When I was twenty-five and just out of graduate school I served as chaplain to an assisted living facility. It was 1963 and we called them “old folks homes” back then. The “old folks” I visited, counseled and sometimes buried made the passage of time real for me. Their stories of family and children, successes and failures also taught me the inherent value found in life’s small moments. But it was a brief encounter with an old gentleman in a stuffed chair that rocked me the most.The encounter took place in the solarium on an afternoon in early March. The sun slanted through a bank of mullioned windows that formed one wall of the wide sunroom corridor. Great and small chairs lined the wall opposite. Flowers: forsythia, tulips, daffodils backed by creek fern stood at either end of the corridor and announced the coming of spring.As I walked down the sun lit corridor, a great chair caught my eye. Wide and green with a billowing back and puffy arms, it was a dusty recluse from the 1920’s. In it was cradled a stick of a man. Surrounded by the chair, he was no more than a whisper. A dark, frayed pinstripe suit hung slack about his shoulders. A tie of muted color was asserted by a simple pin. His legs were crossed at the knees, his arms outstretched on the rests, his chin defiant.
“I saw you limping earlier,” I said. “How did you hurt your leg?”
He looked at me as though I was the greatest of fools. “The Boer War, man,” he said, “The Boer War.”
“You were in the Boer War?” I said. He gave me that look again; the look that said, of course you idiot. Wasn’t everyone in the Boer War?
“In England,” he said. “I was in England and we heard there was this war going on down there so a bunch of us went to get in on it.” He hadn’t moved in his chair. Still and slight, he was lecturing fools now. “Had three horses shot out from under me. One bullet went through this leg.” And he stroked a pencil-thin thigh. “Lucky it still works at all.”
“Three horses?” I said — God, I was a fool.
“Three horses,” he said, and held up three crooked fingers hardened with age. “Three horses to carry me into battle: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost to take me onto that scorched earth… Ha!” he said. “We went for a lark. What we found was unspeakable, what we lost is irrevocable.”
The snow outside the windows rested in patches where the shade was constant. In the sun, against the warmth of the adjoining building, crocuses pushed through the softened earth. The old gentleman stirred in his chair. Warped fingers pressed his damaged leg.
“Is there another horse for me to ride?” he said. “That’s what I’m waiting for. In this chair, another horse, I’m waiting for another horse to ride.” Then with a glance out the window, I was dismissed.
This story and the image of the old gentleman in the chair are as clear to me today as they were those forty-nine years ago. I saw into the future that day. I saw myself in that chair. So this is where it ends, I thought, the final chapter in life’s narrative played out in an overstuffed chair. Then, after that initial shock, I wondered how many horses I would have to ride, how many would be shot out from under me, and how crippled would I be before I reached the sunroom and the billowy chair. But the old gentleman was more prescient than I. Though crippled and swallowed up by his chair, he understood that there is always one more horse to ride. And now, even as my own narrative works its way to its final chapters, I too look for that next horse to ride.
Essay by Harold O. Wilson – intended for on-line reading only. All inquiries for re-prints and questions should be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org
Listen to audio of Harold O Wilson essay on aging- aired on WSDL NPR News Talk 90.7 on July 24, 2012