This Is What It Feels Like

FICTION- 1,080 words.

A friend reached out to me, without prompting, which seems to me to be the best standard of friendship.

She reached out early one morning, and although she didn’t know it, someone I cared about had died the night before.

I thought it would be impossible for me to open up but I was able to talk to her. So I told her what had happened.

And because she was a friend, she listened.

I told her of an elderly man’s passing. He’d had a painful bunch of years, especially in his hands, and like most older people, he’d kept his pains to himself. He kept a lot of things to himself.

He didn’t express love in the measure people generally know. His expressions weren’t even what most families would deem as adequate. Instead, his love was like light that shone behind a heavy closed door.

If you happened to pass by this door, or even if you stayed around for a while, you’d see nothing, no light. No one would blame you for shrugging your shoulders and walking away.

There was no evidence to consider from his shut door. This was the man I knew.

Those who cared about him wanted the relationship to be closer. We talked with him and invited him into our lives and our homes. He would oblige, driving to us from his single-man’s cottage in the hills. He’d come, and ask about the least-trafficked route to south county, or our opinion on a certain truck, or television show. He’d talk about fried fish dinners and show us his box of old photographs he always carried around.

It was one-hundred percent talk on his terms. It was what I called blocky talk. On the surface the discussions seemed normal—and for a reasonable time they were—until you realized that he’d block out, squelch or dismiss any mention of personal issues. He just couldn’t do it. There was never an opening, never an expression of attachment to a person or to people. If you tried you were denied, and not in a nice way. He had a lot of experience in shutting off, shutting down and walking out on people who cared about him. So this was how we lived our years.

There was never going to be enough love given, or received, to make his relationships range as far as they could. We’d throw up our hands and say “This is not worth it.” Because he made life difficult when it need not have been. Later we’d change our minds and come back. And he’d be there. We were going to have to live with having very little with this man.

Having very little was still having something.

Time goes back a long way, before us. It goes back to days we remember and it pushes further back, to events we’d never seen. There were reasons for his being a hard man. If we understood those reasons, even just a little bit, then we made adjustments when dealing with him. We made the accommodation. We said the words needed to normalize what would be bent, or broken, that day. Because our past was not as hard as this man’s.

He knew one way to live, and we knew that was always going to be.

A few of us spent some time outside this man’s closed door.

It took a long time for us to perceive, but given a certain circumstance, his light could be seen.

If you wanted to give anything to this man, if you really wanted to reach him, you had to stop here for a while. Park it, right in front of his proverbial door. Which means, plainly speaking, you’d sit with him. You’d give him your time and attention.

You would tell him your best route to south county.

You’d look at his old photographs.

Buy him his dinner.

Truthfully, most people weren’t very good at the kind of stopping he needed. Sure, it’s easy to chat and pick up some food. To do this right, you’d have to do something else too, and it eluded us for a while. I’m talking about methodically setting aside each piece of your life and just simply hanging around.

That’s right. I packed off the kids. I forgot about work—for now. I relocated my distractions, and focused on him. Focused on that shut door.

Setting aside each piece of life is like turning down the surrounding lights. True enough, it worked just that way. Once the room was dark, we could take a fresh look at the heavy door. There was a sliver of light at the bottom near the floor; and a bit of flare from the jamb. Dim, faint. Orange. Present.

There it was. This was the love he had for us.

What do we call this? What do we call what we did? When we set aside, for a time, all that was in our lives, in order to cut the interference so as to see what another had to give?

The way to defeat blocky talk was to just be normal, and to unpack. And then we’d show him we cared by how we set the table for him. How we paused over his photographs. What we observed about the pictures, and how we reacted to his responses. This gentle interaction was the dimming of the room, and seeing his bit of light. In this way, we showed him we cared. It allowed for him to show, too.

As I said, a friend called me. She is really good at reaching out. She set aside her family and her crafts and she phoned—she showed up. She dimmed the lights, to see emanations from my own closed door. Because I too, am a hard and stubborn older man.

It hadn’t taken her nearly as long to figure out how to do it.

I know I can be frustrating to those close to me. Sometimes I’m physically frozen, stopped up with words that don’t come out. Sometimes my words are foolish and fast, and I’m left with no one—an empty room.

This is what it feels like. Each time when I’m sure she’s going to be tired of reaching out, I think, please stick with me. Please see beyond my silence. I am broken—do what you can to sit out my failings. Understand who I am. Find a way to find me. Please don’t stay away for very long.

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About Ara Hagopian's The LITERATE Show

For over thirty years, I have enjoyed drawing beautiful shapes and writing complementary stories. The imagery tends to focus on our place in the world—whomever or whatever we may be. I am influenced by Twentieth Century history—I read vintage magazines, books and letters. Inspiration comes from visualizing human achievement and personal interaction—derived from people, places and things which may be obscure, but never insignificant. My pen-and-ink THE MAGNIFICENT RECOVERY was selected by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston for their 2008 summer art auction.
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4 Responses to This Is What It Feels Like

  1. Lorraine Bracewell says:

    That was beautiful. Such expression through words. I totally got it.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Ara, I loved this story. I think there are a lot of people that can relate to this type of man (or woman). I’m glad you wrote this. Cynthia

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