Monday, October 14, 2013

The story of Thomas & Heiko

This story is exactly two months overdue.

Heiko, Thomas & me...

August 12 2012.
It was a Monday – my first day back at work after my two-week leave. I was on a high! It was great seeing all my students again, meeting new students and catching up with my colleagues. I was pleasantly surprised when one of my students came to give me a beautiful "welcome back" bouquet of flowers.

Later that day, on my way from the elevator to my apartment door, I passed an elderly gentleman walking steadily and slowly with his walking stick. He was an Asian man who I've seen around. I always assumed he was visiting children/grandchildren in the building. I greeted him as I walked past. He didn't greet back, but said, “Those are very nice,” – referring to the bouquet I was carrying. I soon realized why he didn't reciprocate my greeting when I saw his hearing aide.

I stopped next to him and we exchanged random banter about the flowers. In no less than two minutes, a lady joined our company. I’d seen her around the building as well. She was petite, had grey/white hair around her face and wore a cautious, nervous-looking smile. They two were husband and wife.

In a space of three minutes I learned that they moved from Hong Kong to Cape Town ten years ago. The gentleman, Thomas, was an English teacher at a public school and his wife, Heiko, was a housewife. As soon as I learned that this elderly couple were staying on my floor, alone – I immediately knew I had to get to know them better.

Let’s have tea together some day?” I suggested.
Our apartment is very messy right now, so we wouldn't want to invite you in,” spluttered Thomas. The words came out slowly and he seemed to run out of breath easily.

My experience about making plans with people which never materialize happens too frequently. It was now or never.

Are you free right now?” I asked.

And off the three of us went to the Woolies Café downstairs. Something told me that these two people had an interesting story. Especially after learning that he was Chinese and she was Japanese. They made Hong Kong their home, before deciding to move to South Africa.

Their story...

After settling at a table, we placed our order. Heiko ordered tea for herself, hot chocolate for Thomas and I had my regular Mocha.

I was so curious to know what brought this couple to South Africa. Thomas explained while Heiko sat smiling – looking back and forth from Thomas to me. I explained to them that I was an English teacher and had the pleasure of meeting people from all walks of life. I had to remind myself to speak slowly and clearly. Thomas was deaf in one ear.

When our drinks arrived, I noticed that Heiko was confused – who did she order the tea for? For Thomas or for herself? My guess was right when she asked me, “You live alone in Cape Town?” – something I told her just a couple of minutes before. She repeated the same question several minutes later. 

The more these two people spoke, the more my mind went into turbo-mode …wondering what I could do for them. I never grew up with grandparents and I had a tendency of 'adopting' elders.

What do they do all day?

At OUR age, it’s very easy to fall asleep,” said Thomas.  
Do they watch TV? I wondered. No – they don’t own a TV. Then how do they know what’s happening in the world, if they don’t buy newspapers – would it even be relevant or interesting to them if they never left their apartment?

Heiko told me that she enjoys reading. Lovely! A hobby we share. However, I was blown away to know that she is reading and re-reading stacks of newspapers from Japan, given to her by someone she knew at the Japanese embassy. The newspapers are two years old.

Just the two of us…

But where are Thomas’ and Heiko’s family? 
The two never had children.
Would they ever go back to China or Japan?

I have no family left,” said Thomas with no expression.
I looked over to Heiko and asked about her. “I can’t leave him alone,” she said – referring to her husband.

Trying my best to swallow the lump that had formed in my throat, I asked Heiko what they planned on having for dinner. I can’t exactly remember what she said, but I do remember suddenly losing my appetite. My heart sank when she told me that some days, she walks all the way to the end of the Main Road to buy sushi for her husband from Spar. 

Heiko…please be careful when you walk and when you cross the street. It’s very busy and the taxis drive very fast,” I cautioned her. 

At the back of my mind, I worried that one day she may forget where she lives.

My quick shopping run

Could you please wait for me for a few minutes? I need to buy something for school tomorrow,” I told them. First I paid the bill for our drinks and hurried to the food section of the store. I called my mum and quickly relayed the story about the couple I had just met. I told her that I needed to buy food for them. It was a chilly evening and soup would have been ideal. Walking down the aisle of baked goods, while talking to my mum, I found myself looking for bread that was soft. 

I hurried back to Thomas and Heiko who were waiting for me at the café.

Shall we go?” I asked them.
As Thomas stood up, he said that he went to pay the bill, but they told him that I already paid for it.
You shouldn't do that. You’re a young working woman and there are two of US,” he said.

I simply smiled and told him that it was my pleasure and that I had invited them out. Also, this certainly wasn't going to be the last time we meet.

I had to mind my speed. Even though Heiko’s memory is clearly deteriorating, she was able to move faster than her husband, whose mind was sharper but was slowly losing his hearing. He walked very slowly. What would have taken me roughly 3 minutes took us about 10. 

Refusing a gift is bad in my culture

Arriving on our floor, we strolled down the passage. We had to pass their door first and as we said our goodbyes, I handed Heiko my shopping bag. Her sweet smile was quickly replaced by a very deep frown. 

A look of seriousness had also taken over Thomas.

This is for you – please enjoy…it will keep you warm,” I told them.
Are you crazy? What are you doing this for?” asked Thomas.

Neither would take the bag from me and I was so surprised by Thomas’ sudden physical strength as he resisted my handing him my gift.

When I looked over at Heiko, her eyes had welled up with tears.

Do you buy gifts for your students?” Thomas asked me.
Actually, I do,” I replied.
…well, do they give you gifts too?” he continued.
Thomas. The very flowers that sparked OUR conversation was FROM a student.”

He continued looking at me, took the bag from my hand and walked towards my door. He was going to make this very difficult for me.

I walked over to him, looked him in the eye and said, “Thomas, in my culture it’s very bad to refuse a gift.”

He didn't take his eyes off me. Heiko merely stood there, with her arms crossed – looking confused.

At last…

Thomas asked what I had bought.
1 x butternut soup
1 x vegetable soup
1 x white rolls

He said he would only take the vegetable soup. Since he’s diabetic, he's unable to eat the white rolls and butternut soup. I could make peace with that. The three of us said goodnight, but as I entered my door, the lump in my throat grew in size.

What / Who do they have?

I sat on my couch and tried to reflect on what just happened in the past two hours. Hot tears welled up in my eyes. I needed to eat dinner, but had no appetite whatsoever.

I imagined that Thomas and Heiko could very well have been my grandparents.
They could be my parents.
They could be me.
This thought scared me.

Living in a foreign country. No living relatives. No children. Almost no contact with others. Oblivious to world events. 

What do they have? Each other.

The energy and excitement of my first day back at school melted away. I needed to get out of my apartment. I needed to go out. To speak. To laugh. I knew exactly who I wanted to be with.

I made a phone call and within a few minutes I was in the company of special souls. They listened to my story of meeting Thomas and Heiko and empathized as I wept in front of them. At the end of the evening, I felt slightly better, but little did I know the great impact these two people would have on me.

Hesitant to follow up

For days after, on my way to work early in the morning or coming home late at night, I would pass Thomas and Heiko’s door. Sometimes there would be no light peeping through the blinds. How would I know if they’re okay? I was so hesitant to knock on their door or offer them help.

Perhaps it was not in their culture to accept such “gifts”, but I could not accept that I could ignore this elderly couple.

The letters begin

On Friday last week, before going to work, I slipped a note under Thomas and Heiko's door. It was a short note to let them know that I just wanted to know how they're doing. Since I come home quite late and leave rather early in the morning, I don't get to see them.

This evening when I arrived home from work, I found this on my door.

It read:
Dear Sheetal 
Thank you for the "food" the other and and your thoughtful note. 
You are young and kind. But let me at my age teach you something - everything can be carried beyond a reasonable limit, so that it is not longer practical or wise. 
[He went on to tell me about a young and generous Chinese man who has recently been forced to sell his business and is moving back to China]. 
...He was too generous to other people. 
You are not a business woman either.
That said, we are delighted to know a person like you - and a neighbour. We shall get together some weekend
At our age, we have some "problems" with "life" which in all your joyful youth, you will not understand. 
We will go out for coffee!
Sincerely, Thomas
If Thomas and Heiko are uncomfortable accepting gifts from me, and are happy just to accept my friendship, then that is what I will be happy to offer.

Remember, angels come in all shapes, colours and sizes - and these two people, since meeting them, have taught me something quite remarkable. I'll keep you updated as things develop - even if they continue via handwritten letters!

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