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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Charlie...


Years ago at my old job. I came into my building on a Saturday to do a little paperwork. I entered my building and passed a Hawaiian man on crutches standing by the building elevator. I proceeded past him and prepared to go up a flight of stairs to the mezzanine level where our office was. Something made me pause and I turned back around to look at the man. He was in his 40's and wearing a sweatshirt and sweatpants. Hobbling slowly on crutches wearing socks. He looked like someone who had just gotten out of bed in his pajamas. 


I walked back to him and asked him if he was alright. He pulled out a piece of paper and read it. He then asked me where the law office was because he was supposed to meet an attorney. I asked him the name of the attorney. He said Kevin. I knew Kevin the attorney also worked on the mezzanine level.

Looking at his pained condition, I offered to go up the stairs and see if Kevin was in. I proceeded up the stairs and over to Kevin's office. I knocked several times but no answer came. I went back down and asked the man if he had an appointment. He looked a little confused but answered that he was supposed to meet with Kevin today. I asked if he had Kevin's phone number and he looked at his paper and said no. I told him that we could go up to my office and use my phone to try and get a hold of Kevin.

I helped him walk towards the stairs. He hobbled along like he was in great pain. Slowly. Deliberate step by deliberate step. It took awhile to get up the stairs and I began to think that maybe I should have parked him downstairs and went up alone to call. But there was no place to sit in the lobby.

We arrived upstairs and I had him sit in a chair while I retrieved the phonebook to look up Kevin's law office phone number. The man introduced himself. Charlie. His last name was a well known Hawaiian surname. I introduced myself and shook his hand. He thanked me for helping him. I told him that it was no problem. I looked up Kevin's number in the phone book and dialed it. I got an answering machine which led me to a cell number as well. I left a message saying that Charlie was in my office on a Saturday morning and if Kevin received my message within the hour, to call me. I then called the cell and left the same message.

Charlie thanked me again and said that he didn't want to keep me from doing what I had to do. I told him to relax while I copied some files on our copy machine to prepare a case. He didn't realize that a few feet away. In a locked room. About 100 of our ancestors' remains sat in paper bags and boxes. Awaiting reinterment. I knew my kupuna were in there. I felt his were too. But I didn't think he needed any other concerns right then and I didn't usually advertise to office guests their proximity to the deceased.

I asked Charlie what he would do if Kevin didn't call back. He replied that he would probably catch the bus back home. I asked him where home was. He said Pearl City. I asked him if he was okay catching the bus because he looked like he was in pain. He replied that he would be okay and further explained that he had cancer. I didn't have the presence to ask what kind of cancer as my heart and stomach quickly sank at the news. As a Hawaiian. He represented so much of the disaster of our people. Suffering. Hardship. Looking for help. I immediately empathized with him in his simple honest answers.

As I was copying, I glanced peripherally at him and saw him discreetly pull out his wallet and open it up. Thumbing through what looked like about two dollars in bills. He quickly secreted it back in his front sweatpants pocket. I noticed that he looked really thin. Kind of gaunt.

I finished copying and made small conversation with him. He said that he was referred to Kevin for a divorce. I knew Kevin practiced family law so that made sense. Charlie said that once he was diagnosed with cancer, his wife wanted a divorce. I thought that seemed like a cruel response to someone in need and thought about the marriage vows of "in sickness and in health." 

Charlie seemed to spiral down into sadness and his voice got quieter as he spoke. "I love my wife. But she isn't happy with me now. I am not sure how long I have to live but she wants a divorce. I need to see Kevin to help me figure out what my rights are." His voice broke a little and I had to keep my spirit up to avoid pulling myself into his grief. As we talked, I learned more about him. It seems he had a hard life. The diagnosis of cancer was just the worst addition to his life. And the pending loss of his wife was even worse than that.

I told him I would try Kevin's numbers one more time and did so. After another twenty minutes of no call back from Kevin. I told Charlie that I could give him a ride home. He said that he would be alright on the bus and that I had done more than enough for him already.

I looked in my wallet discreetly and found a twenty, a ten and two fives. I pulled them out and walked over to him and put them on the table in front of him. I said, "Charlie, this is for you. I know you can use it. I wish I had more right now." Charlie looked up at me in disbelief and said, "No, no, no...I can't take this. Thank you." I turned back to the copy machine and said, "You take it. You can use it. I have a job right now. I'm fine. I have everything I need right now." He protested again and said he couldn't accept my money. I turned and looked at him in the eye. I smiled. I said, "Charlie. Please take the money. It would mean a lot to me." And I turned back to finish my copying. I glanced peripherally at him and saw him slowly take the money and carefully and neatly put the bills into his wallet, and then back into his pocket.

I told him I was going to gather up my files and then we would get him down the stairs and outside to the curb. Then I would go to the parking structure and get my car and come around the block to pick him up. He again said that I didnt' have to do that. I told him it wasn't a problem. I suggested that he call Kevin on Monday morning and gave him the phone numbers. I told him that he could make an appointment at that time during the regular work week.

I helped Charlie up and we proceeded out of the office. I didn't say goodbye to my kupuna in the room openly but acknowledged our departure in my thoughts. Charlie and I made it over to the stairs and began our slow descent. I could tell by the way he stepped down and grimaced that he was hurting. Sometimes his whole body shuddering as if electrified, with every bend of the knee. I knew that he was indeed in serious pain. I held onto him as we slowly walked down each step. Thinking to myself how someone could be in such bad shape. Being thankful that I had my health. For now.

When we got down to the bottom of the steps, Charlie turned around towards me unexpectedly and hugged me. As he embraced me tightly, burying his face in my chest, he said, "Kai. I love you." He started sobbing heavily and his whole body convulsed with each sob. I immediately burst out into tears as I hugged him. I said, "I love you too Charlie." And I sobbed. We both cried our hearts out. Like all the pain of our kupuna flowed out of our bodies and spilled out onto the cold tile floor in the lobby. I felt like I had known Charlie my whole life. I had met so many Hawaiian people who were so beautiful. Gracious. Loving. But who had truly hard lives and so much heartache. Yet so full of love. I had so much pent up grief that it all flowed out as Charlie and I embraced.

We finally came to slowly cease in our open affection. And Charlie released me and turned around trying to reposition himself on his crutches. I gathered my composure and patted him on the back as we continued our journey to the curb outside. We both felt a little embarrassed for our open sobbing embrace in the hallway. I told him everything was going to be alright. But in my heart. I feared the worse.

We made it outside and I positioned him against the wall while I went to get the car. I exited the parking structure and went around the block to pick him up curbside. He had a little trouble getting into my Camaro. I know it hurt him to bend his body into the seat. But convinced myself it was still better than a long bus ride.

We talked on the way to his home. He said that his wife was already seeing someone else and hardly comes home. He had to cook for himself but can't really cook or shop. He doesn't eat for a couple of days sometimes. She doesn't take care of him or help him anymore. I was horrified. He said that he couldn't be mad at his wife and she deserved someone who could make her happy. He was so debilitated now. Useless. I knew there were always two sides to every story but I had no reason not to believe his account. It made me feel awful. I talked some about options knowing a little about family law and divorces. He seemed to feel better just having someone to talk with. And to listen. I asked him if he wanted to stop by a drive through window since he didn't have any food at home. He said I didn't have to. I knew I had to. We did.

We picked him up some food and then made it to his house. For a minute, I was worried his wife might be home and come out of the house to confront him or me. I didn't know how I would react. I already had a picture formulated in my mind of her. It probably wasn't fair to her. But it was embedded there nonetheless.

To my relief, she wasn't home. I helped him get to his front door and we embraced again. This time without so much kaumaha and without tears. More in the spirit of Aloha and optimism. I gave him my phone number and told him to call me if he needed anything or if he couldn't get ahold of Kevin.

I did talk with Kevin on Monday. He told me that he didn't have any appointment with Charlie that Saturday. He said he did receive  a referral from another attorney and had planned to schedule a meeting with Charlie. He was horrified when he finally heard my phone messages from Saturday and felt bad. I told him not to feel bad.

I became engrossed in my own world of hurt at work and it wasn't until a couple of weeks later that I ran into Kevin on the way to the restroom. I asked him if he ever met with Charlie. He said he did. I asked if he was able to help him. Kevin said that Charlie was in really bad shape. I said I knew a little about his situation and agreed. Kevin said that he wasn't able to help him with his current caseload but he did refer him to another attorney. My heart sunk.

I never heard from Charlie again. I never had the energy, time, or willpower to check in on him again. I felt guilty for years. Life just catapults you forward and time flies by so quickly. I haven't had the courage to Google the obituaries to see whatever happened to Charlie. I fear the worst. It would break my heart. I am already trying to keep the pieces together.

But I do know something about Charlie. That it is possible for two complete strangers to meet by chance. Once in a lifetime. Passing by each other only once in life. In a moment of friendship. Love. Forgiveness. Empathy. Compassion. And at the bottom of a stairway. On a quiet Saturday morning. To truly share pure love for each other. In the presence of our Creator. And our ancestors. A shared love in a pure moment of connection which nothing can ever take away.

 I still love you Hawaiian. See you on the other side my friend. May Ke Akua take care of you in your time of need where humans so failed you...

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I don't know how to comment on this. It is too much, braddah. But just know, at least for a couple hours, which is more than otherwise, you did make the impossible situation just possible to bear for this man.

Denise said...

You showed such kindness and empathy to Charlie, and I hope all who read this will will pass that kindness on to someone they find in need. Your paths crossed for a reason, you were Charlie's angel and now Charlie will be in my thoughts for a long time.