|By Jack Cawthon|
As we go through another season when people become more mellow than usual and for a moment the world seems to take on a positive turn for many, we settle in with family and close acquaintances to hope for the best shutting out the thought that probably less than the best will happen.
But what about those people who have no one close by, those who live alone and who seem to be passed by with all the festivities so common to others this time of year?
It has to be tough for these folks. I knew one such person a few years back. I once asked him if he ever became lonesome, probably a stupid enough question, and with a faraway look in his eyes he told me “only on the holidays.”
Okey was a loner’s loner. He had once been married, divorced, but had a son but was estranged from him. He had no one that could be considered a friend, as he trusted no one, but he did have a steady source of income and with that he knew he could buy what he needed even if the price included a round of human kindness from time to time. He knew he couldn’t buy me, although he had tried and we both possessed pretty much the same cynical view of people; maybe that is why I became a bit special, or so I wished to think.
I came by Okey through a chain of marriage that made him some sort of relative but far less than blood kin. He did have nearby blood relatives but he accepted only a few of them and those he amply rewarded for all that they did for him.
He had served in the CCC during the depression and that may have prepared him for his grandest role in life-the military. In that he seemed to shine, rising to the rank of top sergeant in the last Big One, although his duties the best I could determine were mostly as a cook.
After the war-again I had to fill in much of his life-he seemed to become restless and a drifter. He separated from his wife and a small son and became a heavy drinker who could become belligerent when the alcohol level reached its legally off-limits. He had frequent bar room brawls and it was my guess that he generally lost most of them.
It was at a pretty low state in his life that a sister took him in. Her husband had died and she saw that she needed her brother and that he most certainly needed her. She was proven right a few years later when she lay dying and Okey became her caregiver, barring outsiders from the premises both through distrust and helplessness as the cancer took its course. He wouldn’t accept my advice that she needed outside care, and he turned out right. Instead of dying in the hands of strangers she died at home. I’m sure she received the best care one can receive which comes from a loving closeness of another who deeply cares. Okey did love that sister of that I have no doubts.
After her death I would sometimes visit him in an austere upstairs apartment which he had shared with his sister. However, one just didn’t go barging in on Okey. Only select people got through that locked door and I always called ahead to let him know I was in town. That wasn’t always good enough for an appointment. I could tell by the tone in his voice whether I had called at an opportune moment and if not I just said a few pleasantries and told him I’d see him the next time through.
If the conditions were good, however, he would invite me to stop by. He had an upstairs window with a good observation of the street below. I would see him sitting there at a sort of lookout post. When he spotted me he would wave and by the time I reached his upstairs door the chain and lock would be loosened and he would greet me with a hearty handshake.
Sometimes I would bring him some needed items-and some that weren’t needed but which we both knew were necessities for him-from the store as I would always inquire about what he might want me to pick up. I would try to foist the items on him and refuse payment but he wouldn’t have it that way, pushing money into my pocket.
And each Christmas, or a few weeks before, as I never wanted to stop close the day itself fearing his general distrust that it was a gift I was after, he would tell me to wait a minute while he rummaged around in a back room. He would then produce some bills, telling me to give allotted amounts to my son and wife and keep my share. I tried giving him gifts, but although he accepted them I had the feeling that he would rather not as it might indebt him more. I never made an attempt to visit him at Christmas as I was never sure whether his mood would allow it or what other methods he had for his treatment of that holiday time. Looking back, maybe that was just an out for me as I had other activities of my own that consumed my time.
Okey had had his share of physical problems over the years. He had been struck by a car and battered beyond belief with his forehead dented in with one huge bash, a leg severely broken and a belly that became bulged out like a tire ready to blow, but he had survived and after leaving the hospital refused further medical observations.
He couldn’t refuse the medical attention that a heart attack required. When he returned home again he had completely given up both his alcohol and cigarettes, cold turkey, after using them both heavily all his life. This proved to me that will power if strong enough willed would overcome addictions built up over many years. I admired Okey’s will power but felt for him as his body was wracked with shakes and tremors, which gradually eased over the course of some months, but never completely subsided. As far as I could determine he never took another drink or another puff.
But through it all, and over all the time I had known him, he never complained. I knew he had pain, just one look at that dent in his head and his bulged-out belly could attest to that, but he always smiled when I asked him about his health, saying that “his liver” acted up sometimes, which I was never sure was a joke about past drinking excess or his own sincere diagnosis.
As time went by I looked forward to a visit when I passed through town heading farther south. I felt we had become closer over the years as he would brew some coffee and maybe have a snack to eat. He had moved to a better apartment but still one with an upstairs observation post; I still called ahead for admission.
I had been away for some weeks when I called him one day. His voice was weak, but he told me to stop by. When I did I knew he was in trouble, but he refused my advice to see a doctor or go to the hospital emergency room. A few days later a housekeeper and a friend of sorts found him. She succeeded in getting him medical attention because he was then too weak to refuse it. Soon his condition became known and it wasn’t good. It was the big C running wild.
After an operation his condition improved for a time. He was admitted to a nursing home, a good one as far as those places go. We celebrated his birthday, 78 as I recall, and which was close to my own. One day shortly after when I stopped by we both knew it would be the last.
He died a short time later. He had made provisions for his effects and he treated me kindly. No one else was interested in some of his personal items such as family pictures and I gladly took them, knowing that he had once told me he wanted me to have them. Among the photos were several of Okey in uniform, perhaps the proudest moments of his life.
I have those photographs in my old house up in Preston County and I and the assorted wildlife that roam the premises in the absence of human habitation are the only parties to them, but I feel that Okey is remembered by it all and might smile if he could see the perfect setting for a loner convention.
Each Memorial Day I place a token flower or two and a flag on his grave. Even loners should not always be alone, nor do most of them wish to be.