I first met Mike a year and a half years ago, in the month following my high school graduation. I was spending the summer in Manhattan and, for the first time in my life, my youth didn’t feel burdensome or constricting; I no longer wanted to be just a little bit older. I was studying Jewish texts during the day, and puzzling out the ancient Hebrew and Aramaic felt intellectually challenging and spiritually exciting in a way that my overcrowded public high school classes never had. I was living on my own for the first time, and every night felt like an adventure. I had no curfew, and the city felt endless. That summer, I felt young in a way that I knew I would one day envy. Gripping my Metro card tightly, I knew that each subway ride would get me a little bit farther away from my hometown of Pittsburgh, and I relished the escape.
As part of the program in which I was studying, other students and I spent Wednesday afternoons visiting a nursing home. We would trudge the forty blocks uptown together, the hot July sun making everything a little blurry, an almost imperceptible pulsing in the air. I met Mike the first afternoon, sitting at a table in a brightly lit room that somehow managed to be both overly air-conditioned and uncomfortably sticky.
Before I finished settling into my seat, Mike’s story began to pour out in a torrent of English, Greek, and quick gesticulations. He had been born in Greece and proudly told me that he had graduated from high school, served in the Greek army, and spoke seven languages. He immigrated to the US in his forties, for reasons I couldn’t understand in his broken English. Now in his eighties, he had no family left and, as I observed, spent his days in a wheelchair always parked in the same spot, with his back to the one small window in the room.
Mike, however, was convinced that he had been kidnapped by the facility in which he lived and that they had stolen all of his money. I knew from the volunteer orientation that many people ended up here when they were physically unable to live alone and didn’t have family to go to or the money for a nicer facility. No one had stolen Mike’s money; it was being used for his own care. But my attempt to say so made Mike furious. I decided that more than Mike needed truth, he needed someone on his side. I bit my lip and looked him in the eye. “That’s horrible,” I told him. “How could they do such a thing?”
As we talked the first afternoon and the rest of the summer, Mike did not attempt to hide his feelings. All he wanted was to go back to Greece. He hated living in a strange land, trapped in a country, culture, and language that were not his own. In the middle of a story or when there was a lull in the conversation, he would look at me and say, “I’m so disappointed. I’m so disappointed.” It became a trope of sorts. It would ring in my ears after I left him for the day, and I was rarely able to fully push it away: “I’m so disappointed, I’m so disappointed.”
This confession terrified me. Outside of the nursing home, my studies that summer excited me tremendously, and I had conversations with friends late into the night that gave me an adrenaline rush like I had never experienced. And in addition to all that, New York City was mine to conquer: there were outdoor plays, picnics, museums, and parties. I didn’t know how to integrate such existential regret into my summer of worry-free fun.
And so I responded to Mike’s pain in the only way that made sense to my eighteen-year-old passions: with a flurry of action. I started searching New York City for Greek reading materials for Mike. I took the train to Astoria one night after class and came back to Manhattan with an armload of Greek newspapers. “God bless you, God bless you,” Mike murmured as I handed them over to him that week. I remapped my walking routes to pass by the newsstand with the Greek paper, desperate that my $1.80 would make it all okay. I emailed local universities to see if any students taking Greek would want to come see Mike during the year after I left. I received no response. I arranged a meeting with staff from the nursing home to see if it was possible to have Mike return to Greece. “Mike is remembering the Greece he knew forty years ago. He has no one left there to go back to,” the nursing home chaplain patiently explained to me, smiling at my over eagerness or perhaps my naiveté.
Walking out of the nursing home would fill me with tremendous guilt. I would gulp up the fresh air upon leaving, feeling guilty that I had the ability to leave and that I was so happy to be doing so. At the end of the summer, I left to spend a year abroad. And as terrified as I was of the nursing home and all that Mike had to tell me, I was more terrified of saying goodbye. “If saying goodbye weren’t hard, nothing would be,” one of my teachers told me. “It’s practicing for death.”
Ten months later, I found myself back in Manhattan for another summer. I couldn’t explain the knot in my stomach as I walked towards the nursing home one of my first days back in the city. Mike had not been in great health and his memory was poor. By the time I got to the sliding doors at the front of the nursing home, I had convinced myself that he was either dead or had forgotten me completely.
When I walked in, I found Mike at his table. It was like time had stood still. I had spent the better part of a year living on a cooperative agricultural community in the north of Israel, studying, and traveling, and Mike sat in his wheelchair, on the same side of the table with his back to the window. When he saw me, his face lit up. His eyes started to well up as I sat down next to him. He wiped them quickly. “I’m all alone. No one comes to see me. I missed you,” he told me quietly.
We talked that afternoon, the kind of conversation that lazily winds its way through well-trodden stories. Mike stopped talking suddenly. “I pray to God every day that you’ll be able to help me,” he said. “I just want to go back to Greece to die.”
Months later, I still don’t know what to do with this comment. It haunts me. I continue to be shocked by how powerful it is to really be asked by another person for help.
During that second summer with Mike, my flurry of action slowly stopped. I would still bring a newspaper with me most times, but mostly I just sat with him. I was raised by a mother who worked for non-profits and a father who, as a social work professor, researched the causes that led to poverty, and so “systemic” and “cyclical” were words I internalized from a young age. I knew that doing good meant fighting root causes, and that I had to figure out how to leverage limited resources to affect the most change. None of that held true with Mike. The systems and cycles fell away in the face of human relationship. I had learned to be a little calmer the previous year, and that summer I learned how to be present, how to spend an afternoon just being with another person. It was an act of realizing my inability to alleviate such deep pain but not running way because of that.
Every time I see him, Mike tells me how disappointed he is with his life. In a span of a couple of minutes, he will often repeat over and over again: “I’m so disappointed, I’m so disappointed.” When I think about the big choices that lie ahead of me in the coming years—choosing a major, finding a career, deciding where to live, starting a family—my orienting goal now is that when giving an account of my life, “I’m so disappointed,” won’t be the only words I have to fall back on. I’m not sure how to ensure that.
On a Friday morning a couple of weeks ago, I took the train into Manhattan to see Mike. It was strange to go from an environment in which everyone I see is between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two to a place where I was the youngest by about seventy years. I found him in better spirits than usual. We talked, he tried to teach me some Greek phrases (mostly unsuccessfully, as usual), and we won fifty cents in a pick-up Bingo game. He asked what I was studying, and I explained that I had been reading a lot of classics, mostly works in ancient Greek. His face lit up at the mention of Greek. “Bravo! Bravo! God bless you!” he exclaimed. And for a minute, the thing that kept me from visiting him—my busy studies at Princeton, also brought us together.