Waves wash away footprints, not memories



Not long ago, I wrote of my friend. I referred to him by the name of Nick. He was a barber by trade. He was also a Vietnam War veteran. He was the kind of guy you couldn’t help but like. He had a sharp wit, a good heart and a biting sense of humor.

Nick was diagnosed with cancer this past summer. I wrote of the difficulties Nick anticipated with his illness; mounting medical expenses, loss of income, worry of how to provide for his family. I regret that Nick faced each of these hardships before he died. I recently attended his calling hours to pay my last respects. Driving to the funeral home I thought of my own life; people I’ve known, places I’ve seen, dreams unfulfilled. Death makes the living examine life, to measure where one has been and what one has accomplished through the years.

I have been to the ocean once in my life. I walked along the shore of the Atlantic as a young man, many years ago. It was evening time then. The light of a bright moon shone upon gently rolling waves; they rhythmically erased my footprints from the sand as they stretched forward to the shore, and then receded back to the depths once more. I remember thinking that in the morning the beach would be clean and new, and no one would ever know that I was there the night before.

I last spoke to Nick in late autumn. I was returning home from some Saturday errand when I drove by his shop. I was surprised to see that the door was open. I turned into his parking lot, made my way to the entrance, and walked in. I found Nick resting in his barber chair. The lights were dimmed. He seemed startled at first, and then asked if I needed a haircut. “No, Nick”, I replied, “I’m just here to see how you’re doing.”

He looked frail and gaunt from cancer. He told me that he was receiving chemotherapy. “Thirty-five pills cost $8,000,” he said. He wasn’t quite sure how he was going to pay for the treatment. And, he wasn’t sure how much longer he would be able to keep his business open. We talked for some time and he reflected upon his 63 years. Sunlight filtered in through Venetian blinds. He told me that he wasn’t afraid to die. I sensed that he was more afraid that the world would forget that he had ever lived. I never saw him again after that day. His cancer progressed quickly.

The forgotten many

As a nation, we have the ability to topple foreign governments with our military might; we have the treasure to subsidize the prescription drug industry while CEOs receive millions in annual compensation packages; we direct the wealth of this society to the hands of the politically connected — all, seemingly, without second thought. But we have little to give to lessen the burden of a dying barber, a veteran no less, during the final days of his life. In many ways, men like Nick are forgotten by our country. They are washed from the shores of our nation’s consciousness by self-interest and apathy until no trace of them remains.

Nick wasn’t rich or powerful. Nick wasn’t politically connected. But then he was no less deserving of a measure of dignity and peace in his last days on earth than the most influential and wealthiest among us. There was a time when this country nourished that belief, when working class people mattered. Maybe that time has passed.

Nick’s shop is closed now. I suspect that the red, white, and blue striped barber’s pole that proclaimed Nick’s trade will be gone from the front of his building soon. And, I suspect that the flower box beneath his sign where Nick planted his yellow mums each summer will be vacant this year. Nick enjoyed his mums. Their simple beauty brought color to his life.

I extended my condolences to Nick’s family as I made my way through the receiving line at the funeral home. When I finished, I gathered my coat, pushed open the exit door, and stepped into the still night. As I walked to my car, I thought of the waves rolling upon the shore of the Atlantic so many years before, gently erasing my footprints from the sand.

And, on my drive back home, I remembered my friend Nick.

X David Bobovnyik is a lawyer who loves in Youngstown and occasionally writes about life as many of us in the Mahoning Valley know it.