Seven-year-old Kylie Whitfield peeked out the front window as the man with the stick walked past her house. Every morning, at about the same time, he passed by on the near side of the street, close enough that she could clearly see his full white beard and white hair.
Kylie lived with her mother in an older well-kept neighborhood with tree-lined sidewalks that reminded one of an earlier time when life moved at a slower pace and people enjoyed being outside in the fresh air. The peaceful atmosphere attracted many walkers, but it was the man with the stick that captured the young girl’s attention.
Each day she eagerly waited for him to make his appearance, and he never disappointed her.
Because the man was older and had a pronounced limp, he walked very slowly, but to Kylie, he still seemed happy. He waved at cars as they drove past, and he spoke to everyone that he saw, often stopping to chat with people in their yards.
What Kylie didn’t realize was, the man with the stick had also noticed her. He had grown accustomed to seeing the little girl with the bright red glasses looking through the window. He watched her out of the corner of his eye, and he often thought about waving to her, but he was afraid she might be shy. It would not be long before he discovered she was actually quite the opposite.
Kylie began to wonder if her mom knew about the man, so one morning when she saw him slowly moving down the sidewalk, she called out, “Mom come here. Have you seen him before?”
Erin stepped into the front room. “What are you talking about, Kylie?”
The young girl pointed outside. “The man with the stick walks by here every day. Did you know that?”
Erin couldn’t help but be aware of the way her daughter faithfully took her position by the curtains each morning. “But, Honey that is not a stick. He is walking with a wooden cane.”
Because her seven-year-old daughter was born with a developmental disability, her vocabulary was not as extensive as some other children her age. But that certainly didn’t keep her from talking nonstop.
“Oh. Well, it looks like a stick to me.”
“He’s using the cane to help him walk.”
“What’s wrong with him? Why is he limping?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you think it hurts when he limps?”
“It might…But it doesn’t keep him from walking by here every day, does it?”
“Do you think I could talk to him someday?”
Her mom smiled. “Maybe. We’ll have to see.” Erin knew that her daughter was possibly the friendliest person on earth.
Kylie said, “I’d like to meet him.”
Still feeling tired from the ongoing effects of her illness, Erin wanted to finish cleaning the breakfast dishes so she could sit down and rest. She headed back to the kitchen as Kylie continued to watch until the man was out of sight. Then she turned her attention back to her dolls.
Kylie’s daily ritual of waiting for the man with the stick continued uninterrupted, until finally one morning, by accident, she came face to face with him.
Each day, Kylie would pick up the newspaper for her neighbor, Mrs. Bradford, and put it on her porch. On this particular morning, the paper had been thrown a little late. As she walked out to get it, Kylie looked down the street and saw the man slowly limping toward her.
He smiled and waved.
The man certainly didn’t seem scary. But even though she’d been watching him for weeks, her mom always said she should never talk to strangers. Kylie turned back to the house and was surprised to see her mother looking through the window. When her mom nodded her head yes, the young girl knew it was okay.
Kylie, who dearly loved to talk to people, was relieved. She waited until the man got closer, and then she said, “Hi, my name is Kylie. What’s yours?”
“Well, hello! I’m Albert. It’s nice to meet you, Kylie.”
She spent a couple of moments sizing him up. Still not sure if he was okay to talk to, she asked, “Why do you walk down my street?”
“I like the sidewalks with all the trees, and the people seem friendly.”
“You come by my house every day.”
“Yes. I walk at about the same time each morning.”
With genuine concern in her voice, Kylie asked, “What’s wrong with your leg?”
“Oh, it’s nothing.”
“Yes, it is. You limp, and you walk with a stick. I don’t have to use a stick. Why do you?”
“It happened many years ago.”
Albert didn’t want to complain about life’s challenges to an innocent child. “It doesn’t matter.”
“It matters to me. It looks like it hurts when you walk. I don’t like it when people hurt.”
“It’s not too bad.”
In the cutest way possible, Kylie shook her finger at him and said, “We’re not supposed to lie.”
Albert knew he had lost the give and take. “When I was very young I was able to walk with no problem. But when I got a little older, I got sick, and it changed how I move my legs.”
Kylie was confused. “What do you mean you got sick? I’ve had colds before, and I can still walk.”
“This was not a cold. It was a little more serious than that.”
With great drama, Kylie asked, “What was it?”
Albert hesitated and then said, “It’s called Polio.”
Kylie had never heard the word before. “What is that?”
“It’s a disease.”
“Can I get it?”
“No. Not anymore. It’s gone.”
“I don’t like diseases. They’re scary.”
“You’re right. They can be scary.”
Then in a matter of fact tone, Kylie said, “I don’t walk with a stick, but I do have to wear glasses and hearing aids. But you can’t see them because my hair is long.”
“They must work very well because you seem to hear just fine.”
“Did the pol……what was it called?
“Did the pol…io hurt?”
“A little bit.”
“Why do you walk every morning?”
“I enjoy being outside and seeing other people. And the exercise is good for my leg.”
“You never miss a day.”
“I try not to. But it is difficult not to miss a day every now and then.”
Kylie explained why she was outside. “I came to get the newspaper for Mrs. Bradford. She fell a while back so it’s easier for her if I put the paper on her porch.”
“That is very kind of you. I bet Mrs. Bradford really appreciates it.”
“She does! She is a good cook, and she makes me cupcakes.”
“I guess that is your reward for being nice to her.”
“Yeah, but I would do it even without the cupcakes. I love Mrs. Bradford.”
Albert smiled at the young girl. “How old are you, Kylie?”
Proudly she said, “I am seven. How old are you, Albert?”
“How old would you guess I am?”
“Are you…more than a hundred?”
Albert chuckled. “Well, that’s a good guess, but I’m a little younger than that. I’m seventy-eight.”
“Wow!” Kylie thought for a moment and then said, “At least you can still walk – if you have your stick.”
“I need to put Mrs. Bradford’s newspaper on her porch. Will you be back tomorrow?”
Albert smiled, and it made his white beard move. “As far as I know.”
“I’ll ask my mom if I can talk to you again.”
“That’s a good idea. Ask your mother, and if she says that it’s okay, I’ll be happy to talk to you anytime you want.”
“Goodbye. It was nice to meet you, Kylie.”
The young girl raced over to the newspaper in the grass and took it up to the porch as Albert turned and went on his way.
Over the next few weeks, Kylie began to time her trip to get the paper when she saw Albert coming down the street. Each morning they talked about subjects that were interesting to a child, but then one day, quite unexpectedly, the conversation turned serious when she was surprised by something that Albert said.
Kylie had just picked up Mrs. Bradford’s newspaper and as she looked at it she said, “I can’t read.”
In a kind voice, Albert said, “That’s okay.”
“One time a bunch of doctors told my mom that I would never read, and it made me sad to see how it hurt her.”
“I can understand how you felt.”
“Do you read the newspaper?”
“No, I don’t.”
Albert explained to the young girl, “Because, just like you, I can’t read.”
Kylie wasn’t sure if she should believe him. “Can’t all grown-ups read?”
“Not all of them.”
“How come you can’t read?”
Albert had become accustomed to the young girl’s daily stream of questions which he always tried to answer with great patience. “When I was sick with polio I wasn’t able to start school. I fell so far behind that they didn’t think I could ever catch up. In those days it was not so unusual to miss school.”
“My mom is a teacher – but right now she’s just staying at home. She calls it ‘taking a break’. But she will start teaching again if she can.”
“Being a teacher is a very important job.”
“I don’t miss not being able to read. Do you miss it?”
“I suppose I do. There are some things I would like to be able to read.”
Albert pointed to Mrs. Bradford’s paper. “I think it would be nice to be able to read a newspaper.”
Kylie made a face and said, “I think newspapers are boring. Cartoons are better.”
Then in almost a whisper, she said something that touched Albert. “Sometimes other kids say I’m not smart because I don’t learn like them.”
He shook his head. “How much does that bother you?”
“Not too much. My mom said I should just try to do my best. She says that is all anyone can do.”
“She is right.”
Albert paused and looked at the innocent child who faced the same narrow-mindedness that he’d been forced to deal with. He wanted to let her know that he understood what she was going through.
In a hushed tone of voice, Albert asked, “Do you want to know a secret?”
“People have said I’m not smart either.”
Kylie was surprised. “Why?”
“Because I can’t read.”
“That’s just mean.”
“It’s not very nice.”
Kylie said, “Sometimes other kids make fun of me because of my glasses and hearing aids.”
Albert nodded, “When I was a child, they made fun of me too.”
“Yes. They made fun of the way I walk.”
“You should have hit them with your stick!”
Albert said, “I often wanted to, but my mother told me that it would not make them change. She said I should try to understand that there are always going to be people in the world who aren’t nice to others – but that I should never be one of those people.”
“I don’t like mean kids. My mom says they are the ones who have a problem.”
“Your mom is very wise.”
Ironically, it was at that very moment that Albert noticed Kylie’s mother watching their conversation from the same window that her daughter peeked out of. He looked directly at the woman and smiled. Erin nodded in response.
From that day forward, Kylie would take her spot beside the curtains and anxiously wait for Albert to come into view. The moment she spotted him she would yell, “Here he comes!” and head out the door to see her new friend.
Sometimes they would only talk for a few minutes, other times the conversation would stretch out for quite a while.
One morning, after one of their longer talks, Erin decided to speak to Kylie about their visits. When her daughter came in she asked her to sit with her on the couch.
As she brushed the hair out of Kylie’s face Erin said, “I know you enjoy talking with Albert.”
“He is wonderful.”
“I’m sure he is – but maybe you should just say hello or talk for a minute or two and then let him go on his way. I’m sure he has things he needs to do or places to go.”
“No, he doesn’t.”
“Now how could you possibly know that?”
“Albert told me.”
Her mother was skeptical. “What did Albert tell you?”
“He said he is never in a hurry. He said talking to me is one of the best parts of his day.”
Erin thought for a moment about how to explain to her trusting child that she did not really know this man that well. “Honey, Albert does seem like a nice person, but I’m afraid you don’t know that much about him.”
“Yes, I do.”
“Oh really?” Erin thought for a moment and then asked, “Okay, is he married?”
“No. Beth died, and he really misses her because she was the most important thing in the world.”
Erin was stunned. “He told you about his wife?”
“Yeah. I asked him why he always walks alone, and he told me about her.”
Erin didn’t know what to think, but she was curious about how much Kylie knew regarding this increasingly interesting man. “Can you tell me more about him?”
Kylie thought for a moment. “He is seventy-eight and that means he is really old.”
“Pol…io. That’s why he limps and walks with the stick.”
Erin was caught by surprise. She had assumed that his limp was the result of some kind of accident or injury. She wondered if there were other surprises Kylie could tell her.
“Albert is just like me.”
“What do you mean?”
“He can’t read.”
Again, Erin was taken aback. “You mean he’s illiterate?”
“I don’t know about that, but he can’t read.”
Her mother smiled.
“Albert has never read a newspaper. He said it made him sad when he couldn’t read about when Beth died.”
Erin stared at Kylie. She was amazed at the relationship her daughter had developed with a man they knew nothing about.
“Has he said anything else?”
“I don’t remember. Why don’t you come with me and talk to him? You can find out stuff.”
“That is a very good idea young lady. We will do that in the morning.”
That night Kylie had trouble sleeping. She was excited to have her mom meet her friend because she just knew that her mother would like Albert as much as she did.
The next morning at breakfast, Erin had to remind her daughter to slow down and not gulp her food. But Kylie couldn’t help it.
“I don’t want to miss him.”
“Relax, Sweetie. It won’t be that long.”
As her mother cleared the dishes, Kylie took her position at the window and within a few minutes, she spotted Albert. “Mom, he’s here!”
Erin dried her hands on a dishtowel and said, “Okay. Let’s go talk to him.”
Kylie burst out the door. “Albert!”
Albert stopped and smiled. “Good morning, Kylie.”
“Hi, Albert. I brought my mom today.”
“Yes, I see.”
Erin stepped out into the bright morning sunlight, walked over to the kind-looking man and extended her hand. “Hello. I’m Erin Whitfield. It’s nice to meet you.”
“My pleasure, Mrs. Whitfield. Albert Hanes.” They shook hands, and Erin noticed that his grip was rough, probably the result of a life spent doing physical labor or a trade that required working with one’s hands.
Erin was interested in learning about this man, but she didn’t want it to seem like an interrogation, so she was cautious. “Since you walk by every day, you must live in this neighborhood.”
“Yes, I live two streets over. We bought the house over forty years ago.”
Kylie asked her mother, “How long have we lived here?”
Erin answered, “About two years.”
Kylie said, “That’s right. We moved here before the bad thing happened.”
Erin could feel her face start to blush.
Albert saw her discomfort and changed the subject. “Kylie tells me you’re a teacher.”
“Yes. I’m not teaching right now, but I hope to go back in a year or so.”
Kylie suddenly realized she didn’t know if Albert worked or not. “What is your job, Albert?”
“I’m retired now, but for most of my life I was an auto mechanic.”
“I worked on cars that were broken.”
Albert took a moment and studied Erin. She was thin and extremely pale. And although it was early in the day, she appeared to be exhausted. He turned back to Kylie. “It was very nice of you to introduce me to your mom.”
Kylie smiled. “She’s been wanting to meet you. She needed to know if you are a good person.”
Erin frowned. “Kylie!”
Albert laughed. “Well, I try to be a good person.”
Erin held up her hands and said. “I’m sorry.”
“No, no. That’s okay. I’m just a stranger that walks down the street. I understand completely.”
Erin said, “You certainly have a beautiful morning for a walk.”
Albert agreed. “Yes, it’s perfect out today, but they’re saying there’s a chance of rain this weekend.”
Kylie frowned. “Why do grown-ups always talk about the weather?”
Albert smiled. “What would you like to talk about?”
“Let’s talk about…”
Erin interjected. “I think I’ve bothered Mr. Hanes enough.”
“Oh, please call me Albert. No one ever calls me Mr. Hanes.”
“All right. But that means you’ve got to call me Erin.”
“It’s a deal.”
She turned to her daughter. “Kylie why don’t you go ahead and get Mrs. Bradford’s paper for her.”
“Mr. Hanes – I mean Albert – it was nice to meet you.”
“My pleasure ma’am.”
Kylie called over her shoulder as she retrieved the newspaper. “Bye, Albert. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Albert turned and began to continue his walk, but he had only taken a few steps when he suddenly heard Kylie scream. “Mommy! Mommy! Are you okay?”
He spun around just in time to see Erin collapse in the yard.
As quickly as he could, Albert hobbled over and painfully knelt down next to her. He could see that, although Erin was unconscious, she was breathing okay. Realizing she had probably just fainted; he still didn’t want to take any chances.
He turned to his young friend. “Kylie, I don’t have a phone. I need you to go knock on Mrs. Bradford’s door and ask her to call 911. Can you do that?”
“Yes!!” Kylie ran up the steps of the porch and did as instructed.
Albert took Erin’s hand in his. It felt cool and clammy. He watched her closely, monitoring her breathing.
Kylie came running back. She had tears in her eyes and her voice trembled. “Albert, is she going to be okay?”
He tried to answer honestly. “I think she just fainted. But she needs to be checked out by a doctor to make sure.”
They waited together, with Albert trying to ignore the gnawing discomfort in his leg while doing his best to be reassuring. After a minute or so, Erin regained consciousness. She immediately wanted to try and sit up, but he convinced her to stay still.
Finally, off in the distance, the distinct sound of an ambulance could be heard, causing an immense wave of relief to sweep over Albert.
Two days later, Albert slowly made his way down the sidewalk. His leg was particularly painful this morning, but as he had done throughout his life, he just kept going. He looked over at the Whitfield house and wondered how Erin was doing. Kylie had not come out to talk to him yesterday so he assumed she was staying with someone while her mother was being cared for.
But as he crossed their driveway, the front door flew opened and he heard Kylie call out.
“Albert wait! Albert, I need to talk to you!”
As he watched the young girl run toward him, it made him happy to know that Erin had been released from the hospital. “How is your mother feeling, Kylie?”
“The doctors made her stay all night and then she came home. That’s what I need to tell you. She wants to know if you could come inside for a minute. She wants to talk to you.”
“Okay. I’d like to see how she’s doing.”
Kylie surprised Albert when she reached up and took hold of his hand. “Come on.”
Together they walked into the house. Erin was sitting on the couch with a blanket on her lap. Albert noticed that her color was better, and she didn’t look nearly as tired.
Erin smiled. “Albert, thanks for coming in. Please, sit down.”
Kylie said, “Come over here and sit in the big fluffy chair.”
Albert followed her direction, settling into the large chair and leaning his cane against it.
He looked at Kylie’s mom. “It’s so good to see you’re back home. And I must say you look more rested.”
“Yes.” She chuckled. “I’ve had a lot of rest during the last twenty-four hours. Fortunately, it was just a fainting spell. A problem with some medication I’m taking.”
“I thought it might be something like that, but you never know. I hope you don’t mind that I called for an ambulance.”
“Goodness, no! That’s why I wanted you to come inside so I could thank you.”
Albert nodded and then winked at her daughter. “Miss Kylie here is the one who stayed calm and did just what I asked.”
Kylie beamed. “That’s right!” But then her face grew serious. “But I was scared the whole time.”
Erin said, “I know, Sweetheart. But I’m proud of you and very thankful for Albert.”
She turned to the man who meant so much to Kylie and said, “You know, I’ve been thinking. I don’t want to put you on the spot, but if you’re not busy Friday night would you consider joining us for dinner? We’d really like to have you. It would be a way of thanking you for helping me.”
Kylie jumped up and clapped her hands. “YES! Please say you’ll come over. Please!”
Albert was humbled by the invitation, but he hesitated. “I would love to have dinner with you – but that’s just two days away. Are you sure you’ll feel up to it?”
Erin smiled. “I’m sure because I’m going to cheat. I’ll just put a roast, potatoes, and carrots in a crockpot and let it do all the work. Kylie can help me fix a salad to go with it, and we’ll be all set. Let’s say around 6:00?”
Albert was thrilled. “That would be perfect! A real home-cooked meal sounds great.”
But then suddenly his voice trailed off. “I’m not too good in the kitchen……I don’t know if Kylie told you or not but I can’t read, and since I can’t follow a recipe it makes cooking tricky.”
But then just as suddenly his voice brightened. “One condition though. You’ve got to let me bring the dessert. Okay?”
Erin said, “That would be lovely.”
Albert looked at Kylie. “All right little lady. Which dessert is your favorite?”
Without missing a beat, Kylie exclaimed, “Chocolate cake!”
“Oh, I like chocolate cake too. I’ll be sure to bring a big one.”
Kylie could not contain her excitement. She danced in small circles clapping her hands. “This is going to be so much fun!”
Erin smiled at their guest. She couldn’t remember the last time she saw her daughter this excited.
They chatted for a few more minutes, and then Albert left to continue on his walk, leaving behind a very happy seven-year-old and her mother.
The next two mornings, Kylie grilled Albert to make sure he was still coming. He promised her faithfully that he would be there with chocolate cake in hand.
On Friday afternoon she quizzed her mom to make sure they had everything they needed for the evening meal.
Erin tried to calm her. “Don’t worry. The food is cooking, and we will have a nice time.”
Although she was still concerned, Kylie trusted her mom. “Albert is a nice man.”
Erin agreed. “Yes, he is.”
“What is a recipe?”
“That is a list of all the things you need to cook food. Different meals have different recipes. You’ve seen me looking at a book when I’m cooking.”
“So that’s why Albert can’t use a recipe, because he can’t read.”
Kylie asked, “Mom, don’t you love being a teacher?”
“Yes. I hope I can go back someday when I’m feeling better. I enjoy helping people.”
“Why don’t you help Albert?”
“What do you mean?”
“Why don’t you teach him to read?”
“Honey, we don’t know Albert that well. It’s a very personal thing. Maybe at this point in his life, he doesn’t want to make the effort. It takes a lot of time.”
Kylie was firm. “But I know he wants to learn. He told me he wants to be able to read a newspaper.”
“I don’t know, Sweetheart.”
“But you’re a teacher, and you always say how much you miss your students. Albert can be your student. You could ask him tonight at dinner. Please, please, please.”
“It’s a very big step. I’ll have to think about it.”
Kylie paused and then softly said, “Albert helped you when you needed him.”
Erin looked intently at her daughter. For the first time in a while, she actually saw the thick plastic glasses and hearing aids her daughter had to wear. She thought about everything they had gone through together as Kylie struggled to reach milestones that came naturally to other children.
She remembered fighting with medical professionals and the school board as she advocated relentlessly for her daughter’s rights. She recalled how Kylie’s father abandoned them and made it clear that he no longer wanted to be part of their lives.
And then she thought about how their situation became even more difficult when she got sick and had to stop teaching.
Her train of thought was broken by the sound of Kylie pleading.
“Please, mom? Please?”
Erin sighed. “This would be a big commitment between two people. You need to let me think about it.”
Her petite daughter’s shoulders slumped in resignation. “Okay.”
For Kylie, the afternoon seemed to stretch out forever. But, eventually, it was time for her to help her mom make the salad. Kylie’s job was to get the vegetables out of the refrigerator and wash them so Erin could chop them up. This required the young girl to stand on a folding step stool so she could reach the sink. (Something she considered to be great fun.) They worked in silence for a few minutes, but finally, Kylie couldn’t resist asking.
“Mom, have you thought about teaching Albert how to read?”
“Yes, I have.”
“Are you going to do it?”
Erin stopped chopping the vegetables and smiled at her young daughter. “If he is willing, I’ll do it.”
“Thank you, Mommy! I love you!” Kylie began clapping.
“Just a minute. We can’t be sure that it’s something Albert wants to do. We will have to wait and see how he feels about it – and let me be the one to bring up the subject. Not you.”
“Okay! I can’t wait for him to get here.”
Erin had shown Kylie how the clock would look at 6 o’clock so her daughter sat transfixed staring at the hands which never seemed to move. When it was 5:55 she went to the window and started watching for him. She didn’t have to wait long. “Albert is here!!”
Before Erin could react, her daughter bolted out the door and ran to her friend.
Albert laughed. “Of course, I did. Who could resist such a nice invitation?”
Erin looked out the door and was alarmed to see Albert precariously balancing the largest cake she’d ever seen with one hand while he used his other hand to steady himself with his cane.
She called out, “Kylie, please help Albert and carry the cake for him.”
The handoff was successfully made and together they came into the house.
Erin immediately apologized. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t even stop to think about you having to carry the dessert with one hand.”
“It’s not a problem. You get used to it. I carry grocery bags home all the time.”
Kylie said, “Mom, look at this cake!”
Erin said, “It’s going to be delicious.”
They all walked into the kitchen and Erin pointed to a particular spot and said, “Honey, can you please set it over there?”
As Albert watched his young friend reach up and place the cake on the counter, he saw a large collection of pill bottles by the coffeemaker. He had never seen so many prescriptions in one place.
Erin realized that he’d noticed them, and she felt compelled to offer an explanation. “They’re for my illness. The other day I took the wrong combination and that’s what caused me to faint.”
Albert understood. “I know how easy it is to make a mistake. When I was taking care of my wife, I struggled with knowing which pills she needed at certain times of the day. I was always afraid of getting it wrong.”
Because he had been kind enough to help her when she fainted, Erin felt like she owed him an explanation.
She took a deep breath and began. “Eighteen months ago, I was pregnant. We were overjoyed that Kylie was going to have a little brother. We had even picked out the name Logan for our son. During my seventh month, I woke up one morning with a strange rash on my face. I didn’t think that much about it, but as the day went by I became more and more tired. However, I just thought it was all the result of the pregnancy.
“This went on for several days and finally the fatigue became overwhelming. At the same time, I began to have severe joint pain. I immediately realized these were not the usual aches that we all have. This was pain on another level. I went to the doctor, and my physician wasted no time. I was given a battery of tests and the diagnosis was lupus. At the time I knew nothing about the disease, and I couldn’t imagine why I had it. But none of that mattered. Two weeks later the baby was stillborn.”
Albert was shocked. “Oh no. I’m so sorry.”
“Since then my health has been a constant struggle. I improve and then I relapse. About six months ago Kylie’s father filed for divorce. Losing the baby and having a chronically ill wife was more than he could take.”
Kylie walked over to her mom and said, “I don’t want to see him anymore. He made us feel bad.”
Erin stroked her daughter’s hair. “He made his decision so now we just have to carry on with our lives. I’m getting a little stronger, but occasionally there are bad days. However, I’m still hopeful that I can go back to teaching in twelve months or so.”
Kylie said, “We really miss Logan. I didn’t even get to meet him, but I would’ve been a good big sister.”
“Yes, you would, Sweetheart.”
Kylie looked at Albert and innocently asked, “Did you love Beth?”
Erin shook her head at her daughter, but Albert said, “That’s okay……Yes, I did. I loved her with all my heart. We were married for fifty-two years.”
Kylie asked, “How did you and Beth meet?”
Albert laughed as he thought back to that night. “You wouldn’t believe it, but we actually met at a community dance. Now, obviously, since I have trouble just walking it never even occurred to me to try and dance. That plus the fact that when girls saw my cane they always turned and headed the other way.
“The only reason I was even there that night was because I was the janitor at that facility. I had to get everything ready for the dance and then clean up afterward. I was standing in a corner, trying to stay in the shadows, just listening to the music when this girl started walking across the room towards me.”
Kylie couldn’t resist. “It was Beth!”
“Yes, it was. And when she got closer I realized she was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. She walked up to me, and I just stood there because I was too scared to speak. But without hesitating, she introduced herself and asked me my name. Then an absolute miracle happened. This beautiful girl asked me to dance.”
Erin watched Kylie’s face as her daughter listened intently.
“I didn’t know what to say, but I knew she wouldn’t want to dance once she saw me walk. So I just held up my cane and told her that I was only there because I was working. I remember she said that although I might be working, I didn’t look very busy right then and I surely had time for one dance.”
Kylie jumped in. “Did you dance with her?”
Albert’s expression softened and revealed what he was feeling. “Yes, we danced together. We held each other that night, and we didn’t let go for more than fifty years. Beth was the only girl who ever looked at me and didn’t see my limp.”
Kylie thought for a moment and then asked, “When did Beth die?”
“She passed away four years ago on August 26th.”
“Okay, that’s enough questions for now,” Erin said firmly. “I think our dinner is ready.”
Albert smiled. “Everything smells wonderful! I can’t remember the last time I had roast beef.”
The meal was served and for almost an hour the three of them enjoyed the food and each other’s company. The conversation drifted easily from topic to topic and Erin and Kylie discovered that their guest had a wonderful sense of humor and that he knew many entertaining stories.
However, the entire time they were talking, Kylie couldn’t stop wondering when her mom was going to ask Albert about learning to read. But Erin was taking her time. She didn’t want to force the subject. She had decided to wait for just the right opportunity to mention it.
When he couldn’t take another bite, Albert put down his fork. “I want to thank both of you for a terrific meal. It was delicious, and it is a real treat not to eat alone.”
Once again, out of the blue, Kylie’s inquisitiveness surfaced. “What caused Beth to die?”
Before Erin could correct her, Albert answered in a soft voice. “More than twenty years ago, my wife got very sick. She had what’s called a stroke. After that, she couldn’t walk or really talk, so I took care of her the best I could. I was lucky because I was able to stay home with her and work on people’s cars in my garage. I’ve often thought that the reason I stayed so busy was because people understood the position we were in, and it was their way of helping us.”
Albert paused and rubbed his eyes. “We were never able to have children so there was no one to rely on except the folks around us. Beth’s best friend lived next door, she was a widow.”
Kylie interrupted. “What’s that?”
Albert explained. “That word means she was married once, but her husband died and she lived all alone the way I do now. So her way of helping me and Beth was to take care of all the paperwork for me. She would make out the receipts for the customers and all the other things that have to be done for a business. Although I tried constantly, she always refused to let me pay her. She said it was her way of helping to take care of her friend. Over the years I’ve met so many good people who have gone out of their way to be kind to me – and now I’ve met two more.”
Erin smiled because she knew the moment had arrived. “So you stayed home and cared for your wife for more than fifteen years by yourself?”
“Yes, but even though I was alone with her like I said, there were so many people who went out of their way to help us. I couldn’t have done it without them. But I loved Beth unconditionally, and I’d made a vow to her that I desperately wanted to keep.”
There was a brief pause and then Erin said, “Albert, please believe me when I say that I’m not trying to pry, but have you ever thought about learning to read?”
The look that came over Albert’s face was touching. “It’s something I’ve dreamed about all my life, but I just never had the chance. From a very young age, I always had to work. Even as an adult I kept hoping I could learn, but when Beth had her stroke I knew it was never going to happen for me.”
Erin studied the face of this man who had endured so many challenges in life. “You may not be able to read written words, but you certainly express yourself well.”
“I quickly learned that if you try to at least sound intelligent, people are less likely to discover your secret. Every day, Beth would patiently help me learn and understand new words. She knew how embarrassed I was. I spent my whole life pretending and trying to hide it from people, and it just wore me down – but I was afraid they wouldn’t accept me if they found out.”
“So why did you mention it to Kylie?”
Her daughter quickly answered. “He was trying to help me.”
“I told Albert how those doctors said I would never get to read and how it made you feel bad. So he said he was just like me, and I didn’t feel different anymore.”
Erin was now convinced that Kylie’s friend was truly a sweet man. “Albert, at this stage of your life do you still miss being able to read?”
“As a teacher, I’m sure you can imagine how troubling it is. That feeling of being inferior never left me. It has been a stumbling block all of my life because it closed off a big part of the world.”
Albert paused and then said, “The worst moment was when my wife died. I couldn’t even read Beth’s obituary in the newspaper.”
Kylie turned to her mom. “What is an obit – uary?”
“It’s something they put in a newspaper that tells about a person’s life.”
With a heavy sadness in his voice, Albert said, “I saved several copies of that issue because it also had a photo of Beth – but a couple of years ago a pipe burst in my home, and I lost the papers in the water damage along with some photo albums and other things. I couldn’t believe they were gone.”
Erin was moved by his words, and she knew the time had come to make the offer.
She looked across the table at the man who had innocently walked into their lives, and in a compassionate voice, but without a trace of pity, she said, “If you still want to learn how to read and write, I would like to teach you.”
Albert sat in stunned silence, but Kylie had no problem speaking up. “Say yes, Albert! Let my mom show you how to read.”
More than anything in the world he wanted to accept her offer, but he didn’t think he should. “Erin, I can’t ask you to do a thing like that. That would be too much work for you. It would take too much time. Your health is already fragile. You need to rest and take it easy so you can get back on your feet and return to teaching.”
Erin agreed with all of his objections. “You’re right. It will take a tremendous amount of time and effort for both of us – but I can’t think of a better way for me to fill my time over the next year.”
Albert put his head down. “I don’t know what to say. This is an unbelievable offer. I’d be willing to pay you whatever I can, but I’ve got be honest, that’s not a lot.”
Erin reached over and patted his hand. “No, no, no. You don’t understand. I wouldn’t dream of charging you. It would be my pleasure to help someone who has the courage to learn to read.”
“But why would you go to so much trouble for someone like me?”
Kylie whispered to him. “Because you’re our friend.”
Erin said, “That’s right. This whole thing was Kylie’s idea. She kept after me until I agreed to ask you.”
“Are you sure I won’t be getting in the way? I don’t want to bother you all.”
“I promise it will be fine. Now, how much time would you like to devote to this?”
Albert said, “Whatever you think. I’d be more comfortable if you set the schedule because you have far more to consider.”
Erin said, “You’re right about that. How does three hours a day sound? We could do it in the mornings unless I have a doctor appointment and then we might have to switch to the afternoon.”
“That would be great. I can walk over here in less than ten minutes. It doesn’t matter what time of day it is. Just whatever works for you.”
“In fifty weeks that would give us seven hundred and fifty hours, so a year from now you will be able to read and write.”
“I’ll be able to read a newspaper?”
“Absolutely. Front to back.”
Albert smiled so big his face crinkled. “You know what? I think we should celebrate with some chocolate cake.”
“YES!!” Kylie jumped up. “Mom, can I please cut the cake? I want to give Albert the biggest piece.”
Albert laughed. “Oh, Erin, please let her cut the cake.”
The following Monday morning, Albert arrived promptly at 9 o’clock. Kylie led him to the kitchen table where Erin had all the materials spread out that they needed to start their journey.
Kylie left them to go play with her dolls, and the two of them sat down together.
Erin opened the first book and smiled at Albert. “Shall we begin?”
Twelve months later their lives had changed forever.
The time had gone by much faster than either of them anticipated. Albert quickly picked up the intricacies of the written word and his unflagging enthusiasm made it a pleasure for Erin to assist him. In her many years of teaching, she had never encountered anyone who was so eager to learn.
As they worked day after day, Kylie would often sit and listen, and slowly she began to understand some of the basic principles of reading as well. Erin was certain that her daughter would eventually be able to read at some level.
In the beginning, Albert had worried constantly about Erin’s health, but he was relieved to watch her grow stronger as the months went by. Eventually, she seemed like a different person. Her energy level increased and her chronic pain eased, giving her a renewed sense of optimism about the future.
As their time together drew to a close, Erin was pleased with what they had accomplished. Albert was comfortable reading almost anything, and he had a knack for figuring out how to pronounce words he’d never seen. Erin admired him for making such an effort at this stage of his life, and she was thankful that their endeavor had kept her focused and busy.
But in her heart, she knew there was more to it than that. Something else had happened. Three people with different challenges had come together and developed a genuine affection for each other that was based on understanding and acceptance. They had learned to trust each other and to believe in each other.
Kylie had adopted Albert as a surrogate grandfather, a role he was delighted to play, and in return, Erin and her daughter provided him with a feeling of family that he had long been denied.
Without it being said, they all knew that the end of his instruction would not be the end of the bond they had formed. It was a relationship they never wanted to end.
When Albert arrived on the morning of their one-year anniversary, the two ladies had a gift waiting for him. Kylie met him at the door and led him to the big fluffy chair in the front room.
Gleefully his young friend said, “Albert we have a surprise for you, and you’re going to like it!”
He looked at Erin. “What? A surprise for me?”
Erin smiled. “That’s right. We are so proud of you for learning to read that we wanted to get you something to mark the occasion.”
She turned to her daughter. “Kylie would you please get Albert’s gift?”
For just a moment she disappeared into the kitchen, and when she came back she was carrying a gift-wrapped box. She handed it to Albert, and in a serious tone of voice said, “This present is very important.”
Albert said, “You didn’t need to get me anything.”
Kylie said, “But we wanted to. Please open it now.”
Carefully he unwrapped it and was pleasantly surprised to see the box contained a newspaper.
Kylie said, “Now you have a paper to read!”
Happily, he said, “I sure do!”
Erin watched Albert pull the paper out and unfold it. Suddenly his face registered the recognition of something that meant more to him than words could express.
He held the newspaper up closer, and when he lowered it a few seconds later there were tears streaming down his face. In a barely audible voice, Albert read the date at the top of the page. “August 30th, 2014”. It was the issue that printed his wife’s obituary.
Erin smiled warmly at him and said, “You told us how you lost your copies so we wanted to get you one in perfect condition – and, if you don’t mind, we would like for you to read Beth’s obituary to us so that we can learn about her.”
Albert reached for his handkerchief and tried to clear the lump in his throat.
Kylie whispered, “Do you like our gift?”
He wiped his eyes and said, “You’ll never know what this means to me. I can never thank either one of you enough.”
Erin said, “You can show your appreciation by reading to us about Beth.”
Albert took a second to collect himself. Then he leafed through the paper until he found the right section. As he looked at the page, the shock of seeing something he had stared at countless times but was now able to comprehend filled him with a joy that was indescribable. He stared at the photo of his wife for a few moments.
“I must tell you that I only supplied the facts. This was actually written by one of Beth’s dearest friends.”
Albert took a deep breath and began to read flawlessly.
Elizabeth Janine Hanes passed away Tuesday, August 26th, after a long illness. She is survived by her husband and her sister Evelyn Foster of Texas. The daughter of Alan and Mary Watson, Beth was born July 11th, 1941 in Shreveport, Louisiana. In 1962, she married the love of her life, Albert Ronald Hanes. They were blessed to share their lives for fifty-two years.
Beth was a homemaker who enjoyed gardening and quilting. Eventually, she formed a group made up of local quilters who donated their creations to homeless shelters all over the nation. Unfortunately, once Beth became ill, she was forced to give up quilting, however, the community she founded continues their mission to this day.
Beth also worked tirelessly for several different nonprofit organizations including one that was particularly close to her heart that provided lifelong support and assistance to individuals who contracted polio as children.
Always willing to share her time and talent with anyone in need, Beth had a gentle way of lifting people up and making them feel loved. Her passing leaves a void in the lives of all those who were touched by her uncommon decency and goodness.
As a result of her overwhelming compassion for others, Beth, in turn, had countless friends who helped in many different ways during her long years of illness. But there is no doubt that her best friend in life was her devoted husband Albert.
Because her mother was blind from birth, Beth had the ability to focus on the humanity of a person instead of their challenges. But when her own life was altered by disability, it was her adoring husband that faithfully cared for her and never wavered in his total commitment to their vows.
Albert’s dedication to Beth was inspiring to all who knew them. Together they provided the world with a perfect example of what unconditional love really means.
Services will be held Friday at 10:00 a.m., August 29th, 2014, at Robertson Funeral Home, Shreveport, LA with interment to follow at Hillside Cemetery.
Albert paused and then softly said, “I never thought I would read those words. Being able to do that is the greatest gift I’ve ever received. Thank you both from the bottom of my heart.”
Erin wiped the tears from her eyes. “It is a gift, but you worked hard and you earned it.”
Kylie thought for a moment and said, “I think I would have loved Beth.”
Albert smiled at his young friend and said, “I’m sure you would have, and I promise, she would’ve loved both of you just as much as I do.”