In 2011, about four months after my father’s passing, I was fired from my job at the local aquarium, where I held a position watching over the rays. I was told that because of my lack of attentiveness, I was no longer as much of an asset as I once was. Living with my mother, and desperate to find work, I turned to an ad in the newspaper for a position in a retirement home; no experience was required. After calling and speaking with my (current) employer, I was hired with acceptable pay and room to climb the company ladder. I started as a caretaker for a certain four or five people, whose names have faded from my memory. I woke at eight every morning, and was required to work eight-hour shifts from ten to six, Monday through Friday. Yet, as horribly uneventful as my work was, I met a man, in my days there, who held a somber, yet compelling story – untold until we met.
I first met Jeremiah Byler in July of 2011. It was about four o’clock on a Friday, and I left the main building of the complex to smoke a cigarette in the park not far from the main entrance. I sat – in uniform – on a bench, watching out over the small park. I was tired, and I pulled on my cigarette in quick, close drags. The trees swayed softly in the wind and the birds’ chirping choir and the earthy taste of tobacco soothed my sore nerves and made the afternoon easier. Leaning back, I heard a soft electric buzz emanating from aside the bench. I looked over to see a slightly overweight, feeble senior hunched in a sort of sorry manner inside of a dull mobility scooter. I slightly turned my head to look over at him for a half a minute or so, observing his features. He sported a ruined white cap, which covered his wrinkled, defeated face. His shirt was a faded maroon red – his pants were fresh khakis, which I assumed his caretaker had ironed for him earlier. I didn’t particularly like old people, and I will say that I didn’t get a good first impression from him.
“Good day today.” He said, staring forward. I looked at him completely, and then turned to face forwards.
“Sure is,” I said, “How is yours?”
“Fine. It is as they always are.”
“I don’t believe I’ve met you,” I started, “What’s your name?”
“Jeremiah,” he moaned.
“It’s nice to meet you, Jeremiah. Do you live here?” I said, waving back towards the complex. He nodded. “Who takes care of you?” I asked softly.
“The short girl,” he paused. “With the crazy hair.”
“Jessica?” I asked, sure that the answer was yes. Jessica was a fellow employee who seemed pretty well off. She drove a new Acura to work every day, and was never seen with anything simpler than designer apparel. She did have a sort of crazy haircut; it was a short, pinkish flat that often parted to the left. An absolutely horrendous liability Jessica was, though. It was quite apparent that she kept the job only for the sake of appeasing whoever may have paid for the Acura, designer clothing, and haircut.
“Yes,” he grunted.
“She does have quite a-“
“They fired her this morning, I suppose.”
“Oh, my. I haven’t heard of that.”
“Yes. I will say that it serves her right for my manner of treatment.”
“I’m sorry?” I inquired, confused about his statement.
“She was awful… always late, horrible work ethic, constantly on that damned cell phone. She left me alone, mostly.”
“Well, why don’t I see if I can help you out? I’ll talk to the manager. I’m sure I could take another person!” I looked back at him, smiling. His head drooped and his eyes were closed. His eyebrows were shaped in such a fashion as to expose what he was feeling – thinking even. I could tell he was in pain. I thought the least I could do was to help him out. “Who else did Jessica take care of?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Surely you must have met them,” I said. “Haven’t you?”
“You don’t spend any time with them?”
“Well, I’ll make sure you have a little bit of fun around here, as much as you can, anyways.” I immediately regretted saying that, for with the words ‘as much as you can, anyways,’ I had reminded him of death’s eminent approach. I felt horrible. There I was, on the bench, quietly smoking and talking to another person with thoughts and feelings and dreams just like my own – a person however, who would die relatively soon. The thought sickened me. But how could I have known that behind this man’s wrinkled physique, there were tales of a lifetime of suffering.
He did not respond.
“Well,” I began, awkwardly. “I’ll have a talk with my boss, make sure everything works out.” I stood up and began to walk past him before he said:
“Thank you, young man. I haven’t talked to anyone in quite a while.” His voice was shaky.
“It’s no problem, Jeremiah.”
“I don’t believe I’ve caught your name, friend.” He said. I smiled and looked back at him:
“I’m Joel. It was great to meet you,” I said, before returning to my duties.
And so I did talk to my boss, and he was delighted to see that I was becoming engaged in my work. Also, with Jessica gone, her patients were separated amongst other caretakers. He assigned me the care of Byler, beginning the next workday.
He buzzed for me no later than eleven o’clock that Monday, and I climbed the stairs to his room. Room 242 it was. Before I knocked on the door, I looked at the wall bracket, where nameplates were held. He was the only person living there. I knocked. In those few moments, I began to wonder if he had had a wife, or if he had ever been married. What would this woman have looked like? When was her passing? Did he have children? Pets? Cousins? Brothers? Sisters?
He opened the door.
He was no longer in a scooter, but had a loose grip on a frigid metallic walker. He had been awake for quite a bit, I could see it in his posture.
“How are you this morning, Mr. Byler?” I asked, walking inside.
“As I always am.” He answered, lazily.
“How long have you been awake?” I asked, moving into his kitchen area.
“Three or four hours I suppose.”
“You surely could have buzzed in earlier. We would have had breakfast sent up to you.”
“I did not want to be a burden.” He said, sitting down on his bed.
“Nonsense, that’s our job!” he didn’t reply.
I looked over to see him slouched upon his bed, as he was the Friday before in the park. I assumed he hadn’t eaten…
“Are you hungry, Jeremiah?” I asked him.
“What would you like to eat?”
“I think eggs would be nice.”
“Alright,” I said, and reached into the refrigerator for the eggs. I began the frying process, and attempted to make small talk, but it quickly grew larger.
“So, tell me a little about yourself.” I said.
“I’m a lonely man.”
‘Shit. Why did I ask.’ I thought.
“Why is that? I’m sure there are plenty of people around here who would love to make your acquaintance.”
“I don’t think I’m much for friendship, or conversation even.”
“Hey, we’re talking right now, aren’t we?” I asked, flipping one of the eggs.
“My life has not been a good life, Joel. I’m an old man waiting to die. I don’t need any company.”
‘My God,’ I thought, ‘This is the most depressing man in the universe,’ so I didn’t answer him, and instead, pretended I wasn’t listening. We sat silent before I decided to say anything else.
“Where are you from?” I asked, trying my best to change the subject.
“Oh, really? What part?” I said, pretending like I knew anything about Pennsylvania.
“You wouldn’t know.”
“I didn’t come from city life.”
“Ah, the outdoors!” I started, “What a great place to live. Did you live on a farm?”
‘That was stupid.’
“I did. I was Amish.”
“Oh, I never would’ve expected!” I said, trying to dismiss the gloom in the air. And that was true, I never would have expected. However, I had never met an Amish person before, so I don’t know how I ever would have known just what to expect. He didn’t… seem Amish.
“Yes, I was an Amishman.”
“Aren’t you always Amish if you grew up Amish?” I asked, ignorantly.
“Not if you’ve been shunned.” He answered.
“Oh my. Why…” I began, before backing out of a potentially touchy subject. “Never mind.” I concluded. I had finished the eggs, then, and was preparing them for him to eat.
“It was my wife.” He said.
“She… she shunned you?” I asked.
“She did not.”
“Oh,” I responded.
“No, the community decided that I was useless, after all, after my wife died.”
“I’m so sorry…” I started.
“No need to be.” He answered.
I was ashamed of what I had gotten myself into. I felt that I was practically forcing this man to talk about the death of his wife, and the exile from his community. How rude.
“She had the… the… cancer, that’s right.” He said, collecting his thoughts.
“Did she have treatment?” I said, bringing his breakfast to his table. He tried to stand up before I swooped over and helped him to the table.
“She did not.”
“Why was–” I began, truly embarrassed with this whole conversation.
“We were Amish.” He said, cutting me off. “All of this technology, the electricity and the satellites and radios and such, we did not have.”
“Oh,” I responded. I didn’t know what to say. I got up from the table to fetch him his silverware, hoping that this would somehow deter him from dwelling on such things.
“We had children. Mary was the first. She was fifteen when my wife died. My son, Isaac, he was only eleven.”
He was still looking down.
“She came with the tumor late, the growth, it was horrible. Her pain, it hurt me – it hurt us all. Mary always insisted that we take her into a hospital, but I wouldn’t do it.” One solitary tear came about his right eye. There was no way I would continue the conversation. I couldn’t take it anymore; this man’s story was so incredibly heart wrenching… I had to leave.
“Excuse me, Jeremiah. I have to tend to another patient,” I said, shakily.
“That’s alright,” he paused. “Joel.” He said, as I was leaving.
I turned around.
He looked up at me.
His eyes were a bright red and his bottom lip folded in. His hair was quite a mess because of his nervous fiddling, and his hands shook upon his knees. Yet he still managed to look me in the eye… what a brave man he was. Agony and regret poured from the essence of his being into the air and worked itself into my conscience. What he said next stabbed into me even further.
“Thank you for listening.”
‘Jesus, I feel so bad.’
I squinted, clinched my jaw, and responded:
I turned around and walked down the hallway, down the stairs, and outside to smoke a cigarette in the same spot, once again. I finished my cigarette and returned to helping the other elderly for the rest of the workday. Jeremiah did not buzz for help again.
That evening, I decided to do a little bit of research on the Amish. I had been far too ignorant concerning the subject to even attempt to have an intellectual conversation about the lifestyle, and the research did help me understand Jeremiah’s situation from a different perspective. He didn’t want to be where he was. The Amish people are free, much more free than we could ever be. Cell phones and computers didn’t ruin their lives the way they do ours. They talked face to face; they worked hard to live, they believed strongly in God’s will, and treated each other with respect. Their dirt is our steel, our plagues are their feuds, they buy from nature, and we buy from man; our parties, possessions, sex, and drugs, would be no more pleasurable to them than the warm red dusk, which bled farm water: life. I decided to watch the sunset myself that evening, and as I looked into its indisputable holiness, I found myself at peace, as I’m sure Jeremiah was until it was taken from him.
I returned to work the next day, knowing that there were more stories to come. I was not worried, but excited, rather. For I knew, then, that his appreciation for the earth was far more real than I could fathom. He buzzed in at the same time – eleven o’clock, and I climbed the stairs to his door. I knocked. He opened the door. He gripped the same cold walker he held the morning before, and wore the same robe.
“Hello, Jeremiah. How are you this morning?” I asked.
“As I always am.” He responded, walking to his bed.
“How ‘bout some more eggs? Some toast maybe?”
“Fried eggs are fine.”
“I’ll get on it,” I said, sliding the frying pan out onto the stove. I looked up around his room as I waited for the pan to heat and stared at a painting for a moment or two. It was of a man and a woman standing side by side. The woman held a child in her arm. She had the appearance of a particularly strong woman, yet gentle, as any mother should be. In a way, she reminded me of my own mother, a strong willed woman who would never hesitate to punish me in my earlier days, but a woman who I was glad to have as a mother nonetheless.
“That’s my wife, there,” he began, “in the frame.”
“I can only assume that’s you next to her.”
“She looks like she was a good mother.”
He looked down once more.
‘Here we go.’
“Joel,” he continued, “My children hate me because of that cancer.”
“Er… I’m s–“
“Mary wanted to take her to the hospital, but I wouldn’t do it. I couldn’t.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“That’s not how we do things where I’m from. It was what God had planned. All of these… these damned machines, killing and reviving. God did not want that for me, nor my wife, or my children.”
I was speechless. I cracked the eggs over the side of the frying pan and watch them sizzle. I didn’t have the courage to look up at him.
He sniffled a bit before he began again:
“You can’t reason with children. They told me I killed her. They told me that every day.”
“What happened to your children?” I asked softly, still staring at the stove.
“They left. Went to some godforsaken city. They left me there alone. It wasn’t enough to take my wife away, my children had to go too.”
“A man’s life may bring him through hell, but I never would’ve thought it would be this way. That was all I had. We never wanted anything more than a family to love and cherish, a family to grow and break and make other families for the same. I haven’t seen my children in years. I don’t even know where they are, and I’m sure they don’t know where I am either.”
Sadly, they did know where he was. They were the ones that put him there. They just chose not to see him. The eggs were finished, then, and I put them on a plate to bring to him. He stood up from his bed, and again I helped him to the table, where he didn’t touch his food.
“I think that–“ he began, before I interrupted him.
“We don’t have to talk ab–“
“Let me finish.” He said, pausing for a moment, sniffling even more. His eyes were teary once again. “I was shunned after they left. I was too bothered to do a damn thing. An Amishman outside of his home is a sore sight for our lord.” I looked right at him now. There was no going around this conversation. “Now, I’ve been taken into the company of all of this machinery. They say I can’t even move without it. I’d rather be dead. This is not what God wanted, not at all. They stab me with needles and sit me in rolling chairs, they put me in moving beds, cover me in sticky squares that beep every two seconds. They say my heart is bad.”
“They’re just trying to make you well,” I said, hopelessly.
“That’s not what God wants. And that’s not what I want. I want to be free of these things. They won’t even let me die, Joel.” He looked me in the eye, and I could see his lip and his brow quiver. “And when I do, they’ll zap me and bring me alive again. I never wanted this.”
He kept repeating that, ‘I never wanted this.’ It was obvious that he didn’t, and it was obvious that he believed God didn’t want it for him either. Maybe God doesn’t want that for any of us.
They say we are free here, but Jeremiah isn’t.
They took him and put him in this white box with a bed and a table and a television for the remainder of his life so that he may whither away “in peace”. I couldn’t help but feel empathy for him. So constant was the annoyance of these ‘machines’ that I would often find that he wouldn’t get any sleep.
He didn’t do anything to deserve that.
After he said what he said about the defibrillator, he cried for a moment or two, trying to hide his face from me. He put his head down onto the table and I looked upwards outside his window, watching the trees gently sway with Mother Nature’s beat. The birds’ song was dead, muffled by thick brick, insulation, and drywall. One could not even feel much heat as the window’s glass was specially treated. I sat there with him for a moment, until he stopped crying.
“God has a plan for you, Joel.” He said.
I smiled, “Yes he does,” I said, “yes he does.”
He dismissed me from his room after that, and I did not see him for the rest of the day. As for the rest of the time I spent working in that retirement home, I took care of Jeremiah, until he passed away in May of the next year. I made sure that I marked ‘do not revive’ on his emergency treatment information. I hope he went with some dignity. I quit my job after that, and found a managerial job in a small local business some months later. I attended his wake, and was one of six people there. We stood above the ground in which this victim of society, Jeremiah Byler, was to be buried. There were no machines there, no loud noises, no cars, or street lamps. There was only his carved wooden casket, the ground, the swaying trees, and the eyes of God above him.