The Tai Chi Master and the Old Man

I’m there almost every day when the weather is good, practicing the 24 form in the Yang style along the Charles River.  If that’s more than you want to know, let’s just say I was doing my regular half hour of tai chi practice.  I know that some people think I’m showing off out here but I like the fresh air and the space and the view of the river, and I don’t really care what other people think.

Because I practice on the lawn outside a Harvard House, you’d think I’m a student there but I’m not.  I just live and work nearby.  This is a convenient place for me and it doesn’t hurt that young ladies walk by thinking that I’m a Harvard Man.  At the very least, it’s a good conversation starter after they stop to watch.  Some of them are really turned on when I get into the Carrying the Cosmos moves or Wild Horse Separates Mane and White Crane Spreads Wings.  Can I help it?

Well, enough about me.  The reason I’m writing down this little story is because of the old man I met the other day.  He was walking along the river when, all of a sudden, he just fell down.  I couldn’t tell if he tripped or completely collapsed because he sure didn’t get up right away.  Maybe he had a heart attack or a stroke.  I don’t really know what happens to older people.  Don’t they break their hips all the time?  But I saw him fall.  It wouldn’t say much about the mindfulness I was trying to build through Tai Chi if I didn’t notice and didn’t go to see what had happened.

By the time I got there, the old man seemed to be—I don’t know—wriggling around on the ground or trying to get up.  I couldn’t tell.  He seemed to be breathing well enough, though I really don’t know what ’well enough’ is in old people.  But it made me think that it couldn’t be a heart attack or a stroke.  Or some other crazy thing that old people have.

“Are you alright,” I asked, as matter-of-factly as I could.  I didn’t want to make a big deal of it if it wasn’t justified.  I was pretty sure worrying him wouldn’t help.

He just looked at me like in a bewildered way.

“Did you hurt yourself?”

“No, no.  I’m fine.  Just a fall.  Thanks for asking.”

I felt a little silly for making a big deal of his fall but I was glad that he seemed okay.

He was looking at me strangely, though.  OK, people in this country do.  My family is from Pakistan and my skin is pretty dark.  But I don’t have an accent and I was just trying to help.  So his look bothered me and I was getting ready for something unpleasant.

“I’m fine.  Really.  You’re a kind young man.”

I didn’t know whether to believe the Old Man—about being hurt or about thinking I was a kind young man.  It’s hard not to be suspicious these days and I was a little angry at him.  Maybe he was being condescending.  Nice little immigrant boy and all that.

“Maybe I could just help you up?”

“I’m fine,” he said again, a little exasperation coming into his voice.  “You can go back to your Tai Chi.  You do it beautifully.”

I was surprised that he noticed.  Maybe a little proud, too.  Maybe a little patronized.  Here he was on the ground and he was saying nice things about me.  Who does that?

To be honest, I was still worried for the old man and didn’t know what to do.  When a middle aged White woman walked by, I asked her to help.  She took a look at the scene and walked away—pretty quickly, too.  I noticed that the old man smiled.

“Why are you smiling,” I asked.

“Because she looked frightened.  Here we are, an old man and a gentle young man and she’s frightened.  It’s a terrible commentary on our society, don’t you think?”

“Yes,” I agreed but I still wasn’t ready to join with the old man.  And he was still down on the ground.  “Why won’t you let me help you up?”

“That’s a good question young man—by the way, what’s your name?  I know I’m being silly but I’m an independent cuss.  I’m embarrassed that I fell, and I can’t believe that I’m having trouble with something as simple as standing up.”

In spite of myself, I was beginning to like the old guy.  With some effort, I asked him what I could do.  Maybe I was acting a little less condescending by this time.

“Okay,” I began. “You’re the boss.  Name it.  Is there something I can do or would you like me to leave you alone?”

“Now you’re talking,” he responded, with some brio.  “Give me a hand.  Then let’s go over to where you were working out, and you can show me some of your moves—the simpler kind.”

Now that surprised me.  I didn’t think he could perform any part of the Form but I loved his asking.  We worked at some moves for at least a half hour before he thanked me and continued his walk along the river.