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Sunday, October 05, 2008
unhappy birthday, Michel, from cat
Listening to:All Things Must Pass, George Harrison
Reading:The Long Tail
Weather:perfect in every conceivable way
It was not my intention to bum the old guy out. Though in all honesty I didn't take time in advance to explore the likelihood of that outcome. My primary intention was the usual one, to make myself happy. It never occurred to me that not only would I utterly fail to accomplish that, but I'd bring Michel an unhappy birthday in the process.

Here's the cateye view of how it went down: As is my usual habit on weekdays during the school year I strolled into the Blue Moose on Thursday morning around 7:15 or 7:30. Mary Lucille was already there, at her usual window-side table. True-man was chatting with Gary on the couch. Most tables were empty as were all but one of the barstools. I set my briefcasey bag down on the footledge at my usual counter spot.

"Hey, y'all." "Hey, cat." Michel's table was empty, as it has been for weeks? Months? I'm not sure, I don't generally hang out at the Moose in the summer, since I don't have to drag my ass to town an hour and half before I start work, as I do from late August to early June to get the kid to school on time. Though this is Liv's senior year at MHS, so who knows what next year will bring. I believe Michel was still a daily regular on the morning coffee crew this past spring.

Michel is a very elderly (90? I got a couple different answers from a couple different people, but the most reliable source said he just turned 90 yesterday) little French dude. He drove to the Moose most mornings and had a medium House blend at his regular table toward the back. Over the past year it took him increasingly longer to walk from the door to his table, I think he could drive better than he could walk.

He was a smiley guy with whom I most often shared just a nod or a "good morning." Several of his friends on the morning coffee crew would grab coffee and walk back to sit at his table for a few moments to chat before heading out to work. He kinda held court back there, not in an authoritarian way at all, just in the sense that a number of folks expected to see him back there nearly every morning and would make a point of pulling up a chair next to him when they had a moment to do so.

So obviously I don't know the guy all well at all, but when I noticed he wasn't around ever this school year, I was sad to hear he was living in a local nursing home. Nobody wants that. Especially, I would imagine, a popular and unique dude who expended a fair chunk of his time and energy each day getting himself over to the table at the cafe where he hosted a slow steady stream of interesting intellectuals, many of whom would speak French or Italian with him. I missed seeing him there and seeing and hearing him interact with various groovy visitors most mornings.

"Why don't we all take a field trip over to Golden Living center and bring coffee to Michel some morning?" Mary Lucille said "I think it's his birthday today," she checked her daybook, "no, it's Saturday." True-man said, "how about we go tomorrow?" Gary said he'd try to make it, but couldn't be sure.

Meanwhile Ed walked in, and expressed interest in coming along, and it was settled, we 4 would make the visit. I'll call the nursing home to see if it's cool for us to come that early in the morning, and assuming they OK it we'll meet at 7am at the Moose and carpool the few miles over for a surprise birthday visit. When I called the woman at the nurse's station said "I only met him for the first time yesterday, I'm new here, but generally we have everyone up and ready for breakfast in the diningroom between 7 and 7:30." Great, we'll be there.

I was pretty stoked about it, looking forward to surprising him and seeing the smiley guy with the twinkle in his eye enjoying some coffee with the old gang. We assembled at the Moose right on time, and I moved a few sundry items out of my backseat to my trunk we could all 4 fit in my Civic. We actually had one more person join us, and he kindly offered his van for transport, so we all could ride comfortably. We got our coffees to go, and one extra medium House, signed the beautiful birthday card Mary Lucille made with the Blue Moose graphic across the top, and piled into the van. One more former regular morning guy appeared and wanted to join, too, and took his own vehicle as he really needed to get to his appointment this morning, but didn't want to miss the opportunity to visit with Michel.

We happily chatted about the Vice Presidential debate we'd all watched the night before, and joked about how the local Republicans must make their coffee at home, because we Moosers were all firmly on the left of the political spectrum. In just 10 minutes or so we pulled into the parking lot of the tidy and modern Golden Living center.

The dining hall was floor to ceiling windows on two sides, and large round tables at which sat maybe 40 residents mostly 5 or 6 to a table, some in wheelchairs. We saw Michel at the back, with his back to us, a few chairs away from the one other gentleman seated at his table. Michel was in a wheelchair.

He looked so much older than he did to me in just a few months ago in the cafe. And very small. The 6 of us walked over, and greeted him, and started pulling chairs over to sit with him at the table. That's when it started to suddenly get weird.

No smile. And I doubt he still had his twinkle, though I can't say for sure because he didn't look me in the eye at all. Not once during the whole half-hour visit. He didn't say much. We all were visibly uncomfortable, but tried a few conversation starters. Michel didn't want the coffee, he was drinking water.

The server brought him French toast. He said "I'm not eating that." She said, "you don't like French toast?" "Not cooked like that." How about that shit for irony. They bring this old Frenchman some gnarly breakfast food he has not the least bit of interest in eating, and having the audacity to call it "French." The French being, of course, the foodiest of the world's foodies, right? Who has a more sophisticated palette than a 90 year old Frenchman? It was just wrong on so many levels.

At least he still had his push-back intact, I thought. But this was cold comfort, as a few minutes later he started nearly crying, clearly distraught, about exactly what, I'm not sure. A few of us were making small talk amongst ourselves, not excluding Michel but no longer speaking directly to him. At this point I'm trying to design an exit strategy, as I'm guessing my comrades probably were, too. Should I look at him? Avoid looking at him while he gets it together after crying? Say something? Sit quietly? We're just acquaintances, a hug is just not appropriate. Squirm, babble, shift around in the chair, what the hell. This lasted about a month, or actually more like 15 minutes.

I don't even remember what lame-ass crap I said. But eventually I quietly asked him "are you ready for this visit to be over yet?" And he nodded yes. So I started making those motions and sounds that are the social signals for "let's split." Gathering whatever item or two I had on the table in front of me, scooting my chair back, eyeballs scanning around the table, uttering phrases that start with a slow "well. . . I guess it's about time. . ." My kind friends being to follow suit, still talking amongst themselves, but now also turning to Michel and offering some Happy Birthdays, and Good To See Ya's, and whatnot.

We make for the door, and it seemed like three times as far to get out as it was to get in. Once I hit the fresh air outside the double doors, I felt a huge gush of both relief and despair.

I was heartbroken. I think I just helped make Michel's 90th birthday even shittier than it promised to be for him before we got there. Again, not my intention at all. Happy freakin birthday, dude.

That really sucked. People should not be put in warehouses for old and sick people when they can no longer drive to the Blue Moose. Michel was an important person, every day, somebody people sought out to greet and be with for a few moments. I'm sure it was no easy task for him to walk the length of the counter to get back to that table of his those last few months, but that's where he gladly put his energy. Worth it. Then suddenly he's gone, not downtown among people of all sorts, stimulating his mind and glad to share a moment and some coffee. Now he spends his days among people who fit only into one or two of these categories: old and sick. Probably no other French speakers. Probably no one who could really appreciate some strong funky cheese with a glass of some equally strong fermented beverage. No professors. No students. No joy.

I'm sad to say that I think I made this poor suffering gentleman actually suffer even more by organizing our little field trip. Cat's plans gang aft agley, Exhibit A. Aren't you glad I don't know when your birthday is?

permalink posted by cat 2:04 PM

read 3 comments

That sounds like something I would have wanted to do, and have done. In my view, I would think it was better to have gone, and have it go slightly awry, then wish all day and next week and the week after that, and the week after that, and the month after that, that you would have gone but didn't because you were afraid it would be awkward. Next time, someone will be glad -- no, overjoyed, to tears, even -- that you stepped out of your box, went out of your way, and reached out to someone to brighten their day. (As sincere as I am, I must profusely apologize for all the cliche herein.)
Do you remember that Smiths song, "I've Come To Wish You an Unhappy Birthday?"
I guess you're probably right, readme, would have been even lamer to just think about doing it and not do it.
Got to love The Smiths!
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unhappy birthday, Michel, from cat