Courtesy Tara Wood
The day before my daughter Norah’s fourth birthday, something she said foreshadowed a remarkable event.
I’d just picked her up from preschool when she cautioned me to mind the elderly person walking across the parking lot at a glacier’s pace.
She went on to explain that she has a soft spot for mature folks: “I like old peoples the best ’cause they walk slow like I walk slow and they has soft skin like I has soft skin. They all gonna die soon, so I’m gonna love ’em all up before they is died.”
Sure, it got kinda dark at the end, but I liked where her heart was.
I was struck by her thoughtfulness and empathy and posted that quote as a status update on Facebook when we got home. I had no idea how much she really meant it.
The following day—her birthday—again on the way home from school, she asked if we could stop at the grocery store to buy cupcakes for her and her six siblings to enjoy after dinner.
How do you say no to a birthday girl?
I popped Norah and her younger sister into one of those car-shaped grocery carts and headed toward the bakery. After we picked up the cupcakes, I stopped at a clearance shelf that caught my eye. While I was distracted, Norah was busy standing up in the cart, excitedly waving and gleefully proclaiming, “Hi, old person! It’s my birfday today!”
The man was elderly, stone-faced, and furrow-browed. However, before I could shush her for calling him an old person or ask the earth to swallow me whole, he stopped and turned to her.
If he was troubled by my no-filter child, he didn’t show it. His expression softened as he replied, “Well, hello, little lady! And how old are you today?”
They chatted for a few minutes, he wished her a happy birthday, and we went our separate ways.
A few minutes later, she turned to me and asked, “Can I take a picture with the old man for my birfday?” It was the cutest thing ever, and although I wasn’t sure if he’d oblige, I told her we’d certainly ask.
We found the man a couple of aisles over, and I approached him. “Excuse me, sir? This is Norah, and she’d like to know if you’d take a photo with her for her birthday.”
His expression morphed from confused to stunned to delighted.
He took a step back, steadied himself on his shopping cart, and placed his free hand on his chest. “A photo? With me?” he asked.
“Yes, suh, for my birfday!” Norah pleaded.
And so he did. I pulled out my iPhone, and they posed together. She placed her soft hand on top of his soft hand. He wordlessly stared at her with twinkling eyes as she kept his hand in hers and studied his skinny veins and weathered knuckles. She kissed the top of his hand and then placed it on her cheek. He beamed. I asked his name, and he told us to call him Dan.
We were blocking other shoppers, but they didn’t care. There was magic happening in the grocery store that day, and we could all feel it. Norah and “Mr. Dan” sure didn’t notice. They were chatting away like long-lost friends.
[pullquote]There was magic happening in the grocery store that day, and we could all feel it.[/pullquote]
After a few minutes, I thanked Mr. Dan for spending a bit of his day with us. He teared up and said, “No, thank you. This has been the best day I’ve had in a long time.” He turned to my daughter. “You’ve made me so happy, Miss Norah.”
They hugged, and we walked away. Norah watched him until he was out of view.
I’d be lying to you if I said I wasn’t a weepy mess after their encounter.
I was blown away by this meeting and thought maybe some of the readers of my Facebook page might enjoy hearing about it. I posted the story and a photo of the two of them.
Later that night, I received a private message from a local reader who recognized Mr. Dan.
His wife, Mary, had passed away six months earlier, and he had been lonely since his beloved had gone. The reader wanted to let me know that she was certain his heart was touched by my little girl, that he needed that connection and likely would never forget it.
I asked for Mr. Dan’s phone number and called him a few days later.
We visited Mr. Dan’s cozy and tidy house—reminders of Mary still proudly displayed everywhere. He had gotten a haircut, shaved, and put on slacks and dress shoes. He looked ten years younger. He’d set out a child’s table, blank paper, and crayons for Norah. He asked if she’d draw some pictures for him to display on his refrigerator. She happily agreed and went right to work.
We ended up spending nearly three hours with Mr. Dan that day. He was patient and kind with my talkative, constantly moving girl. He wiped ketchup off her cheek and let her finish his chicken nuggets.
We walked with him to his front door after lunch. He pulled out a pocketknife and cut the single red rose blooming by his porch. He spent ten minutes cutting every thorn off the stem before handing it to his new friend. She keeps that rose, now dry as a bone, in a ziplock bag under her pillow.
Norah asks about Mr. Dan every day. She worries about him. She wonders if he’s lonely, or cold, or has cheese for his sandwiches. She wants him to be OK. She wants him to feel loved. (If you’re feeling lonely, here are 17 ways you can connect with others.)
Mr. Dan thinks about Norah too. After another recent visit, he relayed that he hadn’t had an uninterrupted night’s sleep since his wife died. He told me that he had slept soundly every night since meeting my girl. “Norah has healed me,” he said. That left me speechless and my cheeks wet with tears.
[pullquote]Seventy-eight years separate these two people in age. Somehow, their hearts and souls seem to recognize each other from long ago.[/pullquote]
Norah and I have made a promise to see Mr. Dan every week, even if it’s for only 15 minutes, even if only for a quick hug and to drop off a cheese Danish (his favorite!).
I invited him to spend Thanksgiving with us. He’s part of our family now. Whether he likes it or not, he has been absorbed into my family of nine, and just as Norah said, we’re gonna love him all up.