Sunday, January 22, 2012

Charlie and the Waiting Room

Charlie was one of my best and most loyal friends.  He was almost ninety when we met and even though he had only a few years left in him the impression he left with me lingers still.  We met when I got a job at a Rehab center in Vancouver, Washington.  I was a fairly new occupational therapist at the time and my first day on the job I was given Charlie as a patient.  Looking back on it, I think it was a bit of an initiation rite devised by my new boss.  Charlie had been in Rehab for a couple of weeks and I was told by my co-worker that he was a cantankerous old coot and wouldn’t do anything with the therapists.  She ended her description with a wry smile and said, “Good luck!” 
This “old coot” normally lived in an assisted living center nearby, but would get pneumonia every so often.  He came to the Rehab center after being discharged from the hospital so that he could get stronger before going home.  When I looked at his chart I saw a long line of “R’s” on the therapy page indicating “refusals.”  I also saw that he was from Virginia City, Montana.  I figured that maybe he was cantankerous but that he had met his match in me. 
I’d just gotten a Montana calendar for Christmas that was supposed to quell some of my homesickness and I’d brought it to work to dress up my desk.  Well, I grabbed that calendar and marched down to his room with my jaw set and a gleam of determination in my eye.  He was dozing in his wheelchair when I sat down beside him.  He woke, took one look at me and closed his eyes again saying something like, “I already did my exercises.”  So, I plunked the calendar down on his lap and shouted in his ear, “I’m from Montana, too!”  Charlie was pretty darned deaf and what he could hear he often ignored.  But, he didn’t ignore this.  His eyes flew open and he started thumbing through the calendar.  He even allowed me to take him down to the OT kitchen where he opened  a can of tomato soup and heated it up for us.  He didn’t realize it, but as he stood there at the stove he was strengthening his legs and as he reached for bowls and spoons he was working on his balance.  My co-workers shot glances of surprise in our direction as they saw him merrily eating his soup, looking at the pictures and reminiscing about home.  And so began a life-long, albeit far too short, friendship. 
Charlie had been a true Montana cowboy, herding cattle before a lot of the countryside was fenced.  In the 1800’s, Virginia City was a huge gold-mining town and was known for its hard-living characters of dubious repute and vigilante justice.  Charlie was only one generation removed from this time and gold was still being dredged when he was a young man.  He told me countless tales of fishing, hunting, cattle ranching and hangings.  He also worked for Foster Wheeler Construction Company and had traveled all over the world building bridges.  He never married, but had lived a long, full life until at the age of 84 he was run over by a car while attempting to cross the street.  He had multiple broken bones, internal injuries and a head injury, but his cowboy tenacity (some might call it stubbornness) saw him through and although it took several months he was able to walk again and returned home.  That was his first of many stays at the Rehab center.  He was still kicking by the time I met him, but his body was getting stiffer and slower with each stay.  His movement was getting so limited in his shoulders that he could barely put on a shirt.  His disdain for the physical therapist’s shoulder exercises was notable, so one day I brought a fly fishing rod to his therapy session and asked him to teach me to cast.  Even though he pronounced my fly rod and reel a “hunk of junk” he obliged and found movement in his shoulders that he didn’t know he had.  But, he also promised me that he would really take me fishing one day. 
My own father was in failing health, so shortly afterward our family moved back to Montana.  We took Charlie out to dinner a few nights before we moved and I honestly thought that it would be the last time I’d see him.  As we dropped him off at his home he said, “I’ll take the bus out to see you.”  I thought, “Yeah, that would be great, but not likely.”  However, I should have known never to underestimate this man.    One day I got a call from his guardian who said, “Charlie showed up at my office with your daughter’s high school graduation announcement.  He told me, ‘The girl is graduating and I’m gonna see it.  Buy me a bus ticket.’” 

Charlie and Aubrey, 1997
 And a couple of weeks later I went to the bus station and there was Charlie, grinning from ear to ear bearing four tackle boxes and three fishing poles that were definitely not “hunks of junk.”  We ended up going over to Georgetown Lake and taking that fishing trip he’d promised so that we could use the tackle and he could teach me to cast properly.  We didn’t catch any fish, but that really never was the point of the trip.  Little did I know that it would be the last time I got to fish with Charlie or my father. 

Another of his visits we were able to take him back to his old stomping grounds at Virginia City.  He had a grand time walking the streets reminiscing and telling us tales of the Old West.  We actually found his sister-in-law basically by going door to door.  Not that many people live in Virginia City anymore so it only took about thirty minutes before we were directed to the right house.  They hadn’t seen each other in years.  I still remember the look of shock on her face when she saw him standing on her doorstep.  And I probably had a look of triumph on my face since we’d actually found her.  I do recall that Charlie just stood there looking like it was just any other day.
But when I remember Charlie I don’t think about the trips or the fishing or the stories.  Instead, I remember his infinite patience.  I think he’d always been a loner and spent most of his retirement years by himself.  When he came to visit us it was no different.  I had to work and the kids had school when he came over, so he was alone most of the day.  Over the years he had devised crazy ways to entertain himself.  One summer day when I came in from work he announced, “Fifty-four motor homes drove down the street today.  Must be time for camping.” 
I said, “Charlie, did you really sit here all day by the window and count?”
“Yep.  And a hundred and twenty-three people walked down the sidewalk.”  I imagined him reluctantly shuffling off to the bathroom as fast as he could, so he wouldn’t miss anything or anyone that needed to be counted. 
We lived in the university area in Missoula at the time and although the huge Norwegian maples that lined the streets were lovely to look at and provided great shade they were the bane of our existence in the autumn.  Raking the leaves was usually a huge chore.  But, not the year Charlie came to visit.  He would meticulously rake the leaves in a pile, set the rake by the door and go inside to watch through the window and wait for more to fall.  I’m not sure, but I think he counted those also, because after a time he would kind of get to rocking forward and back until he had enough momentum to raise himself off the couch.  He’d make his way to the door, exchange his cane for the leaf rake and start the process all over again.  I was a little embarrassed that my 90-year-old guest was out raking the leaves when my teen-aged children were inside, but he really wouldn’t have had it any other way.  He so wanted to be useful.
But, mostly when I remember Charlie and his patience, I remember his squirrel.  We all enjoyed watching the squirrels play in the maple trees, but Charlie really loved them.  I don’t remember how long he’d been staying with us, but one day he called to me, “Come here and watch this!”  I came out of the kitchen drying my hands on a towel to see him open the front door.  And in walked a squirrel.  Charlie went over, sat down on the couch and put a peanut, shell and all, in his mouth.  The squirrel ran up the side of the couch, across the back, perched on Charlie’s shoulder and proceeded to take the nut out of his mouth.  Then, he scampered out the open front door eager to find a hiding place for his treasure.  He was back in a couple of minutes and the whole procedure was repeated.  Again and again that squirrel came back in the house.  I said, “How long did it take you to train him to do that?” 
“A couple of days.  I got him to come up on the porch first, then inside the house, then to the couch; then on my arm.  Finally, he took it right out of my mouth.  Pretty good, isn’t it?”  And Charlie grinned with delight.   I chuckle now when I remember that squirrel.  After his trainer and source of peanuts returned home to Washington, we would hear a tiny scratching at the door.  We’d look out and there was his squirrel.  We had a special basket filled with peanuts and we put it on the floor so that he could help himself.  I told the kids that they were forbidden from trying the peanut in the mouth trick, and they at least never tried it in my presence.  We started calling the squirrel Charlie, too.  The oddest thing was that about six months after Charlie the man died, Charlie the squirrel developed a growth on one of his eyes and it started getting kind of weepy.  His trainer had that same growth and weepy, bloodshot eyes.  Maybe it was just coincidence, but I never knew for sure.
So, I’ve been thinking about Charlie quite a bit lately.  I often wonder how he developed his patience.  I only knew him near the end of his life when his body was failing but his mind was still very active.  I wonder if he was always a patient soul or had he just developed this trait out of necessity since his days were long and lonely.  How long had he been content to wait?  He waited for meals, to go to bed; for the occasional visitor.  He waited for the bus to take him to the diner for his daily cup of coffee.  He waited for the leaves to fall, campers to drive down the road, for me to get off work and then for time to set the table for supper.  And through it all he never complained or showed the slightest bit of impatience.  He simply was.  He could sit more still than anyone I’ve ever known. 
I think of him now as I scurry and bustle about, anxious that the microwave is taking more than thirty seconds to warm my dinner or that the pages are not loading fast enough as I check my e-mail.  I so often push through tasks or make work for myself when all the while if I had just a bit of patience things would work themselves out.  Like the other day.  I had misplaced an important file and spent the better part of an hour looking for it.  I had no recollection of the last time I’d seen it, so I searched high and low from the garage to my office to my car.  The more I searched the more exasperated I became until I finally gave up in frustration.  The only reason I finally stopped searching was that a picture of Charlie sitting on the couch flashed into my brain.  “Just wait” he seemed to say.  Sure enough, a couple of hours later I ran across the file in the most unlikely of places.  I would never have found it during my search.  I had wasted an hour and I’d also gotten myself worked up into a frenzy and had all sorts of worried thoughts as to how I would reproduce the vital information.
And so, right now in my mind’s eye I see Charlie sitting on our old floral couch gazing out the window.  He shifts slightly, stretches his leg a bit and his head tips forward as he drifts off to sleep, the sun glinting off his grey hair.  His gnarly hands remain clasped on the top of his ever-ready cane that is propped between his legs.  This, to me is the picture of patience.  He waits, but his cane is always near in case action is needed.  Sure, Charlie had a lot of time to fill and waiting was his major occupation by the time I knew him. There’s really no comparison to the multitude of things I should get done on any given day.  But, I think I can still learn a thing or two from my old friend.  I think I’ll try to remember the image of Charlie sitting on my couch more when I find myself getting too hasty, impulsive or anxious.  I’ll try more often to simply wait for the appropriate time for action.  Instead of pushing through, searching frantically or tapping my foot in impatience I’ll try to just give up and let Charlie handle it.  I think it will help to envision myself piling up my problems on the couch beside him so that he can handle them for a while.  If I can do this I’m pretty sure it will save me a bunch of worry, frustration and time.  Eventually, maybe I’ll see him grab his cane, rock to and fro and slowly stand up.  Only then will I know that it’s time for action.  So Charlie, you cantankerous old coot, I miss you dearly.  Thanks for the few years of friendship that we had.  And thank you for your continued help with my problems.  Please don’t wonder if you were ever useful.  You still are.


  1. I'm so glad you wrote this, Mom. There's a lot of this that I didn't remember at all. I can still see him too. I'll never forget him or his squirrel. Aubrey

  2. Wow . . . what a great story and thanks for sharing!

  3. Thanks for introducing me to Charlie who I would otherwise never have met, if you hadn't written this story. Wow what an awesome man, what a lesson in patience. Made me cry. Thanks so much for your musings, I so enjoy each of them. Thanks for all you do and have done for our special guy Ryan.
    Pam Thompson

  4. A lovely story and a lovely lesson for all of us.