend
The first time I met Jack I wasn't sure if he was afraid of strangers, anti-social or just not the friendly type. We met at my wife's high school reunion where she introduced me to her best friend's husband. His handshake was quick and his eyes barely noticed me, mumbling, "Nice to meet you." In the noisy crowd, we made small conversation while my wife chattered with Mary. I felt somewhat awkward standing with him, but he soon went out to get some fresh air. I whispered to my wife, "I don't think Jack likes me."
"Don't mind him." my wife said, "He's really a nice guy. It takes time to know him."
I tend to make rash judgments at times, especially when someone I meet seems like they are not friendly. My first reaction was to just ignore him.
After the reunion we went out for a late snack at a small restaurant where I felt uncomfortable sitting next to him. They were an odd couple in some ways. He was quiet to the extreme while his wife was bubbling with smiles and laughter, her eyes lighting up in constant good humor. He would give a shy smile at times but usually his face was almost like a mask, hiding his thoughts. My wife had told me he was a good husband, just not so affectionate, but he was generous. He would hand over his pension check to his wife, to do as she pleased, as long as he had his morning coffee downtown and did as he pleased.
The first time I had visited his house, a small home in a quiet neighborhood, I was at first struck by it's simple decor. In the living room, photos covered the mantle. The largest picture, of their wedding day, he was in full dress uniform while she was in a wedding dress covered with flowers. Next to it was a simple frame that held his campaign ribbons from the war. Further down, separate from the others, was a picture of him with a friend, standing next to a helicopter somewhere in a jungle. Their faces showed the strain of war, yet his friend had a pleasant smile.
Around the room were other typical pictures of his wife, smiling with friends, her face beaming with unrestrained joy. The pictures of Jack were in stark contrast with that of his wife with him in combat clothing. His wife was always dressed in colorful print dresses, not so fashionable but befitting her joy of life. I also noticed the total absence of any children in any of the pictures and asked my wife why. She said they had wanted a family but Mary had some fertility problems which could explain some of Jack's somber mood.
Earlier, Mary told me that Jack was a gardener and she suggested I ask him to see it. It might give me a chance to know him better, or at least, talk with him. As he showed me his work, I was quite impressed with it's formal setting. Very organized, it reminded me of a typical English country garden.. When I said, "Wow... you really have a green thumb." he gave a slight smile, mumbling, "Thanks."
Watching him pulling out weeds, I said, "Those are really nice dahlias. I've never seen that color before."
Pleased that someone even noticed, he cupped one in his hand saying. "These are purple dahlias from Mexico."
I felt pleased with myself in giving him some kind of compliment on his garden.
Later I mentioned to his wife, "He's quite the gardener."
She said, "Yes, he's very proud of his work. That's nice of you to notice. He doesn't show many people."
With our wives being such good friends, we began to out together, going to the movies or dining out. I often tried to make conversation, asking him about his experiences but he would turn quiet when I mentioned the army. One time, talking with his wife after dinner, I asked her if he had any friends. She told me quietly, "He had a very good friend in the army and they used to have coffee every day after they retired."
"Doesn't he see him anymore?" I asked.
She appeared nervous, saying, "He passed away several years ago. Jack hasn't been the same since."
I was not what one would call a 'bonding' person but I felt that Jack needed someone to talk to and surviving a war, he made a sacrifice spending some five years in a god-awful jungle, his life in mortal danger.
Now, more curious, I asked my wife about Jack's friend. She said, "He was a very close friend. They had coffee together every weekend, always at the same place, at the same table. They actually didn't talk much.. just drinking their coffee and reading the newspaper. Everyone knew about them and the coffee shop always tried to save the same table for them. They did this for years. I guess they went fishing sometimes. They loved the outdoors."
I said, "It must have been a shock to lose his friend."
"Yes," she said, "they were almost inseparable. The strange thing is...after his death, Jack would still have coffee at the same place and he would always leave the chair beside him empty. No one was allowed to sit there."
"Maybe they had some close memories of battle in the war.
He's a good man, he just has to get over it."my wife said.
For the next few months, being together, I tried to get closer to him, to get him to talk, but to no avail. At times I had the feeling he wanted to talk. His eyes seemed to be more expressive at times. I mentioned that I liked fishing and his eyes seemed to light up. Glancing at me, he said, "Fishing is very relaxing." Though I could sense he loved his wife very much, it was also clear to me he at times enjoyed being alone, or at least, being with someone who didn't talk much. To say Mary liked talking was an understatement. She was a wonderful person but at times talking can wear a person down. As I thought about it, maybe Jack and I had a something in common.
I told my wife about our talk of fishing but she said,
"I'm not so sure you can take his friend's place. They managed to survive the war together and that brought them very close."
One morning, back from shopping, I saw my wife standing at the door, her face frozen, her eyes glistening with tears. I just knew there was bad news.. I said, "What's wrong?"
Trembling, her voice so low I could barely hear, she said,
"Mary just died."
I said, " Dear God.....we just saw her last night."
"She had a stroke. Everyone is shocked." she said.
"Poor Jack. How is he taking it?"
"We have to go over and see him. He's taking it hard of course."
I dreaded the very thought of seeing him but we had to give him some support. At the door he gestured us in. He had few relatives so we were his closest friends and someone had to help him bear such a terrible loss. There was little to say as we held him. He was stooped over and gray as a ghost. He almost looked dead himself. My wife, tears running down her face, said quietly, "We're so sorry Jack.. she was such a good person."
Saying nothing, I held his shaking hand trying to console him. Tears in his eyes, he mumbled, "She was a good woman. Why did she leave so soon?" I felt a hopeless feeling that I couldn't do anything but sit with him, holding his hand. Death was one of those things in life I had a hard time understanding. Maybe just being with him was enough.
As he sat down on the couch, he squeezed my hand whispering, "You can go... I'll be alright."
My wife whispered to me, "Hold him...I'll make some coffee."
For the next hour, sipping our coffee, we said nothing trying to give him some comfort. Finally leaving, we told him we would take care of all the details. My wife said in soft voice, "If you want, you can stay at our place,"
In a weak voice, he answered, "No...I'll be okay."
The funeral was dreadful, as they usually are, but Jack held up as good as to be expected, but we still worried about him. After a few weeks we took him out to dinner but he was still morose and would hardly speak. My wife told me one day, "Why don't you have coffee with him this Saturday... try to be friends" I told her, " I don't think he will accept me. I'm not a close friend.and I don't even know how to approach him."
"Well" she said, "Just try it. He needs someone to talk to."
That Saturday, at the coffee shop, I hesitated entering, seeing Jack next to the empty chair. It was a busy morning, making it easier for me to approach him and not attract too much attention.. Feeling awkward, I said, "Do you mind if I have coffee with you?"
Without even looking up from his newspaper, he said, "sure...grab a chair if you like."
I sat down in the special chair next to him, the waitress taking my order while he kept on reading. Jack said, "Here...share the paper with me."
Relieved of his offer, I read with him as we drank our coffee, not uttering a word. Around us, I noticed the other patrons smiling.. They knew Jack had a new friend. Trying to say something, I said in a soft voice, "I heard you like fishing."
With a faint smile, he said, "Do you know anything about fishing?"
"To be honest with you, no I don't, but maybe you can show me." I said.
After a long pause,. he said, "Well, I'll see if I have enough gear."
It was a start. Just the fact he had even answered me was a good sign.
We didn't talk much. I could almost detect a smile on his face while we enjoyed our coffee, his eyes occasionally glancing over. It was comforting to be with him. I still felt almost like an intruder, deciding I should leave. Making an excuse I had a dentist appointment, I said, "I have to go.. see you next time."
My wife told me to try again next week. She said, "It takes time. Just be with him and he will come to you."
I was not good at socializing but sometimes one has to make an effort.
Now with some confidence, I went into the door and saw Jack sitting at the usual place. Greeting me, he nodded and pointed to the chair besides him.
The coffee shop was a busy hum of activity with the soft aroma of brew and people conversing on that peaceful morning. There was no need to talk much...just being with him was enough to console him. Though still in mourning, Jack seemed to be accepting his loss. Even his face seemed to have more color, as if he came back to life. After awhile, I picked up the check, saying, "This one is on me."
The waitress gave me my change and with a smile, she leaned over, whispering to me. "Take good care of him."
Outside we walked together in the park. I wanted to say something but there are times in life where silence can be the most comforting. Giving me a faint smile, he said, "How about fishing with me?"
Slapping him gently on the back, I said, "I'd love to Jack."
Enjoying our time together, not looking up, Jack said, "The lake will be beautiful this time of year."