Humans Are Awesome 1: Mr. Lee

((WARNING: This is a long post, but it is one of the greatest stories I have. If you want to rekindle your faith in humanity or just read a heartwarming story, this is for you!))

I have a fascination with people, dear readers. I love everything about them – the way they move, the way they speak, what makes them tick and the miniscule habits each individual one has. I’ve worked with people since the ripe age of fifteen; maybe that’s why I find myself so particularly in tune with everything people do. Communication is the foundation of society, after all.

Some people fascinate me more than others; like Mr. Lee, for example. Mr. Lee was a short, sturdy old man with leather skin and oriental eyes that peered serenely out at the world around him. He would wander in towards the end of my shift at the local bakery, the daily newspaper always tucked under one elbow. The man donned a two piece suit regardless of the day or season; on a rare occasion he would enter the business with his jacket thrown over his shoulder. On those days, Mr. Lee had a particularly warm smile spread across his face.

The friendly old man would always greet me the same way upon entrance: “Hello! How are you? How have you been?” We would banter for a while, usually about life, family, and school. If a customer came in behind him (especially a woman) he would insist they cut him in line. “Please,” he would say with a chuckle, “I’m an old man. I am in no rush.” Mr. Lee would take a giant step backwards from the counter, reposition his newspaper under his elbow, and wink at me.  Sometimes I couldn’t tell if he stood behind due to his courteous nature or simply because he didn’t want to miss out on our banter. Regardless, he inspired me.

Never would the dear old man leave without giving me a piece of profound advice that seemed to derive from an old Chinese Proverb. He said the things we should inherently know, but so rarely ever hear:

Be good to your parents. Continuously strive to do better. Don’t rush falling in love. Don’t settle down before getting to do the things you want to do – see the world, get to meet people, try your hand at new jobs and hobbies. Try to be polite to even the most unkind of people; you never know what kind of life they have led. Always smile. Be happy. Remember how lucky you are to be young, strong, and alive.

Over the course of my time at the bakery I had come to call Mr. Lee “the fortune cookie.” This was the only name I had for him; we’d known each other for three years, yet never exchanged names. When I finally threw in the towel at the bakery to pursue bigger and better things, he shook my hand and smiled. “Good luck and be well,” he said, “You’ll do great wherever you go.”

Months later, I happened to pass the counter of the diner I waitressed at and saw a familiar oriental man sitting in one of the uncomfortable swivel chairs with a large plate of fish before him. On the side was a newspaper that he glanced at between bites.

“No way,” I whispered to myself, peeking at him from the other side of the diner, “It’s my fortune cookie!”

“Your what?” My manager, an old man himself, popped up behind me and followed my gaze.

“The Chinese guy. I used to know him from my old job; I adored him!”

“Oh, you mean Mr. Lee?”

“You know him, Jimmy?”

“Of course I do!” My manager scoffed at me, “I’ve known that man for years. He’s been coming here for almost as long as I can remember. He’s a good man.”

“Wow, this whole time… His name is Mr. Lee?”

“I thought you said you knew him?”

“I did – I just never knew his name.”

“Well, go say hello, or something.”

I was at odds with myself. Would he remember me? Did I make as much of an impact on his life as he had on mine? I let the idea simmer for a long time before finally wandering behind the counter, walking by a few times without him seeming to notice, and then finally stopping before him and leaning down so we were nearly eye level.

“Mr. Lee?”

He looked up, startled. “Yes?”

“Do you remember me?” I could feel my face turning red from embarrassment. He squinted his eyes, trying to discern my features.

“You are… familiar…” He mumbled, seeming embarrassed himself.

“The bakery girl. From Giacomo’s.”

It took a long, painful moment, but finally his eyes lit up. “Oh, my! Yes! I’m so sorry! You look so different here, in this – oh, you work here! I did not know! It’s been so long, how have you been?”

After re-acquainting ourselves, we fell back into our familiar old routine. I had more freedom to chat with Mr. Lee after becoming a waitress; some shifts were so slow I would accompany him throughout his dinner. Slowly his life was revealed to me – his children, his American wife, his day to day events. We gossiped about the bakery and diner drama. I had grown to adore the old man – love him, almost – with every story and anecdote he shared with me.

And then Mr. Lee disappeared.

I hadn’t realized it at first. It was often I’d go through a couple weeks without seeing him, but one day Jimmy wandered over to me with a scowl on his face.

“Mr. Lee hasn’t been around.”

“Really? I thought I just wasn’t seeing him.”

“No,” Jimmy shook his head, looking thoughtfully down at the carpet, “No… Something’s the matter. I’m worried.”

We didn’t see Mr. Lee for months.

One day, after I’d nearly forgotten about the old man all over again, I caught him wandering over to my station. I gasped, filled with excitement, and prepared to charge towards his table.

Before I could do so, Jimmy’s hand was on my shoulder. “Listen, we have to talk.”

He told me the basics – the two had been chatting for a while before I’d noticed him, and the old man disclosed unfortunate information. He’d had a stroke. He was in the hospital for months and had only recovered very recently. “He’s not the same,” Jimmy mumbled in a hurt tone, “There’s just something off about him. But he told me not to tell you – you, specifically – because he doesn’t want to make you worry. So don’t say anything. Just serve him.”

I put on a brave, extra-high watt smile, and came to the table. He was, of course, delighted to see me.

“Mr. Lee, where have you been? I thought you were abandoning me,” I teased.

He sat with a surprised look on his face for a long moment – a face that was aged, so suddenly, with eyes that didn’t hold the passion they’d had before. Amazingly, he hadn’t suffered any facial paralysis.

“Oh! I’ve been on vacation! Yes, my wife and I, we went away. We had a wonderful, wonderful time. But… it’s good to be home.”

It was all I could do not to tear up. But I kept the smile on and continued the banter, ordered his food and tried to discern the “change” Jimmy warned me about.

Finally, I found the change.

“So, do you have any boyfriend at this time?”

“Well, there’s this one guy,” I kicked at the carpet a little in embarrassment, “He’s really great, but he’s in the service. I’m not quite with him yet, but I want to be, once he’s out. He’s wonderful, Mr. Lee.”

“Well, then get married soon!” he exclaimed, a wild look in his eyes.

I was dumbfounded. “Um… what?”

“You must get married young, and have children! Lots of children! I learned something on my vacation: life is very, very short. You must be loved and you must have children. I mean it!”

Mr. Lee was not the type to use a loud tone, but on this night he was persistent. It was frazzling to have the man who told me to take my time and enjoy life tell me to shack up with my most current love interest and pop out kids! I couldn’t help but laugh at him. He narrowed his eyes at me.

“I mean it. Listen to an old man.”

“I’ll have to date him first, Mr. Lee,” I said kindly to him.

“Well, yes. Date. But try not to wait too long. You are a wonderful girl; you need a wonderful husband and many, many wonderful children.”

Jimmy insisted there was more that had changed about him; as time went on, I didn’t think it was a brain malfunction as much as a perspective change. Mr. Lee had decided to pull back on the marriage demand a bit, but he always had that determined glare when we spoke of the future. As time went on he went back to work; the light in his eyes revived, and sometimes he seemed more lively than ever.

Time pressed on. He began requesting to sit with me when I was on duty; he tipped me excessively and told me more about his home life than he’d ever cared to disclose before. His wife was diagnosed with melanoma but they were able to remove the cancerous cells; he was delighted to hear I finally began dating the military boy exclusively; he would bring in his whole family one day, he promised, so they may meet me. Each time he tipped me I frowned and tried to push it back at him. “Mr. Lee, I could cover the cost of your bill with this! Stop, you need it.”

“Don’t you give that back,” he’d bark at me, “You are a good girl. You work hard. I want to see you happy.”

A few weeks ago, I ran into him on my way out the door; he sat at the counter, in the same seat I first re-met him in, newspaper still in hand. He greeted me and apologized profusely for coming so late; we exchanged a quick back-and-forth of how our lives were going.

“Oh! I had meant to ask you,” he said suddenly, “The last time I was here, I asked you how all of your grandparents were doing. You were busy and could not answer. I never asked before – are they well?”

I smiled gently at him. I had tried to avoid answering the question that day so I wouldn’t frazzle him. Finally, I confessed, “Mr. Lee, I only have one grandparent.”

He looked crushed. “Just one? Have you known the others?”

“Well, one grandmother died when I was very young. And my grandfathers were gone long before I was born. But it’s fine, really – I’m grateful for the one I have left. And my other grandmother was wonderful. And I’m sure my grandfathers were, too.”

He looked down with extreme sadness. “No grandfathers… ah, that’s sad. I am so sorry. I cannot imagine.”

“You know what, Mr. Lee?” I said without thinking, “If I could pick a grandfather, it would be you.” It was the truth – and it came tumbling out of my mouth before I could stop it.

He looked startled. “Oh, wow, well, ah – that was nice of you. Okay.Thank you.”

I immediately was struck with embarrassment. Surely I crossed some sort of line – I had meant to cheer him up, but the look on his face suggested perhaps I had made him uncomfortable. I made a hasty exit. I obsessed about it for the next few days.

During my next shift, I caught Mr. Lee entering the diner. I wondered if maybe he would ask to sit somewhere else; lo and behold, he sat at my station once more. I was filled with apprehension, but once I greeted him, he was cheery as ever.

“How are your parents?” He asked, same as ever. Today was a unique day.

“It’s funny you ask. See that man over there, the one with the black hair and mustache? That’s my father. He came to visit me.”

“Oh!” He looked around me to see my Dad. “Oh, I must say hello!”

My eyes nearly bulged out of there sockets. “Really, Mr. Lee, you don’t have to –“

“Oh, get out of my way! I must!” The old man literally shooed me out of his way, stood up so fast it was as if he was in a 20-year-old’s body, and power-walked to my father’s table. I stood there in open-mouthed horror. Maybe there is something wrong with him, I thought.

He spoke to my father for twenty minutes. Mr. Lee’s dinner had come out and was sitting waiting for him at an empty table; he paid no attention to it. My Dad’s face was priceless – he watched the old man, head tilted slightly in confusion, but was kind and listened to all he had to say. By the end of the Chinese man’s act, not only was my Dad beaming, but so were all the tables surrounding the two. I only caught a few words as I flitted about the diner. “Wonderful daughter… must have good parents… very kind… so smart… you are lucky… I am lucky… happy to be meeting you… always wondered…  good health…”

The moment Mr. Lee sat back in his booth, I ran over to him. I was nearly in tears.

“Mr. Lee, you didn’t have to do that,” I stammered, red-faced.

“Yes, I did! You father is a wonderful man. No wonder you are so good. I tell him he is lucky to have a good child, one who goes to school and does not do drugs and obeys his rules. He tells me you are like this by nature. So we are all lucky to know you.”

“Well – ah, thank you. That means so much. You’re glorifying me.”

“You know what else? I think a lot about what you say to me on Monday. Remember? About you not having a grandfather? And you would pick me? That was the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me. I was too shocked in the moment, I did not know what to say. And then I think more about it once I was home.

You know what? I am your grandfather.”


Humans Are Awesome



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