I’ve been thinking on this prompt for a few days. Do I write the thing I’m most proud of? Do I acknowledge that I too frequently overlook the things I’ve done right, and create some sort of list of right choices that, to me, looks like a tower of Babel and feels like bragging? Then today, I realized what I needed to write. They are two true stories, and I guess they get at the heart of what I view as what is “Right”
The first story is brief, but just as important. Today, I was able to use my words to give a stranger, possibly half a world away, a bit of comfort when he needed it.
Yes, that is, in fact, the end of the first story. So far, anyway. 🙂
The second story comes from one of the hardest days I have gone through in recent memory. I was closing my shop, packing up my personal items, looking longingly at all the pieces I was leaving behind; each representing hours of seeking and then researching, and the efforts of my family as well as a few close friends who had helped me during the two years I was in business. While I was usually quite outgoing and friendly to anyone and everyone who even walked by my booths (I’m natural born salesman and extrovert), I knew that this was my last day, and I was miserable and down on myself. All I could see was loss. Each of those pieces I had put so much into was being sold off to an unsavory party for a fraction of it’s worth, facilitated by another unsavory party, and the fact that something I had worked so hard to fill with beauty and passion and goodness was ending like that felt wrong to me, down in my bones. I was having some mixture of a depression episode and a pity party, and I hardly noticed when the old man first walked into my booth.
When I did see him, I immediately ducked down behind the counter as if to pick something up, when in truth it was to wipe my tears and try to pull myself together. Once I stood, I mustered the energy to say hello and ask if there was anything I could help him with. I apologized for the mess (packing up is not a tidy process when you have to do it in two days), and we began talking.
His name was Otto, and he was a World War II Navy veteran. He was 92 years old, he told me, and his hand shook continually in mine as I helped him navigate around the boxes and see the shop (or the carcass of it, I thought to myself, still caught up in my own pain).
I’d made it a point from day one of my business to give things away to people from time to time, to occasionally gift a shopper with what they were about to buy, whenever God nudged me to. It felt right that I, with so much, should share it when I could afford to do so, and I discovered over the past two years of business that giving someone something with a 5 dollar price tag can completely change their day, their outlook, their everything. Nothing is truly free in this world of ours anymore, and most people are caught completely off guard, being given a gift for literally no other reason than because a stranger thought they would like it. Being able to do this was one of the things I loved most about my business, and one of the things I was sorest about losing.
Then, as we talked, I noticed him eyeing a vintage model tugboat I had on a high shelf. It wasn’t a personal item of mine, just one more antique that was a part of the bulk sale I was making consisting of thousands of other items. But the sale hadn’t happened officially yet, and as far as I was concerned, it was still mine. And it felt like the right thing to do, to end my business the way I had started it: not as a hunt for profit, but as a labor of love, trying to pass beauty into other people’s lives.
I got on my tip-toes and pulled down the tugboat. I tried to rip the price tag off (about $50) before he saw it, but his eyes were faster than my sleight of hand and he immediately protested that he didn’t have the money for something like that. I gently told him to just ignore the price tag, that it didn’t matter. He asked me how much it cost then.
I told him that for him, it didn’t cost a penny. I reached forward to hand it to him, but before I could even put it in his hands he had fallen into my arms, sobbing. He told me about watching his friends die in the war. About how those few friends he had that survived the war and came home were long gone now as well, that he was the only one left. I held him as he cried, crying softly myself, both out of empathy for this poor, lonely, forgotten man, and out of shame that I had considered my loss so huge when in the face of this, it was so trivial.
After a solid 20 minutes, both of our tears had mostly subsided, and I went to grab a bag for him to carry the tugboat in, an item that in my mind was now priceless, it’s price tag belonging in the trash because $50 meant nothing in a moment like this. As I was bagging the item he asked me what something in my display case was, as it was a medal and he couldn’t read the writing on it from so far away. I pulled it out for him, showing him it was a commemorative medal of the bicentennial of the presidency of the United States. He tentatively asked how much it cost, preemptively mentioning that his son-in-law was at the next booth over and he might be able to get a few dollars from him. I didn’t say a word, but simply closed the box the medal was in, and slipped it into the bag with the tugboat.
He hugged me so hard, harder than I expected possible from such a short thin man, hunched with the weight of so many years on his back. We were both openly weeping again, and he kept asking me if I was sure that it was okay, as I kept reassuring him that it wasn’t just okay, it was more than okay; that to me, I was the one being blessed by this and by getting to meet him and know his story.
He told me his birth date. March 6th, 1923. I promised him that I would never forget it, a promise that I will keep until the day that I die. He asked to know my birthdate, and I shared it with him, and he told me he would remember it too. He asked for a business card because he wanted to be able to call me and thank me again later when he wasn’t so emotional. I happily gave out the last business card that my business would ever give out, knowing that it was going exactly where it belonged. His son-in-law came to get him a few minutes later, and Otto and I hugged one final time before he walked away, with the infinitely precious (to him and I) tugboat and medal clutched in his weathered hands.
Someone cynical (or a businessperson, but that seems redundant), might say that what I did was wrong, that since I was mid-sale on a bulk purchase it was unethical of me to remove any of the merchandise for any reason. As far as I’m concerned, they are entitled to their opinion, and can also go to hell. I did right by a man that the world did not do right by, and nothing on heaven or earth will make me see helping him as being the wrong choice. I know in my heart of hearts that I did right by him, and that’s what matters to me.
These two stories (remember the little one in the beginning?) are, at the end of the day, the same example of what I believe to be “right”. Creating good ripples, that will hopefully echo onward and onward. In the interest of that, I ask that each of you who reads this takes a moment to think of Otto, a man who, in so many ways, restored my faith in humanity and in myself, and to send thoughts and prayers to my friend who is struggling as he tries to help others’ with their own pain. They both deserve it, and you can be a part of keeping those ripples traveling onward.
Those are two things that I did right.