Tuesday, October 30, 2018

An Afternoon with Mr. Wheeler

We first met Mr. Wheeler after church on a Sunday. The kids had been unusually angelic during Mass so we kept our promise to them and headed to the parish center to inject them with sugar and caffeine in the form of coffee and donuts. After watching them smear chocolate icing over themselves for a good 10 minutes, we cleaned up and were heading out to our car when a frail older gentleman called out to us. "Do you like concord grapes?" he asked us. When we answered in the affirmative, he put his hand to his hear to indicate that he could not hear our replies. Paul leaned in super close to his ear and practically shouted, "YES! WE LOVE GRAPES!" The man then introduced himself as Mr. Wheeler and offered to give us all the concord grapes we could carry if we helped him prune and harvest his garden. "I'm 92 years old and can't hardly do all that work anymore," he explained. We exchanged phone numbers and told him that we would call to find a time to help. He made us promise to call that afternoon. And so we did.

Mr. Wheeler encouraged us to bring the entire family over. Paul asked him over and over again if he was sure about this. The kids could be quite the handful and we didn't know if they would necessarily be very helpful. But Mr. Wheeler insisted that kids would love seeing how the vegetables grow. He also told Paul, "Be sure to bring your lovely wife too" so there was no way I could use the opportunity of Paul and the kids being out of the house to sneak in a much-needed nap.

So, in the mid-afternoon that Sunday, we loaded everyone up into the car and headed to an older section our cute little mountain town and pulled up in front of a modest red brick home that from the looks of the architecture appears to have been built sometime in the 1960s. Mr. Wheeler greeted us at his front door and ushered us inside. Instead of immediately going to work in his garden, he invited us to sit down and visit for a bit. The visiting part was a little difficult for us since he really couldn't hear anything. He couldn't read lips either, so the only way to communicate your point to him was through wild hand gestures (reminiscent of a lively game of charades) and bellowing directly into his eardrum. The poor kids never quite understood just how hard of hearing poor Mr. Wheeler was and this led to more than one misunderstanding in conversation with the kids. Poor Lucy stood in front of him trying to tell him she liked one of the knick-knacks on his shelf for about 10 minutes while he repeatedly said, "Eh?...Eh??..Eh??" She kept trying to repeat herself again and again before she hunched over in frustration and walked away.

Since it was so difficult for us to talk to him, we just let Mr. Wheeler talk to us. And talk he did. He told us about his life - how he had lost his wife to illness almost 20 years ago, how he was only able to have one child with her and that child moved far away and rarely came back for visits, how he was a bee farmer and at one time sold his honey all over the county, how he was an inventor of many quirky yet fascinating objects that gained notoriety all over the county. In fact, he spends most of his days hand-making one of his inventions - a light-catching spinning mobile made from used pop cans - that caught the attention of the Colorado Department of Transportation. They had ordered a couple thousand to aid in decreasing the number of wild animals hit by vehicles on the highways. And Mr. Wheeler agreed to meet their quota and makes every single one in a painstaking process by hand. After listening to him, you can't help but conclude that Mr. Wheeler is one fascinating man. But lonely. He misses his wife terribly and his son too, although he is very very proud of all that he has accomplished.

Being almost completely deaf was not Mr. Wheeler's only handicap. He also had a very difficult time walking, only managing to move forward with slow, cautious shuffles and always with the assistance of a cane. His eyes also had the pale blue, glassy look of someone with compromised eyesight and judging by some of the comments he made I was positive that he really couldn't see much at all. The fact that he still drove himself to church and back was incredible albeit a bit frightening. I got the impression that church was the only place to which he drove, relying on the help of friends if he ever needed to go on a more ambitious trip. Judging by the heap of wrappers pouring out of his garbage, all he ate was McDonalds cheeseburgers (Matthew's dream diet).

When he took us out back to his large garden, overgrowing with ripe tomatoes, zucchini, concord grapes, cucumbers, carrots, and plums, he distributed bags to everyone and instructed Paul to find the ladder in his shed to use to cut down the large bunches of grapes off the vines. Matthew and Emma were in charge of gathering the ripe plums that had fallen from the branches of the plum tree. Lucy, Daniel, and I then assisted Mr. Wheeler in cutting out zucchini and cucumbers. The four of us finished far more quickly than Paul and the fruit-gathering duo, so Mr. Wheeler then shuffled back to the porch with us and we relaxed and chatted while the others worked away. Every once in a while, Matthew and Emma would come running towards him to show off how many plums they had gathered. He would inspect the ripeness and encourage them to continue onward. He would also invite them to "eat as many as you can fit in yer mouth!" Then he would continue to talk with me about his late wife and their life together. I could tell that he missed her very much. Lucy was content to sit next to him and play with one of his handmade spinners. Every once in a while she would tap his leg to ask him a question: "Excuse me...Mr. Wheeler? Excuse me?" He almost never understood what she was trying to ask him, but she didn't seem to mind.

By the time Paul and the kids had harvested the entire garden for Mr. Wheeler, we had spent nearly four hours there. I think Mr. Wheeler would have preferred if we had stayed a bit longer, but I had to go to my volunteer job at church as a high school youth teacher. Mr. Wheeler sent us on our way with more than half of the bounty we had harvested. He didn't want to keep much for himself ("I'm only one person!") and planned on donating the produce we didn't take with us to a foster home down the street from him. The kids all thanked Mr. Wheeler profusely for they loved fresh produce and enjoyed the fun process of harvesting it all! He made us promise to come back and visit him.

The children were so happy on the way home, talking excitedly about how much fun it was to work in the garden and about how kind Mr. Wheeler was. Matthew in particular pointed out how good it felt to "help out a neighbor!" All the children couldn't wait to go see Mr. Wheeler again.

We see Mr. Wheeler at church every Sunday. And every Sunday since we went over to his home, the kids excitedly point and wave when they spy him. They run up to him at coffee and donuts and excitedly tell him, "Hi Mr. Wheeler!" He smiles and waves back. Last Sunday, he came up to Paul and invited our family over to help him harvest some pumpkins and butternut squash. He gave us directions to his house and his phone number as if we had never been there before. Paul explained to him that we do know where he lives.

"You do?!" he exclaimed with surprise.
"Yes! We've visited with you before at your house!"
"You have? Oh you have! Well come over whenever you'd like..." Mr. Wheeler trailed off as he patted Lucy on the head and shuffled away.

We are not sure whether Mr. Wheeler remembers us or the times we spent together. I'm not sure our family visit made a great impression on him. He is probably fairly perplexed as to why our children flock around him whenever they see him. But one thing is for sure, he definitely made an impression on us and our children. They will never forget him. And try their best to make sure he doesn't forget them. Almost every night, Emma and Lucy mention Mr. Wheeler at bedtime prayers. Emma usually will specifically pray that Mr. Wheeler "gets to see and walk again." They sure do love him.

Thank you, Mr. Wheeler, for providing us with your friendship and the opportunity to teach our children how serving others is both a privilege and a blessing.