I’m not used to doing things the way everyone else does. I never have. Sometimes the best thing to do is what no one else would think to do. Or say. I sometimes say things that are rude, but are also considerate. People don’t ask me my opinion unless they want the truth.
“Does this shirt look good on me?”
“No, not at all.”
I’m not rude exactly. I’m just blunt. Sometimes people need that more than anything.
Here’s a good example. It’s one that I have ready, because I had already considered posting this story. I will tell you that it’s entirely true. I haven’t even embellished it. I won’t tell you the man’s name, because his hardships aren’t anyone’s business. I will tell you about my small involvement though.
I arrived at his house to service his water softener and drinking water system. That’s done yearly, so I knew him. He was a customer I always liked to see. He was always so pleasant and charming. I would have thought him a stranger to any kind of bad mood. I knew I couldn’t expect that this time. I had already been told that this one might be difficult. The system was okay, but the customer wasn’t. His wife had died recently. That ‘recently’ is measured in months, but he was an old man and when a marriage has lasted as long as his did, the impact lasts.
I was prepared for that. I was going to handle it the way I usually do. I was going to avoid touching on the subject at all. Some people like to have others commiserate with them. Some are the opposite. Some people, after losing a loved one, want to be left alone. They don’t want your condolences. Hearing how sorry you are doesn’t help them. On the other hand, if it was clear he wanted to talk, I’d be right there. He would just have to make the first move.
He opened the door, stepped aside so that I get in, and said, “You know where it is.”
Then he moved off into the next room to glare at the television. He had always been one of the most likable people, almost cartoonish in his geniality. I know I said that already, but it bears repeating. That was gone. The tone of his voice reeked of hostility, not toward me, but towards the world. His movements showed pain. I expected that, but I didn’t expect the way he walked. You see, he didn’t walk. Old as he was, he sort of hopped and got handholds to move across his living room. He had only one foot. Now that I didn’t expect. I had been told about his wife. I didn’t know that he had lost his leg. It was strange to me because of the parallel. My own grandfather had just gone through the same thing that year. Grandma had died and he lost his foot to diabetes. It was so bizarre to see someone of nearly the same age in the same situation at the same time. Perhaps that’s what gave the instinct to say something a bit bold. I set down my toolbox, but I didn’t move off right away. “Uh, before I get started, I have to point out the elephant in the room, but you did have two legs when I was here last time, didn’t you?”
For a moment he stared at me open mouthed and wide eyed. Then he chuckled and I got to see that warm smile that was typical of him. “Yeah. Yes, I did. You know my wife died?”
“Yeah, I knew that. I didn’t know about the leg. When did that happen?”
He got up out of his chair and followed me as I went in to his kitchen to get to work. We kept on a conversation the entire time I was there. We didn’t discuss his troubles. We’d already gotten that out of the way. I can’t remember what all we discussed. Sports? The weather? The news? Whatever it was, it was just an ordinary conversation, but for him it was something special. I didn’t say so, but I understood. In his situation, everyone must have been tip toeing around him. He must have had constant sympathy. What he didn’t have, or at least what he didn’t have enough of, was just company. He wasn’t able to have an ordinary conversation with anyone who knew him. I didn’t care enough about his tragedies to dwell on them, and that’s what he wanted. After I was finished working upstairs, I had to go to his basement to work on the softener. He followed me down. His house was already set up for it, and despite his age, he was already talented at getting around on one foot. Even so, I’ve got to admit that I was surprised he would make an unnecessary trip down the stairs. I’m not that charismatic.
When the job was done, I didn’t leave right away. I kept on talking with the man for a little while. I wasn’t there long, I don’t think. I couldn’t really tell you if it was half an hour or if it was more. I didn’t time it. I do know that I walked into a house of gloom, and I left behind a smile.
That was years ago, but I’ll never forget it. It taught me something that I already knew. The wrong thing to say can be the perfect thing to say.