The Beginning of a Beautiful (Long-Distance) Friendship

Together in the park

Together in the park

One Friday last month, I finally broke my news to Arthur.

“I have something I need to tell you,” I said, taking a deep breath. “I’m going to graduate school.”

“That’s great!”

“For gerontology.”

“To study old people?”

“Yep. And it’s in Ohio.”

“Ohio?!”

That’s the part I had been nervous about – telling him I’m leaving New York. Apart from his time in the Navy and a year sabbatical in China, Arthur has lived in New York his whole 88-year life. He was born in Brooklyn. He went to undergrad at NYU, got his master’s and doctorate at Columbia, and went on to teach at Hofstra University on Long Island. Leave New York? Why?

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More than that, I won’t be able to visit anymore, at least regularly. For four years now,  I’ve come by once a week to sit and chat. Usually I stay for about an hour, but other times I’ll hang out longer. We’ll walk to the park nearby, or taste-test some olives at the market, or take Access-A-Ride uptown for a show.

This particular visit, for the breaking of the news, we were having a picnic of sorts at Arthur’s favorite deli. We tucked into cheese and a baguette with plastic knives and fold-up napkins. We drank beer – Beck’s for him, Pop Pop’s Heineken for me – out of coffee cups. We said “Cheers.”

“Our visits mean so much to me, Arthur. You know that, right? They’re a big reason why I’m going to graduate school and into gerontology.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. You inspired me. There need to be more Arthurs and Lauras in the world. We need more conversation between the generations. And I believe people are ready for it.”

“Well, you are awfully optimistic,” he said, in his still-very-Brooklyn accent. “Old people are pains in the re-ah.”

We finished our picnic, and I wheeled him outside. It had been raining before, but the clouds had cleared and it was sunny again. We strolled around the block, and when we turned the corner back to his apartment, he asked if we could stay and people watch.

I think he was stalling. He didn’t want to go home, which was fine by me. Neither did I. I locked the tires on his wheelchair and leaned back onto a low windowsill next to him.

Smoothies at the deli

Smoothies at the deli

“Tall or short?” I asked, starting a game we play when we’re waiting for Access-A-Ride.

“Tawl.”

“Blond or brunette?”

“Blond.”

“Blond or redhead?”

“Redhead!”

As we continued, a girl in short, stonewashed denim shorts kept walking by, and Arthur kept staring at her. The third time, I called him on it.

“You keep eyeing that girl,” I whispered.

“Why not?” He was completely serious. We looked at each other and laughed, hard.

Why not? It’s true. This is a man who has seen it all, and now, from his seat in the living room, most days he only sees the three walls that surround him. Why not look, really look, at the beauty passing by?

Arthur has helped me see life through the lens of why-not. Perhaps like a lot of people my age, I have the tendency to over-think, to put pressure on myself and on my decisions. “You’re 30,” says a little birdie in my ear, the same one that sometimes tells me I should get married and own property. Arthur is the opposite kind of birdie. “Travel! Eat ice cream! Stay up late!”

Why not?

I may be leaving New York (for now), but I have to remind myself that I don’t have to say goodbye to my friends, like Arthur. There are so many ways to stay in touch. I’ve promised to send Arthur lots of postcards, and to pick a time to call him regularly – Tuesdays and Fridays at 11:30 a.m. maybe? I’ve also talked to social workers at DOROT, the wonderful organization who paired us together, about possibly recruiting volunteers to help him FaceTime with me. If that happens, my heart just might explode! And you, readers, will of course hear all about it.

How do you keep in touch with your long-distance friends and relatives?

 

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