I don’t think it is an uncommon occurrence to wonder how we can be of service in our lives. In fact, I think most of us have an inner longing to do something that matters. And I think most of us do impactful things that we take for granted or are unaware of every day. And I’m not referring to those of you who may be first responders and are of the inclination to run toward peril instead of away from it.
As for me, I always figured my contribution would reside somewhere in the meaning of a song, the written word, or some random piece of advice that turned out to be useful to somebody. I’m not the type to leap at the chance to head toward fire or blood or raging waters. Nope, I assumed my heroism was to be more esoteric in nature. But on this one particular occasion, I would be, oh, wrong about that.
My father, who just turned 85, has lunch most days with several of his cronies at our local diner. It’s a small place, comprised mostly of colorful regulars. His best buddy, whom I’ll call Vinny, is a retired plumber with a perpetual twinkle in his eyes, a fondness of strawberry ice cream, and a propensity for impromptu singing. (The last of which was very funny, by the way, when I had a Disney hit on the radio that Vinny would walk around singing regularly. I’m sure Walt would be thrilled to know that his demographic extended from tweens to the elderly.)
On this particular day, I happened to be at the diner with my father and Vinny didn’t show up for lunch. He hadn’t told anyone that he had a doctor’s appointment (the usual reason for unexplained absences with the geriatric crowd). These absences happen on occasion. Sometimes it’s because of an unexpected visit from a relative, or some bit of business at the bank, or waiting for a repairman to come and fix something. So we tried calling Vinny’s house. No answer. His cell phone. No answer.
Now might be a good time to mention my proclivity for preparedness. I would like to tell you that it was because I was a girl scout…which I was. (I know, you’re imagining me in my little green uniform now.) But the truth is, in the past, I’ve been known to possess a phenomenal ability to conjure worst case scenarios. Now, the truth is I’ve gotten infinitely better about this and I don’t spend my energy focusing on stuff I don’t want to happen anymore. But one of the byproducts of both my past worrying and my present state of calm is a state of readiness for, at minimum, the things I can foresee a potential need for. So when Vinny’s daughter was visiting him on one occasion, we exchanged phone numbers.
I had a very urgent gut feeling that something was wrong and we needed to go to Vinny’s house and see if he was okay. If his car wasn’t there, then he was off somewhere and all was probably fine.
When we got there, Vinny’s car was parked in his driveway. I ran up to the side door of his house where he usually enters and exits. I began pounding on the door. No answer. The lights were on. I tried to look through the window and the blinds on the door, squinting to see what I could see. On the kitchen table I saw a bowl of cornflakes and a full glass of orange juice, his breakfast meal – untouched. Shit. It was after 2 p.m. That meant Vinny was somewhere on the floor of that house since early morning.
I didn’t see him on the kitchen floor, so I began walking around the house, banging on windows and doors, yelling his name, “Vinny, Vinny, can you hear me? It’s Ilene.” Nothing.
I called his daughter. (See – that’s why I took her number.) I didn’t want to freak her out, but I told her we needed to call 911 and asked her if there was a key hidden anywhere outside or with a neighbor. No spare key and everything was locked up tight as a drum. So she called 911 and told them if they needed to, to break down a door or window.
Seriously, an ambulance didn’t show up for at least 20 minutes, by which time, after pounding on every door and window of the house, the garage door mysteriously opened.
There was Vinny, lying flat on his back, half on the garage floor, half in his basement. He’d had no heat in the house, so he went downstairs to see if he could fix it himself, where he promptly fell over boxes on the floor. In order to get the garage door opened, he had to drag himself across the floor, where he, while laying flat on his back, grabbed a broom handle, which he used to reach the garage door button. I kid you not.
The paramedics arrived first in the ambulance. Then a lone policeman. And finally, the firemen. While they were assessing Vinny’s condition, and fighting his protestations about going to the hospital, they realized they had to carry him up the stairs to get him out of the house. Why? Because there was about an inch of space between the garage wall and the covered, candy apple red 1973 Cadillac that Vinny has stored in his garage to leave to his grandson on the occasion of his death. (You can’t make up stuff like this.) So no way to get Vinny out of the house but to carry him back up the flight of stairs and out the side door, where he could longingly eye his bowl of uneaten cornflakes in passing.
But before that could happen, while logistics were being figured out, I, being unfortunately savvy to the necessities of the unanticipated hospital visits with the elderly, knew we needed to find and take two things – Vinny’s wallet with ID and insurance info and his battery of medications, which is crucial so they don’t accidentally and unintentionally kill you at the hospital. (See how my uncanny preparedness comes in handy?)
But just as Officer Frank and I were about to head up the stairs, Vinny remembered to tell us this key tidbit of information – because he had no heat and wanted to warm the house, he had turned on his gas stove burners full force…before he went downstairs and fell…at least six hours prior. So when Officer Frank and I reached the top of the stairs, all we smelled was gas. I let him do the honors of turning the stove off and we opened the doors. I always wondered how people’s homes could explode. Now I know.
Vinny was lucky that he just dislocated a hip. Didn’t break anything and didn’t hit his head in the fall. He is rehabilitating now near his daughter’s home.
But the reality is, even if the fall didn’t kill him, his house would have exploded eventually had the gas continued. I can’t stop thinking about the myriad ways this could have and would have ended in disaster. It is profoundly humbling. We never know when we’ll be called upon, but when we say we want to do something that matters and be of service, we don’t always get to choose what that looks like. I’m a songwriter, for God’s sake! But that day, I got to save a life.
So my advice is, first, to always listen to that gnawing feeling inside, that gut sense of knowing. Second, do not ever, ever, ever turn the gas stove on to heat the house. Wrap blankets around you or go somewhere else warm, but don’t be stupid. Third, always leave a key with a neighbor or friend nearby in case of emergency. Fourth, carry a list of all medications you take and dosages in your wallet just in case. Fifth, never shrink from a chance to be of service just because it doesn’t show up in the way you expect or see yourself.
And lastly, give a damn, because we are all each other has.
Peace and Blessings to you. Have a wonderful day, and thanks for stopping by.