The first thing the old man said to me was, "The cows don't come by here anymore."
A few years ago, I liked to ride my bike on the roads that snake along a local mountain range. The views were beautiful, and there were plenty of hills to climb. It was friendly and country (in the best sense of the word), and the people sitting on their front porches always waved.
One old man was almost always sitting alone, and I made a point of waving to him.
Then one day, caught in a driving rain, I glanced sideways and saw him waving me off the road and onto his porch. I leaned my bike on the rail and clomped up the steps as he pulled a dusty wooden chair from behind an old coal box for me to sit on.
And then he started talking.
He told me the cows used to slowly drift by every day as they grazed the fencerow across the road. (His favorite was an older cow that always pushed her head through the fence as if to see whether the grass really was greener on the other side.) Why they no longer came by was a puzzle he had yet to solve.
He told me his mail was delivered every day at about the same time. He could tell how his carrier's day was going by the size of her smile. He told me he knew the lack of rain had hurt local farmers because lately they hadn't been hauling nearly as many hay rolls. He told me the girl up the road had just gotten her driver's license. Whenever he saw her go by, he tried to watch for her to come home because he worried about young drivers.
He also talked about me.
"Some days you ride that thing a little like that cancer fella I used to see on TV, but most of the time you look like somebody stuck me on there," he said. Then he smiled, taking any sting out.
As he spoke, I thought he seemed lonely, almost desperately so. Then I realized he wasn't lonely, at least not in the way I assumed. Though he had met very few of the people he watched go by, his porch still gave him a very real connection to his community.
He could tell when neighbors were getting company and was happy they had friends who wanted to visit. He enjoyed watching families drive by on their way to church, even though Sundays were bittersweet because the mail didn't come and he didn't get to wave to his carrier. He even worried about me, until that day a stranger, because he thought it was dangerous for people to ride bicycles near cars.
He watched and wondered, but not in a nosy or critical way. He seemed to only see the good in the people he saw from his porch.
And that was why, on a couple of cloudless days, I would stop and visit instead of waving and riding by. I wouldn't bring food or a token gift, even though that's what people like me tend to do in return for kindness or courtesy. Instead I just stopped to find out what was new.
Maybe he would tell me the local farmers' crops were doing better. Maybe he'd tell me the young girl up the road was still safe. Maybe he would have puzzled out why the cows didn't come by anymore.
It didn't matter. He just wanted to talk. I could tell. He always left my chair out.
And then one day my chair was gone.
So was his chair. So were the tools scattered around the yard, the old Buick in the driveway, the worn curtains in the windows.
And so was he.
How often had I stopped? How often had I sat and listened? How often had I taken time away from work and fitness and personal goals and striving for success to be a friend to someone who clearly needed a friend?
Not often enough. Not nearly often enough.
We all have people in our lives that leave a chair out for us, only to die a little inside when that chair sits empty.
Once in a while--before it's too late for you, or for them, or for your relationship--take the time to stop and sit and visit for no good reason...
... which, when you think about it, is the best reason of all.
More in my "The Power Of..." series: