©2010 R.G. Ryan

Mattie will be 80 on his next birthday although at this point he doesn’t think he’ll live to see it.

I was sitting with him last week at St. Arbuck’s talking about politics and life in general…and suddenly he wasn’t there.

Eyes glazed over, head drooping, breathing gone shallow, and on his deeply lined face a horrible pallor.

Touching his shoulder lightly I said, “Mattie! Hey…Mattie. You okay?”

The seconds ticked by like an overloaded freight train climbing a steep grade.

And then he was back.

He looked at me, blinked his eyes a few times and said, “Well, that was very strange.”

“What happened?” I said.

“I don’t know. It’s like I was here, and then I could hear you talking but I couldn’t say anything or even move.”

Right away I was thinking stroke, but he seemed to be unimpaired apart from the disorientation generated by the episode.

Mattie has two earned PhD’s in calculus and once chaired the math department at a prestigious American university the name of which you would instantly recognize.

His writing has appeared in all of the most respected academic journals and by reputation is still a very well respected figure in the world of mathematics.

And yet he lives in near poverty, a widower, estranged from his family, his world shrunken to the three blocks between his house and St. Arbuck’s which he traverses daily on foot aided by a well-worn walker.

“Are you feeling okay now?” I said.

Staring at me through rheumy eyes he said, “I don’t know. The whole thing was so strange.”

“Do you want me to take you home?”

He thought about it for a few minutes and then said, “Maybe.”

By then several of his other friends had gathered around, worried expressions etched into every face.

Suddenly, he was gone again only this time the episode, whatever it was, seemed much more profound.

I had my phone out and was talking to the 911 operator when he came back around.

I said, “I’m calling 911, Mattie.”

He could only nod.

When I finished explaining the situation to the operator I shoved my phone back into my pocket and sat down with my arm around his shoulders.

“You’re going to be okay, Mattie. The paramedics will be here in a few minutes and they’ll take good care of you.”

Helplessness swam in the depths of his eyes, that and something else…fear.

“I,” he said, “I don’t know what’s happening to me.”

He was trembling all over and I wanted to hug him, hold him close and let him feel my strength, hear my words, but I knew he would find the gesture uncomfortable.

So I kept my arm around his shoulders while more of the regulars gathered wondering what was happening to their friend.

Suddenly eight good-looking, strapping, kind and gentle young men were crowding around easing me aside and doing what they were trained to do, which was saving lives.

One said, “You family?”

And I didn’t really know what to say, for we, in reality, were the only “family” he had.

Glancing at a couple of his other close friends I said, “Practically. But no, we’re not family.”

The young man made a few notes, asked basic questions such as age, full name, etc.

In the end, they transported Mattie to the hospital, but I caught a glimpse of his eyes before they slammed the door shut on the paramedic wagon—he was terrified, and it broke my heart.

It broke my heart to see someone as substantial as this man reduced to this; that he had no family to take care of him; that no one would even know if he died if one of us didn’t make the effort to make contact.

He’s still in the hospital, undergoing tests, talking to social workers about entering an assisted care facility, an eventuality that has him furious that his life could be so interrupted.

You see, he was living.

Writing a book about his life.

Making plans.

Enjoying his friends.

I don’t know what will happen to my friend, but I hope he has the chance to live until he dies and not have to suffer the systematic reduction to which so many of our elders are subjected, their lives turned into a sad mockery—a caricature of their former glory.  

For now they’re keeping an eye on him, as are we all.

So, chin up, old friend…don’t give up.

Never give up.

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