26 December 2013

Old Men, Old Books

By Bud Koenemund

  The old man – despite the protestations of his home nurse – struggled to throw off the blankets and stand. Teetering slightly, he shuffled across the thick carpet deliberately. Reaching one of the many dark cherry-wood bookshelves lining the walls, he lifted a thick tome, and then slowly returned to stand beside my chair.

  Watching him move, I prayed silently he would not fall.

  He held out the book in both hands, as if offering it to me.

  "See this?" he asked, opening the cover and pointing at its publication date. "1912. More than 100 years old."

  A whistle of sincere appreciation escaped my lips.

  "I doubt anyone will ever read on a 100 year old electronic gizmo," he said with a laugh that quickly turned into a choking cough.

  The nurse reached out for him before I could stand to help steady his frail body.

  "You take it," he said, thrusting the book toward me, when he finally caught his breath.

  "Oh, Sir; I couldn't take your…" I began.

  "It's not mine," he interrupted. "And, while it's filled with his words, it's not William Shakespeare's either. Though, he and I will be discussing it very soon."

  I smiled.

  "I'm not its owner any more than you will be. Those of us who love books – those like you and I – we're more like caretakers. I'm not its first, and I want to make sure I won't be its last. Take it, read the words; turn the pages, let them slip over your fingertips; savor the scent of it.

  I reached out for the book he still held.

  "I'm about to shuffle off the mortal coil, as Will would say," he croaked, "and, I don't want that lost in a dusty library basement, or hidden away in the private collection of some pretentious schmuck."

  I laughed as my fingers caressed the century old cracked leather cover. I fought the urge to open it immediately.

  "You could leave it to your family, or donate it, or have it put on display," I tried to counter.

  "Take it," he ordered. "Someday, when your time comes – and it will come – pass it on to someone else."

  "I can't thank you enough," I said, while his words turned over in my mind.

  "I've spent a lot of years trying to figure out what it is about books," he said. "The books we give as gifts mean something, I think. Maybe they say something about who we are. Or, about who or what we want the recipient to be."

  He turned back to his bed. As he climbed into the pile of blankets and pillows, I collected my things. Knowing it unlikely I would see him again – at least in this world – I thanked him once more for his time, and his gift.

  I descended the stairs haltingly, wanting to go back and ask one more question. I exited the front door meditating on what he'd said about books, and wondering what he wanted me to be.

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