September of 1999 was a hot one. I had just returned to Santa Fe a short month ago from a stint back east, house-sitting for my dear friend, Cynthia, out on Long Island. I hadn’t been able to find a place I could afford yet.
I did find a little secluded glade down by an arroyo, hemmed in by cottonwoods and brambly brush, on the edge of town. It was just big enough to park my little Kia and have room to turn around in.
Fortunately, I found work doing ad design at the main local newspaper, so at least my dog, Io (EE-oh), and I weren’t starving.
One evening as the sky wheeled through its usual brilliant show of cerulean blues, purples, and fuschias, Io and I came out of our little hidey-hole to go for an evening walk. It was earlier than usual, so I was cautious about anyone seeing where we came out of the weeds.
The very second we emerged, Io took off like a rocket, the leash snapping right out of my hand. She usually pulled on it eagerly, but never had she burst away like that!
I raced down the narrow dirt path, around the bushes, onto the sidewalk in front of the old folks home, totally freaked out, thinking she’d be dashing into traffic and squashed flat as a pancake if I didn’t catch her…
There, upon an old wooden bench in front of the home, sat an old, squatty, crumpled up man with giant, meaty hands … with Io landed squarely in his lap. He was doing his best to hold her off as she wildly licked his face and neck, top to bottom, expressions surprise, startlement and joy all over his now-slobbery face.
Io wasn’t one of those wee lap dogs people carry around. She was a hefty mid-size dog, looking a lot like the average British sheep dog – black and white, dainty white paws and crest on her chest. But she had the classic Husky face markings, a thick, curly tail, and the cutest button nose you ever did see. You can imagine what having her spring out of the blue onto your lap must have been like!
I ran over and tried to get her off, exclaiming a mortified, “I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry! Io, come ON!…” – but she was set upon her task as if the gods themselves had set her this job. I’d never, ever seen her do such a thing.
“It’s OK, Girlie,” the man was trying to say to me, ducking her frantic lick-lick-lick, “let her be. It’s OK!” He truly wasn’t bothered at all!
I didn’t know what else to do, so I just sat down next to him. When it seemed she was slowing down a bit, I reached over and grabbed her harness and pulled her off of him and onto the ground. I was too embarrassed for words.
He was kind enough to open, saying, “Hi, my name is Oliver. Although most people call me That Old Guy.” Waving at the home behind him, he said, “I live there.” I nodded, not quite out of being stunned by Io’s leap and licking.
We shook hands. Sat there, silent, for what seemed like ten years. And both started talking again at the same time.
We both laughed. “You go,” he said, his voice deep, gravelly. For some odd reason, I felt like I could totally trust him, so I told him I was just back in town, confounded that here I was, 54 and had no place to live, sleeping in my car, yadda yadda. Him nodding, listening, focused, kind.
He asked, “You warm enough at night?”
I said, “Yeah, kinda – I have that licking machine there to keep me warm.” We both laughed again.
“Listen, if you ever need anything, you just let me know,” he offered. As I started to protest, he held up his hand and said, “Not everyone in old folks homes are busted broke, you know. Some of us jest wanna be around other old fogies like ourselves.” He put his finger to his lips, signaling a secret. I just nodded.
Our conversation got cut off at the swoosh of the home’s front doors opening. We turned to see a stocky, militant, head-nurse-type woman right out of the comics bustling over to our bench, declaring in a voice like a fog horn that it was “high time you come in, Mr. Oliver, it’s getting too cold out here for the likes of you!”
“Whatever ‘type’ that is,’ I could hear him mutter. He slanted his head and winked, and got up.
And up – and up – and up – his slumpy posture and the squooshy clothes he was wearing had completely camouflaged his enormous stature – he had to be at least 6’4”, towering over me, Io and Nursey.
“You’ll come visit me, won’t you, Girlie?” he called over his shoulder as he shuffled away. I was struck by how lonely he seemed, all of a sudden. I knew that feeling.
“Of course I will!” I yelled, as they passed through the glass doors. And I did, as often as I could, becoming solid besties.
What I didn’t realize that first day – or until a few visits later – was that he was completely blind. Couldn’t see shadows or any forms or anything.
You really couldn’t tell – he held his normal looking eyes open, never ran into a thing ever, looked right at you as you conversed with him. There were no ‘tells’ at all.
Until one day when I walked into the front lobby, and he was there talking to someone. I walked right by him and he didn’t say a word. Surprised, I walked back, and by him again.
Nursey – by now I knew her name was Mrs. Caldwell, but everyone called her Nurse – whispered, “He’s blind as a bat, dear, he can’t see you!”
That December, it got really, really cold. Sleeping in my car just wasn’t cutting it. Santa Fe is at 7000 feet, after all. Chilly bananas.
I hadn’t called any of my former friends for help yet, thinking I could save up for a place before I needed to. But – nope. So I called a couple I knew who lived out in Tesuque (tess-OO-kee), a tiny little not-town just north of Santa Fe, asking if they knew of anyone with a spare bedroom. Turned out that they did!
So I went up there to stay with them. Which meant our daily walks past Ollie ended. I still went to visit him after work at the home a couple times a week, but it wasn’t the same as sitting out on the bench with him.
On a bright day in January, Nursey called me, saying, “Get down here like yesterday, dear – Mr. Oliver took a bad fall, and won’t get out of bed.”
I dashed down there, and slid into the chair by his bed. He reached out his big old hand and grabbed mine. “I knew ya’d come, Girlie,” he mumbled. “I wanted to wait until you got here….”
He wheezed a bit, and slowly gave me directions.
“Go get x from the dresser – that’s yours. Go get x from my pocket, that’s for Io. Go get x papers from the drawer, that’s for you, too. I don’t got no family, so you just take good care of this stuff.”
“And,” he leaned over to me and whispered, “give this to Nurse after I’m gone,” handing me a fat envelope he snuck out from under his pillow. “She’s been good to me.”
I was too blown away to say a word – he was DOing his last will and testament. Nursey stood there as astonished as I was. Ollie was so big, so strong, so…always THERE – so solid – how could it take a bit of a fall to lay him out?
He relaxed back against all his pillows, turned his head and looked over at me with those normal-appearing eyes, giving me one of the most delightful little boy’s mischievous grins ever. I grinned back, even though I knew he couldn’t see my face.
With that blind gaze upon me, somehow his eyes suddenly lit up as if someone had put a 100-watt bulb inside his skull – just for a nano-second.
My first inclination was to throw my hands up in the air and cry out WTF???? But I didn’t. I kept holding his big old hand, and felt him just … stop. There’s no other way to describe it. Nursey felt it, too, I could tell. He just stopped.
The world stopped. There was no one and nothing in my entire existence at that moment except him, me, Io and Nursey. The air was thick with delight, sadness, friendship, love.
I felt my body collapse onto his. I couldn’t cry – what had happened was too much of a miraculous gift to weep over. I think I must have passed out.
I have no idea how long it was until Nursey shook me awake. I stumbled out to go back to my friends’ house.
I’d never seen or felt anyone leave the body before, much less in such a dynamic, spectacular way. I felt avalanched with grief. Honored to have been there. Way over my head.
I’d only known Ollie for a few short months, but he made my life a thousand times richer than it had been before.
OLIVER: Sees you
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text & image © Angela Treat Lyon 2021