I lived the first ten years of my life in Scotland, the country of my birth. When I was a boy one of the daily rituals was to cross the street to buy some fresh baked bread or rolls. The corner bakery did a booming business. In the evening the fish and chip shop, Marino’s, enticed you with the delicious smells teasing one’s nostrils. From about eight in the morning to six at night the corner convenience store was open for business. Each store seemed to do well.
Our neighbourhood was interesting. One street in particular was known to be inhabited by Protestants and the one up the road was the “Catholic street.” It didn’t seem to make a difference at school. We kids all got along except for the frequent fist fights that would break out when one kid insulted or bullied another. So many kids in one school from different backgrounds.
As a boy of about seven or eight it wasn’t unusual for my mother to send me across the street to pick up some fresh rolls or fish and chips. I especially liked going for the fish and chips. After a few times I became pretty skilled at having my nimble fingers find their way through the wrapping to sample a chip or two before taking them home. Ah, what a wonderful memory! I still love fish and chips.
I liked living in our neighbourhood. It was big and it was busy. I knew a lot of people, kids and adults. Usually I met them in one of the stores and listened to them chat to each other while waiting for their purchases.
It was at this time of my young life where something happened that has stayed with me to this day. My thoughts that the people I met would always be there were shattered. There was an old man who frequented the stores I mentioned. He was like anyone else and needed to buy things in his life. I remember seeing him quite often. He was always on his own. I never knew his name. I can even remember my mom saying hello to him now and again. It seemed a lot of the neighbours knew him. They were friendly toward each other. I kind of enjoyed it when the adults doing their shopping would say hi to me. I guess, as a child, it was my introduction of what a caring community could be like.
I remember one morning I went across the street with my mother when the bakery and corner store opened. When we went into the store I sense something wasn’t quite right. People were more hushed than usual. My mother talked to someone about something. I couldn’t hear what they were talking about. My curiosity peaked when one woman exclaimed “that’s awfy”, meaning “that’s awful.” I heard someone else say how sad it was. Although this memory goes back decades ago, I still remember the following words of explanation. “He turned on his gas stove and put his head in the oven.” As the story goes, his daughter went to visit him and found him dead. He had taken his own life.
As we were crossing the street to go home my mind was reeling. I was full of questions. I was sad. I remember asking my mom, “how can someone kill themselves?” “Did it hurt?” Mom didn’t answer. I asked her another question. Why did the old man kill himself? The answer found its way into my brain at that moment and has never left. My mother answered, “He was lonely, the poor old man.” When we got home life became normal again. We ate our fish and chips and settled in for the night.
I couldn’t get what I had heard and what mom had said out of my head. I had never heard of someone killing himself before. I couldn’t understand that. What caused him to do it. He took his own life. He killed himself. He killed himself! He was lonely. From that time on I have associated being lonely with being sad. It made me sad. I missed seeing the old man. He was now forever missing from our community. If he had a daughter how could he be lonely? Perhaps there was something else. Maybe he was also suffering from an illness. I will never know.
As the years have gone by I have thought about that old man often. I have met many lonely people since then. The decades have taught me that loneliness is common. The old man taught me that being lonely can kill a person. Perhaps seeing our community once a day wasn’t enough for the old man. Perhaps what he needed was companionship. Perhaps he would have loved a pal to hang out with, a buddy to help make life more enjoyable and fulfilling. Instead, he died on his own with his head in the oven.
I wonder who hears lonely people? I wonder if the old man ever told anyone he was lonely? Did he cry at his dinner table. I wonder if he wailed into the night heard only by God? I wonder if anyone really cared?
He made a lasting impact on my life. I still remember him. I never knew his name!