I was hurrying to catch a van midtown when I saw a man clearly struggling leaning against a building.
He looked as if he was undergoing treatment, a paleness giving him away, while a tube ran up his nose over his shoulder down into a satchel clinging to his arm.
I stopped to ask if he was okay.
“I need to catch my breath,” he said, panting.
“Do you need me to walk with you?” I said, knowing if he said yes, it would more than likely make me late.
“No,” he said firmly. “I just need a minute.”
What I’ve learned the hard way is, illness is very personal. It can’t be about you, the observer. You need to listen and respect whatever the person says even if you passionately disagree.
When my best friend Jackie was dying of lung cancer, she did not want me there. We spoke on the phone, I wrote endless letters, but wasn’t one of those she chose to be at her bedside. It wasn’t easy for me because I loved her so, but knew enough to keep my distance trying valiantly not to take it personally.
This man, who was suffering, didn’t want any help, so I said with forced cheer, take your time sir. Go when you’re ready.
I went on my way with a pulled heart causing me to stand across the street watching. His back was to me so he had no idea, but I found myself praying…come on God, help this man. Streams of people hurried by not even giving him a second look. Made me angry, the hubris of…that could never happen to me.
Oh yeah? That’s what I thought before my hearing went south.
I stood on that corner for a very long five minutes silently yelling at God when a cabbie pulled up to the light looking to see what it was I was so fixed on.
“Go help him,” the African said as if it hadn’t occurred to me.
“He doesn’t want any help,” I said, trying to hide my annoyance.
Just then the man started to walk. I was elated. The cab driver waved as he sped down Third as if we were co-conspirators.
I ran the two blocks just as the van was gunning its engines grateful, I had made it in time.