Happy Memorial Day. Yesterday I had a chance encounter with a veteran. And God.
Yesterday I pulled in to a gas station, silently remarking to myself how strange it is to be grateful to find gas for $3.95 a gallon. I pulled up to a pump and immediately noticed that my gas tank was going to be several feet away from the fuel hose because the person parked at the next pump had pulled his vehicle forward so far it was essentially taking up two spaces.
I felt a moment of annoyance and thought of pulling around to another pump, but all appeared to be occupied. I sighed, mildly frustrated, and recognized that the annoyance and frustration were signs that I was in my “controlling and managing” mode, and so I tried to let it go and just eased forward as far as I could. I cut the engine.
After I started pumping my oh-so-cheap gas, I had a thought to wash my windshield. The day before I noticed it was rather filthy and tried cleaning it with the car’s washers, but the wipers weren’t strong enough to completely remove some of the larger bits of smashed bug that dotted the glass. These would only be erased by some serious manual scrubbing.
I thought about how you used to be able to get actual cleaning solution in the water to wash your windshield at service stations, but nowadays it seems gas stations will only supply a receptacle of dirty water, and I again recognized the lack of serenity in my thinking. I let forth another sigh, and mentally said a quick prayer for acceptance and courage and wisdom.
I received all three instantly.
When I turned to retrieve the squeegee, I saw that it was already being retrieved by a man. A very old man. The man whose car was parked in two spaces was now taking the tool I needed to clean my windshield. But instead of annoyance, I felt curious. I watched him.
He walked with a cane, slowly and with great effort, and he leaned upon it as he bent down to retrieve the long handled squeegee. He wore baggy shorts that billowed around his skinny legs, and what appeared to be wool socks with sandals on his feet.
It took him a few moments to get the squeegee out of the water and return to a standing position. His hair was white and his skin was covered in liver spots, the badges of old age. It seemed to take him forever to move from the water receptacle to his car, the water from the sponge-side of the squeegee dripping down onto the pavement, some of it splashing on his sandaled feet. All the while, he leaned heavily on his cane. This was a difficult task for him.
Without really thinking what I was doing, I walked over to him, giving him a wide berth so that I did not startle him by sneaking up directly behind him.
“Sir?” I called as I approached. He did not hear me, and so I moved a little closer and called louder, “Sir? Can I help you with that?”
He was taking the squeegee to the hood of his car instead of the windshield, rubbing it against the surface slowly, awkwardly. He heard me and turned to look at me, his face a mask that I could not read. “What?” he said, in a voice that did not sound as old as he looked.
I gave him a friendly smile and said, “Can I wash that for you, sir?”
He looked at me and I could see by his face that he was tired. His blue eyes were milky and I briefly wondered about his vision and the fact that he was driving, yet he wore no glasses. He did not smile back at me, but he did respond. “Can you wash this for me?” he said, more to himself than to me. “Can you wash this for me” he said again – more a statement than a question.
He sounded mad, and for a moment I wondered if I’d made a mistake in offering to help.
“Yes, I’d be happy to do that for–” I started, but he continued talking.
“I need the exercise,” he said to me. “My doctor says I need to exercise as much as possible. Every little bit helps, he says, so I need to exercise wherever I can”, he said.
I smiled, trying not to look as awkward as I felt. I glanced at his vehicle and noticed that the dash board was covered – and the backseat filled – with belongings. Personal care items, clothes, a blanket, medication, papers…
I had a strong suspicion that the man lived in this car.
I looked back at the man, and he was looking at me. “I hate to exercise,” he said to me.
I smiled again, and it felt genuine this time. “Well, I hate to exercise too,” I replied. “I’m with you on that one.”
He said, “My doctor tells me that I need to exercise to keep my strength, but the truth is, I just want to be done. I’m ninety-five and a V.A. outpatient, and my doctor tells me that I need to exercise but I’m tired.”
He looked back at his car and said again, “I’m tired. I just want to be done.”
I did not know how to respond to that. I glanced again at the interior of his car, then back at his weathered, tired, face with the milky eyes that still seemed to see me clearly, and wondered about this man’s life. I wondered if he had any family. I wondered if he had any friends. I wondered if he did, in fact, live in that car.
“I’ve got arthritis and my bones ache, and my leg is bum so its hard to get around,” he continued. “But I just keep going.” He turned back to look at me. “What else can I do, right?”
I glanced back at my own car, with my children in the back seat completely unaware of the encounter I was having, and felt an urge to climb back there and just hold them tight. I was suddenly very aware of how precious human connection is. As I stood before this tired man who had reached a point where he had seen enough, I felt a sense of overwhelming gratitude. In that moment, I realized that there is nothing in the universe I want more than the life I have and the people I hold in my heart. In that moment, I felt young and vibrant and full of love.
“But you asked if you could wash this for me,” the man went on, “and here I go on and on about myself. No, thank you for offering, but I can do this.” He looked me in the eye and gave me an appreciative nod, then turned back to his car.
I wanted to help this man, and heard a voice in my head say, “Help is what we ask for; service is what we render.” I reminded myself that I can not help anyone, but I can be of service to them, willingly and lovingly. I had offered to be of service to this man, and he declined. Still, I tried once more.
“Are you sure I can’t clean that for you, sir?” I asked, sensing the answer before I received it. “I would be happy to do it.”
He touched the squeegee to the hood of his vehicle and said without looking at me, “No, thank you, I’m just going to get this spot off the hood. Its a –” and he mumbled a few comments about whatever it was that he was cleaning off his car, which I could not hear or understand. Then he glanced back at me and said, “Thank you, though.”
I smiled at him one more time. “No problem. You have a good day, sir.”
He did not say anything further and turned back to his car. I walked back to my own car and returned the hose to the pump, collected my receipt, and got in my car.
As I drove away, it occurred to me what a gorgeously beautiful day it was, and I breathed deeply. I turned up the music for the kids and we sang. I looked out at the sun and the clouds and the trees and felt joy. I thought about my interaction with the man at the gas station and felt sadness. Mostly, I felt a deep appreciation for all of it. Everything.
Especially for my dirty windshield.