One positive effect the pandemic had on me was that it got me back into biking. Having been an avid biker when I was young, my biking routine started to slip as I got busy with work, family and life in the last years (um, decades). A few months into the pandemic I found myself with much more time on my hands and astonishingly also a few more pounds on my hips. I knew it was now or never to finally get back on my bike again. A few curb side pick ups from my local bike shop later – who knew biking shorts shrink over time, ha! – and I was good to go.
Those first bike rides were magical. It was as if a part of me that had been sleeping was reawakened. Pedalling up a nearby hill, breathing heavily, feeling my heart beat fast, I realized I hadn’t felt this energized and alive in my body for a very long time. I was determined to make my bike trips a regular part of my life again, outlasting the pandemic of course.
For the most part, my trips took me to the nearby countryside, which is luckily quite accessible for me living in the outskirts of a small town. On one of the first days of spring, I decided to head towards a village not too far from my house, which was supposed to have a famous historic church I had meant to visit forever. It was a beautiful day that day, the sun was giving off its first warm rays, birds were chirping in the distance, first signs of green were starting to appear everywhere. Aah, and the smell of spring in the air. The signs of much needed new beginnings, especially this year.
I felt great when I arrived in the village. Bursting of energy, I confidently pedaled ahead – only to find myself five minutes later on the other side of the village, with no church in sight. Stopped in my tracks, I got off the bike and looked around. Where might the church be? While contemplating which route to take, I saw something moving from the corner of my eyes. An old gentleman sitting on a bench in front of his house was smilingly waving his walking cane at me. I estimated him to be well in his 80s, if not 90s. The man had a kind, weathered face and a frail figure, his white hair sticking out into all directions. He was wearing a light blue face mask, slippers and a robe over his checked pyjamas.
I pushed my bike towards him, stopping several meters away from the fence to his house. “Good day”, he said, “Not sure where you’re going, are you boy?”. “I’m afraid not, that’s right” I answered. No one had called me “boy” in a very long time – it must be the biking that’s starting to show, I thought to myself. “I’m looking for the old church which I heard is somewhere around here, I must have passed it”.
“Ah, the church!” His face lit up. “Yes, yes, you came to the right place.” And just like that, the old man started to chat away about the church, from when it was built and with which materials to the times it got partly destroyed and rebuilt. I was surprised by his vast knowledge about this topic and the level of detail he was giving me without any hesitation. He spoke without stopping, his hand not holding the walking cane drawing the shapes of church windows in the air and demonstrating the roof tiles falling down from the big storm in 1867. Something had changed about him since he started speaking, it seemed almost like he had come to life in a new way. It was touching to see his excitement and it was obvious that the church was dear to his heart. I listened to him attentively and, since wearing a mask, tried to show my genuine interest through my eyes as much as possible.
After well over 15 minutes, the man suddenly paused. He took a deep breath and smiled at me from ear to ear. “Alright boy, I told you everything. Now go and see for yourself.” I started to thank him for generously taking the time and giving me all this interesting information. He nodded, then suddenly stopped, his eyes wide open. “Wait. I want to give you something.” He slowly got up, shaking heavily, leaning on his cane. As he was catching his balance I began to worry how I would help him in case he fell while also maintaining my distance. I had worried in vain, as once standing he was astonishingly agile. The old man slowly made his way into his house. When he returned, he was holding what looked like a brochure in his hands. It took him a few minutes to come back to his bench and catch his breath, leaning on his cane. As I was once again starting to worry, he finally looked up.
Had he been smiling so far, now he was beaming. With his cane-free hand, he held up the brochure like a trophy. “This is for you. It is about the church, my brother made it. He was a historian you know, had studied history and all. Even went to America once to study, imagine that. He moved away for university, but he always, always came back. Once he made this pamphlet about the history of our church, to keep the memories alive. He died last month. This is my last spare pamphlet and I want you to have it.”
It was palpable that speaking about his brother filled him with both pride and sadness. I was so touched by his story and the kind gesture he was offering that for a moment I didn’t know what to answer. As I was assuring him my appreciation of his Kindness, he waved his hand. “No boy, thank you. I had such a good time speaking with you. I don’t get to do that so often these days, you know. It was nice to have some company for a bit.” We both smiled through our masks.
We agreed that he would leave the brochure on his bench for me to pick up after he was back in the house, as it was becoming time for his afternoon tea. As I was watching him disappear through his door, I felt a warmth inside of my chest that I knew was not coming from the sun.
The brochure of the old man’s brother now is displayed on my bookshelf in the travel books section. I surely don’t need a reminder, as I will never forget my encounter with the old man. But every time I walk by my bookshelf and I catch a glimpse of the brochure, I smile. Thinking of how when looking for a church in the middle nowhere I found a moment of deep human connection, made possible by the incredible power of Kindness.
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