I am holding a small pink rock. Rose quartz. It usually sits on my desk, just above my laptop.
Sometimes, when I can’t think of anything to write, I hold this rock in my hand and toss it up in the air a few times until either an idea comes to me, or I give myself a black eye.
I have been staring at this rock a lot during the quarantine. In fact, I spend a lot of time tossing this stupid rock into the air.
A long time ago I helped drive the church community van. It wasn’t my regular gig, I was just a volunteer. The van carried maybe five elderly people who needed help running errands. My friend Bobby was riding shotgun.
Mostly, we loaded and unloaded wheelchairs and walkers, took people to the post office, purchased their medications, carried them to the supermarket, or assisted them with “public bathroom ordeals.”
The elderly people lived alone. I believe the term the church used for them was “shut-ins.”
So we spent the whole day driving them around. Whenever one of the ladies would start complaining about low blood sugar, we stopped by a drive-thru window.
You should have seen our McDonald’s fiascos. Trying to explain the finer points of a fast-food menu to older people with severe hearing problems was like trying to rewrite the Magna Carta with a white crayon.
“Do you want SUPERSIZED FRIES, Miss Caroline?” one of us would ask.
“Huh? I don’t know anyone who died!”
“I think he died thirty years ago!”
“I have to pee.”
And so it went.
One day, we stopped at an apartment to pick up an old man I’ll call Mister Johnny. He was a recluse, and as unfriendly as a copperhead. The inside of his apartment was probably the most disgusting place on planet earth. We rolled into his driveway to find him sitting on his swing, smoking a Winston.
“You’re late,” were his first words.
Immediately I could tell that this guy was Mister Personality.
We went to the grocery store. When we pulled into the parking lot, Bobby and I flipped a coin to see who would take Johnny Sunshine inside. And anyone who is familiar with Greek tragedies knows that I lost the coin toss.
Mister Johnny didn’t want to admit that he couldn’t walk on his own, or that he was half blind. So we hobbled through the store. Him, steadily cussing, holding the cart for balance. Me, politely smiling at nearby shoppers each time he said a swear word.
That’s when he asked if I played chess. I told him I didn’t know anything about chess, so he asked me to visit his house sometime. I was thinking to myself, “I’d rather chew off my own leg.” But the Baptist Guilt inside me kicked in. I went to his house.
When I arrived on his steps, there was no tough-guy act. He wasn’t even remotely the same grumpy man he’d been in the store. In fact, he was pretty nice. We played chess. And when it was time for me to go, he begged me to stay for supper. He even offered to cook.
I didn’t know how to kindly tell this old man that I would have rather licked a boar hog between the ears than eat anything prepared in his tetanus-laden kitchen. So I accepted his invitation. He cooked chicken. I do not believe his skillet had been washed since the Crimean War.
That night over supper he told me his whole life story. He beared it all. He said that he hated living alone, with no family to speak of, and he even started crying. Then he asked for my advice on whether he should move into a nursing home.
I felt way out of my league here, and a little foolish. I was a baby compared to this elderly man, with no advice to give. I didn’t know what to say, so I kept quiet.
And I will never forget when he said to me, “I’m scared of being alone.”
Before I left that night, he gave me a little pink rock as a thank-you gift. We even embraced.
Later that evening, when I got back home, I vomited my brains out after contracting the worst case of food poisoning I’ve ever had in my life. I don’t want to go into detail, but it was atomic.
That same month, Mister Johnny moved into a nursing home. Several of us helped him move his furniture into his new room. We helped him settle in, and I even set up the hummingbird feeder outside his window.
What a big day it was. The nursing home staff gave him a little party with balloons, music, bingo, and everything. And I saw a hard-faced old man melt like a stick of Land O’ Lakes.
A few years later, he died. Some of us went to his funeral. I expected it to be poorly attended since he’d been a recluse for so long. But I was wrong. There were lots of people in the congregation. Most of them were from the nursing home, almost everyone had a head of white hair.
Except for the young guy next to me, dressed in medical scrubs. He was a nursing home employee, and he was bawling so hard that he had to excuse himself. Before he left, I noticed a little piece of pink rose quartz in his hand.
Wherever he is, I’m glad Mister Johnny is not alone anymore.