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Commentary: Who Will Take Care Of Us?
By Mitch Traphagen
Jan 19, 2006 - 6:16:00 PM

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I hadn't seen him in more than a year but there he was standing on my doorstep. From the stories I'd heard, I wondered if he'd recognize me — but he did. I was happy to see him and to shake his hand.

I'd known him now for more than a decade. A former merchant marine, he could be gruff at times but always his heart was in the right place. When we first met, he was in his early 70s — but that meant little. As he had his entire life, he worked for a living — in fact, he could put in a longer, harder day by far than I could — and I was half his age.

Tossing political correctness out the window I would describe him as a Man. He was a man from a time when the description meant something — hard working, honest, caring for his family and the people around him, someone you could depend upon. He stood tall because he had no reason to crouch in fear. He had nothing to fear because he simply did his best in all things. Seeing him standing on my doorstep I realized that he still is all of that. My friend is a man in the best sense of the word.

He kept our marina running. Whether on the clock or off, he was there to fix things and to help out when needed. The maintenance budget was obviously slim but he kept things going. He had rules that not everyone agreed with — and at one time or another virtually everyone ran afoul of — but the result of that was a neat, orderly and decent place to live. He had earned the respect of the people there — and he gave you the opportunity to be respected by him.

This sometimes gruff, hard-working, former chief engineer merchant marine saw tears in my eyes years ago as I built a coffin for my cat who had passed away. He asked what I was doing and I told him — not expecting much in the way of empathy or understanding. He looked at me for a few moments and then told me about his dog that died and how he had "cried like a baby" when it happened.

Things started to change when the marina changed hands. The new management had other plans and his role diminished. From my viewpoint, it wasn't a fitting end for that type of man. He cared; he was committed to doing right by his job. His bosses didn't seem to possess that same old world type of commitment. Before long, he was out of a job.

But things definitely went downhill when his son died. A parent should never have to bury a child. And for my friend, he buried a large part of himself along with his son. Shortly after, he sold his boat — it was becoming too much for him. Or so he was told, anyway. To me, it was unthinkable. He loved that boat — he was the first and only owner and it was a part of his soul.

But even after all this I would regularly see him driving his truck through town — he was still keeping busy. He still had work to do — something for his wife — or perhaps a repair on his mobile.

A week or so ago, I saw that his beloved truck was for sale. He wasn't driving anymore. My friend was now living in a nursing home. Oh, his health is still good but time is taking a toll in other ways.

We walked out to the dock to look at my boat. "I spent my whole life on the water," he said. "But now I'm not on the water."

No, the nursing home is not on the water and he has no way to get to the water on his own.

He only visited me because another friend had given his day to pick him up, check him out of the nursing home and take him for a ride. That friend is 40 years his junior. He's not related but he is the type of man who actually cares. That friend is someone my older friend could depend on.

Our conversation was brief because someone in the nursing home had stolen his hearing aids and the shouting provided mixed results in our dialogue.

As they left, my younger friend said to me, "Stop by to see him when you get a chance. If you are just running errands, take him along — just go to the front desk to check him out."

Is this how it is supposed to be? Does a lifetime of being a good man, a good husband and a good father end in days waiting to be occasionally checked out of a nursing home? Isn't there a better way? Can't we do a better job of taking care of our elders? In my case, can't I do a better job of helping to take care of my friend?

But then again, I am often a lousy friend. On more occasions than I care to admit, I cancel on getting together with my friends because — I convince myself, anyway — that I am too busy, that I have too many other commitments.

But as I realized that this strong, decent man is now in a nursing home — a place far from the water that he has known all his life — just waiting to be occasionally "checked out" by someone who cares enough to take the time — I also realized that many of my other commitments don't mean squat. This is important and doing something about it isn't something that can wait. It has to be now.

Who will take care of us? I think that we have to do it.

P.S. — George K.: you are one hell of a guy.

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