Barnie drives a red car with a ribbon attached to the antenna. He says it’s because it makes it easier to find his car in a parking lot. Not a bad idea. Most days, he has the energy to put up an American flag on his apartment balcony. The complex has a “no flags” policy because of all the wacky things that people may decide to display, but no one seems to mind Barnie’s decoration of choice, so the women in the office lets it slide for this World War II veteran.
Most days, his car doesn’t leave the parking lot. Except Wednesdays. Wednesdays he always has somewhere to go. It’s grocery store day because seniors get a 10-percent discount. He carries his groceries up the one flight of stairs one bag at a time, and he sometimes has to stop and rest in between trips. When he gets inside, he has to sit down to catch his breath before unloading the two or three bags of almost all frozen meals. There’s always chocolate in his refrigerator, and he has his brand-new, widescreen television positioned perfectly in front of his favorite chair that is probably from the ’70s.
Some days, his legs hurt too much for him to go anywhere. The stairs are exhausting. He spends much of his time sitting on the balcony waiving to passer-bye-ers, but in an area filled with busy professionals, there aren’t many except for early in the morning or late at night.
This past February, we watched the SuperBowl together, and during college football season, even though he went to Georgia, he cheers for Georgia Tech…or it might be the other way around?
Barnie was never married. He is the youngest of 10 children, growing up on a farm in rural Georgia, and has outlived all of his siblings. He has at least one niece or nephew who stops by on the way to and from Florida each March, but that’s the only time he’s ever mentioned family. He lives alone and spends most of his time that way, as well.
He’s 85-years-old but could easily pass for over a century. I asked him his age once, and he got pretty upset. In fact, if I ask him about anything that happened in the past, he gets confused and sad. I only calculated how old he is after he once remembered in what year he was born. He use to do Sudoku and solve math problems every day to keep his mind sharp, but now he can’t figure out even the simplest of them. He remembers being a computer programmer for one of the largest defense contractors in the country and can tell me all about that sometimes, but he still forgets my name every once in a while.
Barnie sure does teach me a lot. He teaches me to see people, even when it’s inconvenient. And I mean really see people. I couldn’t see him and not talk to him.
He teaches me to sit and be. We don’t have much about which to talk besides the weather and sports, but when I’m there, it’s the highlight of his day. Mine, too. He often retells the same stories and knows a surprising bit about his fellow residents that he’s gained from observation over the 22 years he’s lived in the same apartment.
He teaches me that hugs matter. If I don’t get a “Barnie Hug” before I leave, he seems sad. Not in the creepy-old-man way at all. He’s harmless and shaky and a proper gentleman in every sense of the term.
He teaches me to slow down. He’s always telling me that I’m rushing with too many things keeping me busy, but I think that he wishes I’d sit on his porch with him a little bit longer or a little more often.
He teaches me that it’s important to have face time with people. He doesn’t have a cell phone or computer, and after I showed him my iPhone, he said he was up all night with his head spinning. This, from the man who was a computer programmer up until at least the early ’90s. He collects piles of pinecones behind the building for who knows what and always knows when and if the mail has come.
He teaches me that spending time with someone can be the most genuinely precious part of any day.
We could all use a Barnie in our lives.
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