They sit at the heart of the coffee shop, at a table on the edge of the sidewalk where they have front row seats to the daily hustle and bustle. Dozens of strangers come and go before their arrival each morning, yet somehow they always end up at the same table, as if instinctively the rest of the world knows it belongs to them.
He wears a fedora on his head and dark shades over his eyes. Both ears cradle hearing aides. He’s usually bundled in multiple layers with a gold wristwatch fastened over his right sweatshirt sleeve. There’s a strap across his upper body that hugs him tightly and secures him upright in the wheelchair. On the back of the chair hangs a mysterious blue bag with enough keys on the key ring to open every door in a skyscraper.
When his hand raises a cup of coffee, his caretaker’s hand instinctively meets him half way up and helps steady the beverage in front of his mouth. If it’s tilted to one side, the caretaker straightens the cup without looking up and continues to eat his own breakfast. It’s like watching lifelong partners finish each other’s sentences.
The caretaker tenderly wipes his lips after each bite of food and they sit quietly side-by-side, seemingly content with each other’s company. I have never heard a word exchanged between them. He’s been by his side, around the clock, for 5 ½ years. It was the best job he found after immigrating from the Philippines.
One day, after years of rushing by, I sat down next to them. It’s then, for the first time, I noticed that both of his legs were missing. A purple, fleece blanket was wrapped around his hips, the space below, empty.
I learned about his career as a bailiff and how he worked until the age of 85, becoming the oldest employed person in Alameda County. I learned about his service in the Navy and the death of his beloved wife after 50 years of marriage. I learned about the rare disease that took one leg, then the second leg a year later, ending his active lifestyle. He used to run around Lake Merritt 2-3 times a day, even as a senior.
After a brief conversation, I sat quietly and watched. I witnessed how profound silence can be. Silence, accompanied by the presence of another kind human being became the perfect combination of comfort and security. It gently filled the void left behind by loss, without a single word exchanged between them.
When I asked how he felt about his disability, I learned his kids took it harder than he did. He simply told them, “It is what it is,” and made the decision to keep going. He chose acceptance over resignation and his happiness grew in direct proportion–a powerful reminder as we live through our own everyday struggles.
This is Mr. Martin and his caretaker, Don.