Being Something to Someone

When my kids where quite young I became friends with a man I will call Oskar. Oskar was older, probably in his early 60’s, and after spending a short time with Oskar it became clear he had some serious mental health issues. Oskar was likely bi-polar.

My understanding was that at one point Oskar had been a school principal, but when I first met him he was occasionally working as a substitute teacher. I don’t think that lasted long. A few of the Christmases I knew him he was a bellringer for the Salvation Army outside our local Walmart.

Oskar had an ex-wife and adult daughter somewhere too, who seemed very much estranged from him, but he lived with an unrelated couple and their pre-teen son. Exactly what that relationship was like was hard to determine. At times Oskar seemed quite enamored of their young son and fancied himself as his private drama coach and tutor. At other times Oskar made it sound like he was an indentured servant forced to babysit the boy for hours on end with only room and meager board as compensation.

I had a very hard time figuring out what was reality with Oskar and what was a manifestation of his mental illness. One thing that was consistent though was that Oskar was always polite and kind around my family and kids. We would pick him up and drop him off often on our way to and from church. He came to our house and shared meals with my family on occasion. I will never forget him buying presents for my children on Christmas from his earnings as a Salvation Army bell ringer.

Eventually Oskar moved away with the family he was living with. I lost track of him although I did google his name to try to find him from time to time. Years later a few people I knew who met Oskar, once at a nursing home and another time at a church a few hours away, told me how Oskar had asked about me and my family. Oskar wanted them to say hi to me for him. He remembered the time he had spent with my family with fondness.

I tell this story not because what I did for Oskar was extraordinary, because it wasn’t. In fact I often felt guilty for not doing more for Oskar but at the time my own family was scrapping along. But the time I spent with Oskar meant a great deal to him and cost me next to nothing, except a little time. I also know there have been many others Oskars in my life that I’ve not taken the time to get to know or even to say a kind word to.

One of the things I’m most grateful for about my family’s time with Oskar is the influence the experience had on my children. My children spent countless hours in Sunday school and church lessons and sometimes I think very little of it has actually sunk in. Their time with Oskar though helped them to learn to treat people who are struggling with respect, with basic human kindness. My kids are far from perfect, but they benefitted from knowing Oskar.

Oskar also taught me a very valuable lesson. Or if he didn’t teach it to me he at least amplified the message in my life. And that is that we can never be all things to all people, but all of us can be something to someone. Little acts of kindness matter.

We each come across Oskars in our lives. People who cross our paths, even just momentarily, that we can affect positively. We can’t rectify the whole of their lives, resolve all of their issues, or smooth out the whole path before them, but we can seek to be a positive influence instead of a negative one. 

Without even trying, Oskar taught me a valuable lesson.