It was the last place on earth I wanted to be.
Yet my mother had swept aside my “old people are so boring” and insisted that I join her on her weekly visit to Greenfield’s Old Age Home.
Not many green fields here. The three-storey building was grey and uninviting and, inside the visitor’s lounge, the lavender room-spray did little to cover the sour smell of decline. I hated places like this.
“I’m going to chat to Mrs. Springer,” Mom pointed to a shrunken lady waving enthusiastically from a seat near the window. “Why don’t you go say ‘hi’ to Mr. de Lange, over there?”
I glanced at Mr. de Lange. He was hunched over in a wheelchair, arms as thin as a child’s, and from the jerk of his tilted head it appeared he was napping. I could even see some drool at the corner of his mouth.
“Mom! Can’t I have the lady?”
Mom smiled: “I think you will enjoy him, Bianca.”
I stood a little longer trying to build up courage. From the window I heard the sounds of laughter as Mom and Mrs. Springer shared a joke.
“Mr. de Lange?” I said softly as I approached him. No reaction. Oh great, he was probably hard of hearing, too. Mom was definitely trying to get me back for breaking my curfew last week.
“Mr. de Lange?” His body shuddered slightly and his eyes opened and focused unseeingly on me.
“Grietje, is that you?” And senile? Thanks Mom.
Watery, blue eyes were staring intently at me now: “No, not Grietje, I see. Who is this lovely young lady?” He spoke with an accent that made ‘this’ sound like ‘dis.’
“I am Bianca, Joy’s daughter.” I held out my hand and he took it in a surprisingly firm grip.
“Ah,” he smiled fondly in the direction of my mother, “she has told me about you. Sit. Sit.”
“You have an accent,” I decided to get the conversation started, and therefore over with, as soon as I could. “Where are you from, Mr. de Lange?”
“No, from the South.” It sounded like ‘souss’.
“Were you there during the War?” I knew old people liked talking about the past.
“I was indeed, Bianca. Germany occupied Holland, as you may know?” I nodded, trying to recall European history from an earlier grade. “Difficult times,” he murmured, “very difficult.”
He looked closely at me and lowered his voice: “Have you ever broken the law, Bianca?”
Intrigued, I shook my head and leaned in a little closer.
“But would you if it was the right thing to do?”
“Aren’t laws always right?”
“Not when they go against the principles of God.”
“Have you broken the law, Sir?”
“Yes. To be part of the Dutch Resistance was against the law during the War, punishable by death at the hands of the Germans.”
“What did you do?” I couldn’t keep the note of excitement out of my voice. “Blow up German cars and stuff?”
His laugh, deep and joyful, sounded like that of a young man: “Hollywood has been good for our roguish image. No, I never blew up anything. I hid Jewish people and brought them to their next safe house so that we could smuggle them out of the country.”
“Wow!” That sounded dangerous too. “Did you ever get caught?”
“Well, it’s a rather long story. It started two months after the invasion, when Dirk Grootboer came to me…”
“Bianca?” Mom stood behind me. “It’s time to go, Darling.”
“But Mom, we’ve hardly spent any time here.”
“We’ve been here well over an hour.”
I looked at my watch. Where had the time gone? “But Mr. de Lange hasn’t finished the story. Have you Mr. de Lange?”
“Not even close,” the old man confirmed.
“Well, you’ll just have to come back and listen to the rest next week.”
“Could I, Mr. de Lange?” I pleaded.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he winked. “See you then Bianca.”
As we drove home in silence, two contrasting images crept into my mind. One was of an old man with a worn-out body, totally dependent on others. The other was of a young, courageous man helping those in danger.
“I was wrong Mom,” I said as we pulled into the driveway. “Old people are not boring.”
Today, I realised, I had truly listened. And in doing so I had seen a man with more than just my eyes. I had seen him with my heart.
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