A MAN OF COURAGE

We never know when we will experience a moment that has a meaningful impact on our lives – but for Jack Sayers, that moment happened in the most common of places; a crowded restaurant at lunchtime.

Even though his veterinarian practice was just a few blocks away, Jack had never been to this particular eating establishment because it was always busy. Of course, that was an obvious indication that the food was good and reasonably priced so because he desperately needed to take a break from his work, he decided to give it a try.

He was led to a seat at a small table in the corner, and soon his waitress arrived with water and a menu. He glanced at her nametag, which read Sonya. She seemed nice but a little stressed from having too many hungry customers who were short on time. As always, his meal choices were limited. Being a vegetarian in this part of the country was not easy – but as a vet, he wanted to heal animals not consume them. He settled on the old standby; a small salad and baked potato.

Jack was not in a particularly good mood. After placing his order he paused and took a moment to try to clear his mind from the events of that morning. He loved his practice, and he found it deeply rewarding to care for vulnerable animals who depended on human beings to treat them with kindness and compassion.

But there was one aspect of his career that he despised, and that was the cruelty that people could inflict on innocent creatures. Earlier in the day, eight dogs had been brought to his clinic that had been horrifically abused. In all of his experience, he had never seen anything like it. He had no choice but to immediately euthanize five of them, and it broke his heart. Unfortunately, Jack had grave doubts that the other three would survive, but he was determined to do everything possible to save them.

Because the morning had been so disturbing, he had decided to get out of the office for a while and eat lunch. He hoped the change of scenery would improve his outlook, but he couldn’t help but wonder if there were people in this restaurant who were capable of treating an animal with such brutality.

As he waited for his food, Jack pulled out his phone. He was checking his email when he noticed a young man with Down syndrome come out of the kitchen wearing an apron and pushing a cart. He appeared to be in his mid-twenties.

Jack watched as the man moved his cart into position and began busing a nearby table. He was not fast, but he seemed to be very thorough. After clearing the dishes, he took his towel and spray bottle and meticulously cleaned the table and chairs.

For some reason, seeing the young man working, improved Jack’s mood. Someone, presumably the owner since this restaurant was not part of a chain, had provided this individual with the opportunity to work, and watching him momentarily raised Jack’s spirits – but that feeling quickly faded.

As the busboy started clearing the next table, a tall man with a scraggly beard that was more hope than reality came out of the kitchen and walked over to him.

In a low harsh voice that was completely unwarranted, he said, “Matthew, I’m sick and tired of having to tell you to work faster.”

The young man looked hurt. “I’m sorry. I just want to do a good job.”

Then, in an even more belligerent tone of voice, the bearded man said, “I don’t want to hear any excuses. We’ve got customers waiting for a clean table. Now get your butt in gear or we’re going to replace you with someone who can do the job right.”

As the man turned away from the busboy his eyes met Jack’s and a look of embarrassment swept across his face. He quickly disappeared back into the kitchen.

Jack had just about had his fill of human cruelty for one day, and he could feel his anger building again as he watched the young man continue to clean at the same deliberate pace, doing the best he could.

A few minutes later his waitress arrived with his food. Jack watched her reaction closely as he asked her, “Sonya, who is the tall man with the beard in the kitchen?”

A look of revulsion came over her which she did not try to hide. “Oh, that’s Larry. He’s the assistant manager.”

“Is the owner here?”

The question caught her by surprise. “No, I’m sorry. He won’t be back until in the morning. Do you want to speak to Larry?”

“Not right now.”

The waitress nodded and walked away. As Jack began to eat forkfuls of salad, he watched Matthew work. He paid no attention to another customer who was being led back to his area until he got much closer and the man’s physical movements caught his eye.

The middle-aged customer was stooped over and slowly shuffling along taking very small steps. Jack could not help but notice the severe tremors in both hands, and he knew there was a high probability that the individual had early-onset Parkinson’s disease. The man had a small bag slung over his shoulder which he took off with great difficulty after he was seated at the table next to Jack’s. Sonya brought him a glass of water and a menu and then headed into the kitchen.

The gentleman took a moment to catch his breath and then looked around the room. Jack smiled at him, and the man returned the smile. Then with his tremor heightened by nervousness, he attempted to pick up his menu so he could decide on his lunch.

Jack slowly realized that every set of eyes in the room, except for Matthew’s, was focused on the man who was struggling to hold the menu steady enough to read it. The individual looked up and realized the same thing. Still, he persisted in pursuing his choices, and, eventually, Sonya walked over to his table. Jack listened as the man ordered the meatloaf plate with mashed potatoes and green beans, and he immediately wondered how the man would be able to use the utensils with such a pronounced tremor.

As Jack continued to eat, he couldn’t help but reflect on how an innocent lunch had turned into an unusual situation that seemed to fit the kind of day it had been. First, he had witnessed the horror of animal abuse, and now he was watching two different people who, through no fault of their own, faced life with intellectual and physical challenges.

When the man with Parkinson’s disease reached for his glass of water his shaking seemed to grow worse. He was trying to control one hand with the other when Matthew turned around and saw him. The young man walked over to him and said, “Sir, please, wait just a second.”

The man watched as Matthew stepped behind the counter and returned with a straw which he placed in his drink. The young man smiled. “There you go, sir. My name is Matthew. What’s yours?”

The man smiled warmly and said, “My name is Bill. Bill Harris. Thank you for the straw, Matthew.”

“No problem, sir.”

Mr. Harris hesitated for just an instant and then said, “Usually my wife assists me.”

“Will she be here soon?”

Mr. Harris’ expression quickly turned somber. “I’m afraid not. She passed away three months ago.”

“I’m sorry.”

“This is the first time I’ve tried to eat in public without her. I just wanted to get out of the house……but this might be a mistake.”

Jack knew that he was witnessing a form of courage he had never considered before. What did it take for this man to go out and eat a meal alone for the first time after losing his wife, knowing the physical struggle he would endure?

“Well, if you need anything else just let me –” Matthew suddenly fell silent when he saw Larry come out of the kitchen. He immediately headed back over to the table he’d been busing.

The assistant manager walked over to Matthew and once again tried to keep his voice down, but Jack and a woman seated directly across from him in a pink dress and wearing a large necklace heard everything.

Larry leaned into Matthew and hissed, “Get it through your head. We are not paying you to talk to the customers. It only slows you down even more.”

Matthew tried to defend himself. “But he needed help.”

Larry’s body language and tone of voice made it clear that he was not concerned with anyone but himself. Threateningly, he growled, “They never should’ve hired you, but they wouldn’t listen to me. So now I’m telling you for the last time – you better do your job – or else.”

This time, without making eye contact with anyone, Larry headed straight back into the kitchen. The woman with the necklace looked over at Jack and shook her head in disgust.

For the next few minutes, Jack picked at his food until Sonya brought Mr. Harris’ meal.

He discreetly watched as the man rummaged around in his bag for a minute before finally giving up and softly muttering, “Oh no. This is a disaster.”

Having forgotten the adaptive utensils he used to steady his hand, Mr. Harris now had no choice but to try to use the restaurant’s silverware.

He did his best to control his tremor as he made multiple attempts before successfully picking up his fork. With labored effort, he attempted to stab some greens beans, but as he tried to lift the fork to his mouth the unrelenting shaking made the food fall back on the plate. The same effort was made repeatedly with the same results.

Jack watched the struggle play out, not sure about what to do – but there was someone else in the room who knew exactly what to do. Matthew looked up from his cleaning and noticed what was happening. The young man put his towel down on the cart and quickly walked over to Mr. Harris.

Softly he said, “Sir, would it be all right if I help you?”

Bill Harris looked up at the young man and with sincere appreciation, he answered, “Thank you, but you’ve got work to do.”

Matthew shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. You need to eat.”

Softly, Mr. Harris explained, “I have special silverware that I use to help me balance everything, but it seems that I forgot to bring it today.”

What happened next was the moment that changed everything.

Jack watched the young man with Down syndrome sit next to the man with Parkinson’s disease. Matthew carefully took the fork from him, picked up a generous amount of green beans and held them up to Mr. Harris’ mouth. As the man struggled to control his shaking, he took the bite and smiled.

As Matthew moved over to the mashed potatoes, he said, “I did this for my Grandpa all the time.”

“Thank you so much for helping me.”

Jack looked around the room and saw that conversation had dropped to a whisper and everyone was watching the two men share a moment of dignity.

“I’m sorry about your wife. Were you married for a long time?”

“Twenty-six years. We were both in our early twenties when we got married. She was a wonderful person.”

Matthew cut off a small chunk of meatloaf and fed it to him. “What was her name?”

“Helen.”

Matthew picked up a cloth napkin and dapped Mr. Harris’ chin. “I like that name.”

Mr. Harris smiled. “How long have you worked here, Matthew?”

“Let me get you some water.” The young man moved the glass into position and said, “I started right after Christmas. So how long is that?”

“About four months.”

Matthew moved back to the green beans. “So is it hard for you to do other stuff? It is for me.”

“Yes, it can be.” Mr. Harris took another sip of water and then with obvious excitement he said, “But in six weeks I’m getting a service dog that can help me.”

Jack could not help but smile as he listened in. Service dogs were incredible. They could literally change people’s lives.

Matthew’s face lit up. “I love dogs!” He dabbed Mr. Harris’ chin again. “I have two dogs now. Their names are Mollie and Winnie. They’re sisters. But I love all kinds of animals.”

The young man thought for a second as he cut off some more meatloaf. “My dogs are just regular. What is a service dog?”

“My dog will be able to pick up things when I drop them. It will be able to open doors and turn off lights. All kinds of things.”

“Wow! Mollie and Winnie just get in the trash and chew up pillows.”

Mr. Harris laughed.

Matthew looked around and lowered his voice. “Sometimes I think animals are nicer than people.”

Mr. Harris nodded. “I believe you’re right. That’s why I can’t wait to get my service dog.”

Jack had become so absorbed by their conversation that he’d stopped paying attention to anything else. He looked up and saw that there were even more tables that needed to be bused. He glanced at the kitchen door knowing that Larry could appear at any second.

A few seconds later, Mr. Harris also noticed the dirty tables. “Matthew, I don’t want you to get in trouble for not working.”

The young man smiled as he scooped up more mashed potatoes and fed them to his diner. “But we’re not done yet.”

Jack watched two more couples leave, creating even more of a backlog for Matthew. Hesitating for only a moment, he realized what he had to do. Jack stood up, grabbed the young man’s apron and cart, proceeded to the first dirty table and began to clear off the dishes. The woman with the necklace looked on with great interest.

Matthew saw what Jack was doing and timidly called out, “I’m sorry, sir. But I have to be the one to clean the tables. That’s the rule.”

Jack smiled at him. “Don’t worry. It’ll be okay.”

Mr. Harris could hardly believe what was happening, and it made his heart soar. He wondered how he had been fortunate enough to meet two such kind people at the same place.

Jack got busy clearing the table, and, although concerned about someone else doing his job, Matthew went back to assisting Mr. Harris.

It didn’t take long for the other people in the room to understand that they were witnessing a gentle display of compassion, and they wanted to be part of it.

A young couple across the room finished their meal, gathered up their plates and glasses and brought them over to the cart.

Softly, Jack said, “Thank you.”

The man answered, “Our pleasure.”

Jack continued cleaning tables as diner after diner followed the young couple’s example. Meanwhile, Mr. Harris only had a few bites of food left when suddenly Larry appeared at the kitchen door, took one look around and exploded in rage.

“Matthew! My God! Look at all these tables. What are you doing just sitting there?!”

Sonya, who had just come into the dining room carrying a tray with four plates of food, stopped in her tracks.

Before he even had time to think, Jack reacted. He was not going to let this man ruin a beautiful moment.

Larry stormed toward Matthew, but Jack maneuvered into position and blocked his way.

The assistant manager glared at Jack and demanded, “What’s your problem?”

“You are my problem,” Jack answered evenly.

Matthew began to feel scared. There were too many things happening at once.

Larry leaned around Jack and yelled. “Matthew if you don’t start cleaning these tables right now your butt is fired!”

Jack held his ground and firmly said, “Matthew is going to finish assisting Mr. Harris, and I will clean your precious tables.”

Mr. Harris looked at Larry apologetically. “Sir, it’s my fault. The young man was just trying to help me.”

With his voice trembling, Matthew pleaded to his boss, “Please don’t fire me. I can’t lose my job.”

Suddenly a loud female voice spoke up “You are not going to lose your job.” It was the woman with the large necklace.

Everyone turned to look at her as she slowly held up her phone. She stared straight at Larry and said, “I’ve been recording everything; the kindness, the compassion, the generosity – and you. So, if you do anything to that young man, I’m going to post the video on social media. Now, why don’t you get your butt back in the kitchen, and let the rest of us act like decent human beings.”

Larry nervously glanced around the room and realized that if the woman carried through with her threat he would be the one looking for a job. He spun around and disappeared through the door.

For a moment there was silence and then Sonya addressed the room. “Thank you. Thanks to all of you.” She turned, winked at Matthew and then took her tray of food to its table.

Jack walked over to the woman still holding her phone. “That was very smart.” She shrugged. “It seemed like the thing to do. But I was only recording because it was such a beautiful moment, I didn’t know it would come in handy.” She stood up. “Give me that towel, and I’ll help you finish cleaning.”

“Thanks.” Jack realized he had now met three amazing people in this place.

He walked over to Mr. Harris’ table just as they were finishing up his meal.

Jack smiled and said, “Gentlemen, I’d like to make each of you a proposition.”

Matthew gave Mr. Harris a final drink of water and asked, “What does proposition mean?”

Mr. Harris said, “It’s like an offer.”

Jack nodded. “That’s right.” He looked with respect at the man who had shown the courage to venture out into the world for the first time after losing his wife. “Mr. Harris, my name is Jack Sayers. I’m a veterinarian, and my practice is just down the street.”

Jack reached in his pocket, pulled out two business cards and placed one in the man’s trembling hand. “When you receive your service dog, I would like for you to let me care for the animal. There will be no charge for as long as you two are together. It’d be my pleasure.”

Mr. Harris could hardly believe everything that had transpired in one lunch. “Mr. Sayers, that is a wonderful offer, but I can’t do that. My dog might have a serious illness or need surgery. It could be very expensive.”

“That doesn’t matter. You see, in my line of work, I frequently have to deal with death and abuse. Service dogs and their owners create such a positive relationship that being a small part of that will benefit me and my practice.”

“I don’t know how to thank you.”

Jack turned to the young man who, in a room full of people, had been the only person who’d had the courage to do the right thing. “Matthew, when I came in here today I wasn’t very happy.”

Innocently, the young man asked, “How come?”

“This morning I saw some bad things that people had done, and it made me worry that we are not as good as we should be. But you and Mr. Harris showed me that there are still good people everywhere, and they show up when you least expect it. Whenever I meet such amazing individuals, I like to show my appreciation by helping them.”

The busboy was still not sure he understood.

Gently, Jack asked, “Matthew, didn’t I overhear you say that you love animals?”

“Yes!! I love all kinds of animals. And they really like me. Not one animal has ever been mean to me or made me feel bad.”

“I understand completely.” Jack smiled warmly at the young man.  “I would like to offer you a full-time job at my practice helping me with the animals I treat.”

Matthew’s voice rose in excitement. “And I would get to work with the animals instead of Larry?!”

“Absolutely. All I ask is that you are as kind to my customers as you were to Mr. Harris.”

Matthew stood up and started shaking Jack’s hand. “Of course! That would be no trouble at all. I loved helping him.”

Mr. Harris happily looked on as Matthew explained that he lived nearby with his parents, and he would need to check with them.

The veterinarian handed him his business card. “Please have your folks call me. I’d love for all three of you to visit our facility so you can see what we do, and I can explain the job offer.”

“I will! Thank you so much!”

Jack looked at the two men who had touched his heart on a bad day. “Thanks to both of you for making me feel a little better about our world.”

He then turned to the woman who had taken the video with her phone. “And thank you as well.”

She smiled. “It was my pleasure.”

Eager to check on the abused dogs, Jack headed back to the practice he loved. He felt much better now because the act of kindness he’d witnessed was a powerful reminder that no matter how often life disappoints us, hope can always be found – even in such an unlikely place as a crowded restaurant at lunchtime.

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