A flower on Alfred's cactus?

Just meeting for weekly coffee with a guy who suffers from PTSD, OCD, and cruel social phobias doesn't really change him. Or does it?

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Just meeting for weekly coffee with a guy who suffers from PTSD, OCD, and cruel social phobias doesn't really change him. Or does it?

After two years of meeting me for coffee every week, my cranky octogenarian pal Alfred seems — dare I say it? — happier. My narcissistic, goal-obsessed side would like to claim credit, but can a weekly watering of coffee revive a dry cluster of prickles?

There are lots of possible reasons, besides coffee conversations with me, why a small rosy bloom might be emerging these days among Alfred’s thorns, even when those thorns include acute social anxiety, PTSD, and OCD. One is that he’s been reaching out from within his solitude to have more of a social life.

For example, he's attended some local meetups and has actually tried to make conversation with some of their members. Most recently he made a homemade get-well card for a guy in his condominium who’d been hospitalized with a potentially fatal illness. This is the same guy who Alfred feels has slapped down almost every idea he’s presented at resident meetings.

As you might imagine, after hearing so many stories about how Alfred’s nemesis had dissed him, I was surprised that he chose to make this gesture, especially since his plan was to take the card around for everyone in his building, door to door, to sign before sending it as a community message of concern and good will. This was surely a first!

Over coffee a few weeks ago, before circulating the card for signatures, he brought it out and asked me what I thought of it. His beautifully lettered message was decorated with a colorful hand-drawn flower blooming inside a black tunnel with a tiny circle of sunshine visible where perspective lines met in the far distance. The message read: “This is a very very dark time, but remember, there’s always some chance of light at the end.”

Could he have intended to send his nemesis a message of not-so-subtle gloom?

Pushing aside that possibility, I told Alfred that his flower and calligraphy were lovely, but the message might be a little … well, dark. He grimly squirreled it away in the depths of his bag without responding. However, when he went home that day he conferred with a neighbor in his building and — another surprise — actually accepted her revision suggestions, changing the message to the more conventional “We’re all thinking of you! Get well, and come back soon!” This is definitely not Alfred’s style: he detests opinions and sentiments that might be called PC.

It was the other day over coffee that he told me the story of the discussion with his neighbor and shyly displayed his final draft. As we admired the flower (no longer coffined in blackness), he mused, “My life has always been ‘my way or the highway.’ This is the first time I ever disagreed with someone and then made a compromise.”

I asked him how it had felt to do that. “Not as hard as I thought,” he replied, with a rare smile.

This story is reprinted from Freestyle Volunteer.


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