In something of a follow on from last week, I want to talk about someone who is no longer on this Earth. However, it is not someone I could say I knew in any way, nor was it someone famous outside his family. His name was Ron Harris, and he lived in a bungalow in Egham in Surrey. He passed away last month at the age of ninety-four, a pretty good innings by anyone’s estimation. According to the notice someone had put outside his front door he was a father, grandfather and great grandfather.
I had spoken to Ron – although I never knew his name when he was alive – many times. The conversation was always limited to one or two words. The word was usually ‘Hello!’ and sometimes it even stretched to ‘Good Morning!’ In reply, a raised hand and a similarly terse but clear ‘Hello!’ in reply. Not the most thrilling conversation perhaps, but it was repeated over the years as I staggered past the front of his house on one of my lunchtime running routes. In decent weather he would stand at his gate, leaning on the posts, apparently lost in reverie. But he would always wake up from whatever part of his past he was thinking about to trade a friendly greeting, after which I would continue my run and he went back to daydreaming.
He was so regularly there that he was almost a landmark. In fact I had already begun to worry about him late last year when I did not see him for weeks and his bungalow had an empty feel about it. I was then heartily glad to see him a month or two later walking unsteadily along the street being supported by a young woman (I assume family, possibly the same person that put up the notice as it was done with considerable affection) and he was back in place for the months afterward and the ritual greetings continued. Until last week when I saw the notice, which I have to say made me both sad and, at the same time left me with just a half smile.
You see, on the notice, as well as giving his name and dates thanked anyone who used to stop and chat. And then: ‘He used to stand at his gate – thank you all that stood and chatted and gave him a smile and a wave – he loved it!’
In the moment I read that, it was clear to me that our little interactions were far more important than I had given them credit for; I thought I was just being polite, but for an elderly man living on his own it was quite clear to me that merely to have someone register your existence in a positive way was something that probably kept him smiling for some considerable time. Sometimes ‘Hello’ accompanied with a smile might be the best thing you can say to someone, and when it is to a stranger you have no idea of what kind of impact you have just had. But I would hazard that very rarely is that impact going to be a negative one. Do I wish I had stopped for a proper chat? Well, it is a nice idea but actually I think for Ron there were clearly others better placed to do that, and so I am quite happy to probably have gone down in his view as polite but obviously mad red faced running man.
Often I find myself at the end of these blogs descending into something akin to the coda that you used to get at the end of ‘He Man and the Masters of the Universe’ cartoons where He Man or Man At Arms breaks the fourth wall to explain how today’s episode means it is dangerous to take drugs, or that if you are feeling depressed you should whistle a happy tune and it will make you feel better (no, really, look this up on the web, some of them are hilarious).
The obvious one here is try and make time to interact positively with your fellow human beings, no matter how simple and short that interaction might be, especially with the old and the lonely. For me, my few words with Ron now have a special meaning. I’ll miss him.