Volume 29, Number 2

Two Needs Fulfilled

Sylvia Melvin

My name is Samuel Evers. I'm seventy-eight years old and a victim of theft. The thief, however, takes none of my material belongings. The evidence mounts slowly and furtively until my self-esteem, usefulness and genuine enjoyment of life no longer exists.

Frustration gnaws at my inner being since there is no individual person I can point to as the offender. In fact, it's a whole generation of younger men and women with their technological instruments glued to their eyes and ears, sprinting from one activity to another. Their indifferent, selfish attitude insists on taking its toll toward older members of the community.

My son is no exception. The words from Jack's mouth sting every time he reminds me:

“Dad, you're much better off in the retirement home with folks your own age around you every day. You know how my job takes me out of town so much. I'm not any company for you.”

If I see my son once a month, I consider myself lucky.

One thing I can always depend upon is boredom. I wonder how many young people face day after day filling empty hours with nothing of consequence. My hands are still good, productive hands. Perhaps there’s a slight tremor in these lined and weathered fingers, but they still can hold a chisel or a saw. In my day, fine cabinet making was a prestigious occupation. Mass production and inferior quality stripped men like me of our usefulness. I now feed ducks in the pond and watch children play in the park.

I was over at the park a couple months ago when I saw a boy, maybe seven or eight years of age, huddled against a tree. His tiny body shook as he shed tear after tear. I watched for a moment or two, then curious, walked over to the little fellow. “Hi, my name's Sam. Is there something I can do to help?”

The child raised a tousled, blond head just enough to reveal a swollen cheek and red eyes brimming with streams of hurt trickling running down his flushed face. Taken back by the sight of this injury, I pointed to it and inquired, “How did that happen, young man?”

Fear swept over the child and he clung to the tree.

“It's all right, son, I'd like to help you. Come, let's sit on the bench and you can tell me about it.”

I offered the frightened boy my hand and led him to my favorite spot by the pond. I noticed he held firmly to a model airplane. One wing hung precariously to the main body of the aircraft, threatening to fall to earth at any second.

“My, my, that's a fine-looking airplane.”

“It's broken,” replied the boy between a sob and a sniffle.

“Well, maybe I can fix it. How would you like that?”

One hand wiped away a tear as a look of hope came over the child's face.

“Gee, mister, do you think you could?”

"Let me take a closer look.”

I took the prized possession from his hands and carefully examined the problem. “Ah, yes, I see what needs to be done.”

Two anxious eyes remained on me. The boy waited for the final verdict before he took another breath.

“Come with me,” I urged. “I live in that building over there by the pine trees, and I have some glue in my room that is sure to do the trick.”

As we walked, I tried to converse with the child. Other than he was seven and his name was Tommy, he contributed little to the conversation. It wasn't until the fractured wing looked good as new that Tommy volunteered any information about his swollen eye.

“I sure wish it was as easy to fix that shiner you have, Tommy, as it was to repair your airplane. You know, you never did tell me what happened to either one.”

Tommy turned away from my questioning gaze. His voice was barely audible as he explained, “It was my fault. I got in the way. The big boys were playing baseball and I got hit with a bat. Then I fell on my airplane.”

It sounded like a reasonable explanation, and I did not pry any further. Suddenly, I saw a startled look cross Tommy's face as though he instantly remembered something. The boy bounded for the door, then stopped to say, “I gotta go, Sam. Thanks for fixing my airplane.” He was almost outside when again he halted. “Maybe I'll see you in the park another day. Okay?”

“I'd like that, Tommy. Be careful. Stay clear of swinging bats.” There was no response; the boy fled the building.


Meeting a child in the park was a small incident-not unusual. But there was something about the boy that haunted my thoughts. Was it simply that the child unfortunately had been on the wrong end of a baseball bat? Or was it the initial sight of a frail, little boy sobbing against an old oak tree as if he were begging for comfort?

I found it difficult to concentrate on my nightly game of checkers with one of the residents. Sleep did not come easily. Dawn filtered through the window shades. Another long day. I remember hearing in my past the older one gets, the faster time goes. I do not agree. When one is taken from familiar surroundings and put in an assisted living facility with little to do but sit on a park bench day after day feeding the birds, time does not always pass quickly.

Henry, across the hall, heard my mumblings and walked over. “Sam, why are you sitting here all alone talking to yourself? Come on, let's play a game of gin rummy.”

“Not really in the mood, Henry. Think I'll wander over to the pond. Thanks anyway.”

My thoughts returned to Tommy. Would he be back to play in the park? I wished the circumstances had been happier, but maybe all was well with the boy today. I walked a little faster against a pleasant, summer breeze that swept strands of snow-white hair from my wrinkled brow.

The hungry mallards squawked their usual greeting as soon as I approached the pond. The pieces of popcorn I threw at them floated only a second before they were devoured. While I satisfied the ducks, I kept a watchful eye on the children that pranced up and down the playground equipment. There was no sign of Tommy. Once I thought I recognized the blond hair and his freckled face, but it turned out to be a girl.

“Thanks, mister,” she said as I handed her a misguided frisbee.

The longer I waited, the lower the sun sank behind a western bank of clouds. With a heavy heart, I realized my little friend was not likely to visit the park today. Oh well, it wasn't as if he made a promise to be here. Maybe he'll come tomorrow.

But tomorrow turned into another barren day and soon a week passed. Each morning I started out for the park full of anticipation. By late afternoon, I returned with my spirit deflated. On one such day, a brief notation on my calendar reminded me that Jack intended to visit the following day. I allowed myself a few moments of reminiscence—the times Jack and I enjoyed those fishing trips to Wilson Lake—even the tears that gushed from his eyes as a fish wiggled off the hook and splashed back to freedom. And then there were the summer evenings as Jack changed from a boy to a man, when we sat on the front porch and just talked. Yes, it would be good to see my son. Maybe we could recall those earlier years.

I whistled a tune the next morning as I walked with expectation into the lobby to wait for Jack. I sat for an hour—no sign of him. Every few minutes, I looked at my watch. Finally, a receptionist brought me the news. “Sam, your son called. He won't be here today.”

From the expression on the young lady's face, I knew she saw my shoulders droop in disappointment and my face grow sullen. With reluctance, she continued the message. “Tell my father I have important business in Chicago that can't wait. I'll try to make it over as soon as I return.”

I walked to the entrance with tears in my eyes. It took several blinks to clear my vision—not that I need to pay much attention to where my daily routine takes me. It's instinctive. The park is my private sanctuary. Here I listen to the laughter of children, the chirp of a bird or the chaotic sounds of the city. Here I try to forget.

After sitting on my usual bench, not more than a minute passed when I heard the voice of a child call my name. I looked eagerly in all directions until at last I saw him. Tommy had returned. The same blond, tousled head came running up to me panting for breath. This time there were no tears or a swollen eye, but there was something else. A cast covered his arm from his elbow to his fingers.

For an instant, a chilling sensation caused me to question the circumstances, but I hid my alarm and welcomed the boy warmly.

“Hello, Tommy. I've missed you.”

“I fell off my bike and stayed in the hospital for a while.”

“That's too bad, Tommy. Tell me how it happened.”

“I don't want to talk about it, all right? Hey, do you want to sail a boat in the pond?”

I noticed Tommy's eagerness to change the subject, so I went along with him.

“Well, that sounds like a great idea. I don't have a boat, though. Do you?”

“Not a real one, but we could pretend.” Deep blue eyes widened at the prospect.

“We'll do better than that,” Excitement rose in his voice as I continued. “Find a piece of bark and some twigs. Look over there by the trash can. Bring that paper cup.”

As if by magic, we fashioned a sailing vessel. It left much to be desired, but to Tommy it was complete in every detail. I felt the years between our generations grow smaller as we sailed ships, ate ice cream and watched the other boys and girls turn themselves into monkeys on the various pieces of playground equipment. But most important, we laughed and talked. Tommy chatted about school, sports, animals. His questions and curiosity about life revealed an intelligent mind.

By late afternoon, one by one, the children left the park, and I realized it was time to say good-bye. As I waved to my new friend, my heart felt lighter. The hours spent with Tommy eased the hurt felt earlier, and I returned to my room with a better attitude.

During the ensuing weeks, the bond of friendship grew between the two of us. There was a part of Tommy's personality, however, that puzzled me. Tommy was a warm and loving child, but the moment he felt my questions invaded his family life a change came over him. He'd withdraw like a whipped animal. There were the times, too, when the boy would disappear for days, then suddenly reappear giving no explanation for his absence. Each time this happened, my gut feeling told me something was amiss.

During one of these low periods, fate turned my life in a new direction. Miss Walters, a social worker, sensed my despondency and invited me to visit a project she initiated.

“I hope you like what you see here, Sam. We could use someone like you. I've found there's a need in this community for a haven where neglected and abused children can turn for love and compassion. So far, a good many folks with nothing but time on their hands, like you, are volunteering to help these unfortunate boys and girls.”

“It's true, I have a fondness for children, Miss Walters, but I don't know how I possibly could be of any assistance. Don't you need special training to handle these cases?”

“Look around, Sam. See what I mean.”

My heart ached as I saw the battered bodies of children who suffered the uncontrollable wrath of some parent. But my spirits rose when I recognized a woman from the home rocking a baby peacefully to sleep. From the other end of the room, I heard the tap of a hammer. Walking over to investigate, I saw the makings of a kite spread out on a table. Sitting beside it was a man I guessed to be my age and a young boy with a bandaged arm. Together they hammered and glued until a dragon took shape.

After another glance around the room, I understood what was going on. The young and the old had crossed the generation gap to meet each other's needs. This was something I could do. “Sign me up, Miss Walters. When do I start?”

Every day for the next two weeks, I spent the afternoons mending toys, reading books and listening to soul-wrenching stories of abuse. In the back of my mind, there was always Tommy. Why had he not returned to the park? Then one day I thought my eyes had deceived me. I was putting the last coat of paint on a tiny wooden chair when Miss Walters came to me holding the hand of a blond-headed, freckle-faced boy.

“Sam, I have a new friend I want you to meet.”

At the sound of her voice, I turned to see a face I recognized, though badly bruised with his left eye again swollen shut. After a moment, my jolted composure settled, and I smiled. “We're old friends, Miss Walters.”

Tommy threw his arms around my neck and sobbed until my shirt felt damp with his tears. Everything fell into place now—the previous accidents, the made-up stories and the strange coolness when I asked the wrong questions. Tommy hid his abused life well.

“It's over, son,” I pulled back and tilted his chin, so we were face to face. “Tommy, you and I are surrounded with people who love us. Not long ago I felt nobody cared what happened to me either. But I know better now. Do you have the courage to trust us?”

Beneath the physical scars, I saw hope in the smile on his innocent face. At that moment, I had the assurance his need and mine were entwined in an everlasting bond of friendship.