The car in the driveway had an expired inspection sticker and was covered in a year’s worth of grime. The owner of the car’s abode was in even worse shape. Paint long faded by decades of summers into a forlorn shade of grey, the house seemed to sag defeatedly under the weight of time and neglect, providing a sharp contrast to the elegant lakeside manses flanking it on either side. When it was new, it had probably been a nice little house, but now it seemed like an old man waiting to die. “As you are now,” it seemed to whisper, “So once was I. As I am now, so you must be.”

Walking across the thicket of grass that obscured the pathway, I climbed the crumbling stairs and knocked on the weather-beaten door to announce my presence. While waiting for a response, my nostrils were assaulted by a pungent odor that I identified as blend of cat pee, feces, moldering carpet, and rotting paper. Listening to the raindrops spattering on my slicker, I thought about how many times I had stood before similar doors, wondering what I’d find behind them.  

With unoiled hinges screeching in protest, the door finally opened, revealing a woman around seventy. Wearing a stained sweatshirt and blue jeans, she looked at me suspiciously from behind the ripped screen door and said, “Did you find my cat?” 

“No,” I said. 

“Are you from the police?” 

“No, I’m from social services.” 

After handing her my card and establishing my bona fides, we talked about that brought me to her door. As I listened to her litany of woe, I snuck a peek inside her house and noted that she was a hoarder – and a bad one at that.  Packed full of boxes, bags, plastic bins, bundled newspaper and clothes, the only clear space in the house was a pathway dug from the front door to the filthy kitchen in the back. I didn’t see any place to sit. 

Once I’d learned my new client was homebound, sick, financially disadvantaged and had no family, I told her what I could do to help her. “We’ll try and make things better,” I said, smiling encouragingly. She didn’t seem to believe me, so I left. Making my way back to my car, I stopped to look at the lake ringed by trees alight with autumn’s glory, but the clouds had dimmed the sun’s wattage, the cold rain was making my knee ache, and the woman’s predicament was gnawing away at my brain, so the scene’s beauty was lost on me.

“How on earth can I help her?” I said to myself in the privacy of my car. Then I noticed a tear was rolling down my cheek. Wondering where it came from, I wiped it away, but it was soon followed by another, then another and yet another. Seized with a terrible sadness I put my head on the steering wheel and said, “God, don’t let me end up like her.” 

One of the occupational hazards of my job is seeing how badly things can go wrong for people and, if you’re even the slightest bit realistic, you can’t hide from the fact such tragedies could also befall you. Just the other day when I was done visiting someone in nursing home, I walked into the dayroom where several elderly people had been propped up in chairs facing a large picture window. Half of them were asleep and the ones who were awake didn’t seem to really be there. As I looked at their faces, I was reminded that this was the way of things – that no escapes age, death or decay. As I am now, so you must be.”  Would I end up in a place like this? Then someone grabbed my hand. 

“Who are you?” the old man attached to the hand asked me. 

“My name is Stephen. What’s your name?” 

“Phil,” he said. 

“How are you?” 


“They are treating you right here?” His reply was to shrug. 

Still holding Phil’s hand, I looked out the window and admired the view of the forested valley that lay below. Dappled by clouds, the midmorning sun was playing on the riotously colored foliage and, as the trees stirred in the gentle breeze, the valley seemed like an undulating sea of seraphic fire. And there, in the midst of lives winding down, I was reminded that beauty, unaffected by life’s suffering, just sails calmly on – it’s wanton prodigality absolving being of all its violences – maybe.  

“It’s a beautiful day, Phil,” I said giving his hand a gentle squeeze.  “Enjoy the view.” 

But now, crying in my car barely twenty four hours later, I couldn’t shake the grip life’s ugliness had on me. “I don’t want to see this stuff anymore,” I told myself. “I don’t want to know.” Not for the first time, I thought about dropping my resignation letter on my boss’ desk and letting someone else deal with it.  Knowing that these moments come and go, I went back to my office instead, pasted a smile on my face, and got back to work – but I was unable to shake the knowledge that life can be rent asunder by furious calamity. 

The next day, because the woman had no phone, I was once again standing on her crumbling stairs, knocking on her weather beaten door and trying not to breathe too deeply. 

As I waited, I heard a voice behind me say, “Who are you?” 

Turning I saw a man in his forties eyeing me suspiciously. Feeling put on the defensive, I said, “I’m from social services.” 

“She’s not home,” the man said, “She’s in the hospital.” 

Confused, I said. “Did the ambulance come again?” 

“No, she’s been in the hospital for over a month.” 

“I saw her just yesterday.” 

“Oh,” the man said, his face brightening. “We didn’t know she was back.” Then the door opened, and the woman emerged. 

“Hi Bill,” she said to the man.

“Elsie,” he said. “I didn’t know you were home.” 

“Two days ago.” 

“Well, if you need anything, you can just ask Marcie and me.” 

“Thanks.” Then I spoke with the woman for a spell and, when I returned to my car, Bill was waiting for me. 

“Anything I can do to help?” he said. 

“There is actually,” I said. “She just told me she doesn’t have much food in the house. Could you get her some groceries?” 


Reaching into my wallet, I produced one of the supermarket gift cards I always have on hand for situations like these. “Here,” I said. “Use this to pay for it.” 

Waving his hand, Bill said, “No worries. I’ll pay for it.” 

“No need.” 

“I’d like to help.” 

“That’s very kind of you.” 

“You know,” Bill said. “I’m a contractor. I can get some people to clean up her property, do some repairs.” 

“That would be wonderful,’ I said. 

“Yeah,” Bill said. “But she’s a proud one. She might not accept the help.” 

“I see that all the time.” 

“Last month I noticed her garbage hadn’t’ been taken to the curb,” Bill said. “And that her mailbox was overflowing so I called the cops. She’d been lying on the floor of her kitchen for a week.” 

“Jesus,” I murmured. 

“So, if there’s anything I can do, let me know.”

“Glad to know someone’s looking out for her.”  

After exchanging phone numbers and shaking hands, I climbed into my car and began to drive along the serpentine roads ringing the lake back to my office. Looking at the burning trees reflecting off the mirror still waters, I thought about how beauty isn’t only found in stunning visages but also in people. Bill was reflecting something beautiful too, reminding me of something I’d written long ago, “Sartre was only half right. Heaven can be other people too.” 

Leaving the still waters behind, my sadness fell away from me – furious calamity pushed aside yet again by beauty’s wanton and prodigal grace – for now. 

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