It can’t be all work and no play. Learning experiences come from both. Following is a noteworthy vacation experience…
Last week, I was vacationing off the coast of Long Island, NY, near Ocean Beach. One morning while running on the boardwalk along the sand dunes, I nearly crashed into an elderly man. As I approached him at a running speed, I halted in reaction to what seemed to be some sort of SOS signal from him—both arms above his head, waving up and down. He was pushing a wheel barrel filled with grocery bags. I removed my headphones and said, "Hi, are you ok?" He put his arms down, smiled weakly and replied, "Yes, but I need you to lift my cart and help me home." I picked up the handle to his wheel barrel and began on an hour-long detour from the run I had planned. Along the way, he told me his name (Winthrop), age (82) and that his partner of 62 years had just died this past December.
We stopped at his friend Jack’s place to borrow his electric scooter. He scooted the rest of the way home and I trailed behind him pushing the wheel barrel, concerned he might run off the boardwalk. Finally, we arrived at Winthrop’s house in one piece. He removed the house key from around his neck and I helped him open the door and unload his groceries.
The end of the hallway opened to a large TV room with kitchen off to one side. Winthrop pointed to a gold-leafed box on a table, and said, "That’s Peter, my partner. Those are his ashes in there." Feeling a sudden, heavy wave of responsibility and concern, I asked, "Winthrop, do you have folks around here that check in on you regularly?" He said, "Oh sure, there’s Lorraine next door. She’s a pediatrician." I then noticed the dishes in his sink, a bag of overflowing trash and a plate of half-eaten food on a TV tray. He continued to assure me that he has a variety of neighbors with whom he interacts daily—neighbors who supposedly check in on him from time to time.
I felt compelled to offer him some immediate support—washed his dishes, took out his trash and tidied up a bit. I repeatedly asked him if he would be okay. He laughed it off and told me to get going. I scribbled down my number on a pad affixed to the refrigerator, but knowing my few days here would hardly be the solution to getting this man the sustained support he clearly needs. I momentarily shook off the guilt I felt by leaving him, said goodbye and continued my run. But his face and his words wouldn’t leave me. I kept hearing him say, "Oh yes, I have people who check in on me all the time." His SOS signal on the boardwalk and the state of his house told a different story.
Here I am back in DC tending to my "real" life while working to find a reliable line of support for my new friend. This experience has reminded me that everyone deserves support in whatever capacity they need it, but sometimes we wait until things are dire before asking for help. And sometimes, we can’t bring ourselves to ask at all. For those who have the power to help, we sometimes get so caught up in our own lives—acquiring, competing, advancing—we may not recognize when someone else is throwing out the distress signals. I was feeling guilty taking a vacation when things were crazy at work. But if I had cancelled my trip and not taken the time to stop and smell some roses, I would have missed the opportunity to meet Winthrop and help someone in need.