A friend and I were touring a sculpture park when I first saw the elderly man walking slowly with a cane. As we approached, he made a joke about he’d let us pass him, because he probably couldn’t go as fast as we could.
I didn’t have time to get his name, so I’ll call him Frank, because that was my Czech grandfather’s name, and the man I met in the park told me, in the short conversation we had, that he was originally from Prague. He had the same twinkle in his eye as my grandfather, as if he wanted to share with everyone his happiness at being alive.
I’m guessing he was in his 90s, because he told us that he had grown up in a tumultuous time: war and invasions from neighboring countries (Germany and then Russia), and that he could hardly believe he was here, at his age, not just alive but out walking on this sunny winter day in Colorado.
I caught up with him later, as he was sitting on a bench admiring a bronze sculpture of a Native American man and woman. “When I first saw the man,” he told me, “I admired him, with all his military equipment,” which consisted of a tall staff the warrior was holding.
“But, then,” he said, gesturing to the female wearing traditional Native American dress, “I noticed her, and that she was staring right at me, as if to say, ‘why are you looking at him? I’m here.’” He told me how lovely she was, with her long hair, and I could tell that he enjoyed an innocent flirtation with this life-like statue.
Nearby was a sculpture of a young girl, wearing a peasant dress and feeding geese. It might have been the kind of scene Frank would have seen growing up in the old country. When he first noticed the girl, Frank went over and hugged the sculpture, because “that’s what she needed,” he told me. I’m guessing it’s also what Frank needed—what all people who are alone and growing old need.
I told him how lucky he was to be able to take walks through the park every day and see all the sculptures. “They’re all my friends,” he told me, “and now maybe you’re my friend, too.”
“Of course,” I said, wishing I could stay longer and hear his life story, find out how he came to be the person he was. But I had places to be, so I walked back to the car, thinking about how this old man, who had seen the worst of life—his native country torn apart—could find so much enjoyment in these slow walks around a park where he knew every sculpture, where he could have intimate dialogues with the polar bear and her cubs, the cowboy, the enigmatic human figure on a large metallic ring and all the other sculptures; and where he could engage also with other humans: the families with children, the couples walking their dogs, the joggers.
As I got into the car, I took one last look toward the park, and I spotted Frank in front of the giant sculpture of two rabbits cuddling, entitled, “A Friend Indeed.”
Life slows down as we get older, and it gets harder to get around, but we can still keep our curiosity and warmth. The next time I feel discouraged, I’ll think of Frank, patiently walking through the park, talking to the sculptures and, along the way, making new friends.
— Kathy Kaiser