There is an old man who walks his dog along the waterfront in Queensborough Landing. He is, to my best estimation, in his seventies. His dog is a poodle-doodle, or something like that, with a made up name and questionable lineage. It is, to my best estimation, older than dirt. We see each other from time to time when I am walking Zadie, my friend’s 7-year-old Great Dane. She has jet-black fur and legs like a super model (Zadie that is, not my friend, although her legs aren’t half bad either…) His dog isn’t interested in much anymore. Zadie, who is amazing with people, but less so with other animals, wants to eat his dog.
The old man never complains or makes a fuss when she lunges and barks and carries on like a hooligan. He is calm and collected, and as cool as a cucumber. He stops and waits, a crooked half-smile on his face, and then says:
“I bet my dog could beat up your dog.”
I generally respond with:
“I bet your right.” Or, “Ha Ha! I don’t doubt it.”
I do not know his story. I do not know why he says the same thing every time we see each other, but I do know that it makes me sad. So much so, that if I see him in the distance, I will try to walk the other way to avoid him. I assume he has dementia or Alzheimer’s. I also assume that I will get dementia or Alzheimer’s because I am a terrible person for avoiding him and probably deserve it. That’s just the way my brain works.
After I’ve responded to his (clever?) quip he says, in all earnestness:
“Hey. Hey. I’m just kidding.”
It’s all very awkward and silly because, of course, I know he is kidding – Zadie would kick the living shit out of his dog. But, he seems genuinely concerned that his attempt at levity has fallen flat and continues to apologize until it becomes unbearable and I shuffle off as nonchalantly as I can. By which I mean, not nonchalantly at all. It’s more of a scurry, really.
“Hey. Hey,” he calls after me. “I’m just kidding.”
Last week I was sitting on the back porch enjoying the last of the afternoon sun when he appeared out of nowhere, like some geriatric ninja, and asked me if I was enjoying my beer.
I wasn’t drinking beer. I wasn’t drinking anything.
To assuage the look of confusion on my face he pointed to an empty brown bottle that is sometimes used for cigarette butts.
“Oh that… No. Just getting some sun.”
“Are you a wrestler?” He asked.
Now, I’m a bigger guy, so this question wasn’t entirely without merit. It isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that I was a wrestler. Or had wrestled. At some point. In my life. I hadn’t however, and told him so.
“I was a professional football player,” he said. “For thirteen years. In the CFL. I am widely regarded as one of the best offensive linemen to ever play the game.”
I had one of those moments then – the ones where you realize that you are a total fucking asshole and will be going straight to Hell.
He was an old man with dementia, or Alzheimer’s or some other form of brain injury, but that didn’t mean he deserved to be marginalized or avoided or dismissed. It is far too easy to judge and pigeon hole, avoid at all costs the things that make us uncomfortable, much harder to stop, to breathe, to care…
I asked him which team he played for and his eyes lit up. He proceeded to tell me, in glorious detail, the history of his time in the Canadian Football League, of his accomplishments and awards and of his eventual forced retirement with concussion related injuries. He spoke eloquently and without hesitation. He spoke from the heart, from a place of passion, like a man whose fog had lifted.
All I did was listen.
I am certain I will see him again soon, along the waterfront, when we are walking our dogs. He will tell me that his dog can beat up my dog and then insist that he is “just kidding.”
And I will stop, and breathe, and care… And I will ask him about football.
The other day I couldn’t remember the passcode to set my alarm, something I’ve done probably a thousand times. A few days before that, as I was leaving work, I forgot how to get on to the Alex Fraser Bridge, a route I’ve driven hundreds of times. I had to pull over and GPS it with my phone.
Life is funny like that.