This seems to be a year when old men called Bill have brought me a lesson.
When we moved home 4 years ago we joined a gym in Newmarket. We like to train early and, every morning as regular as clockwork, one of the people through the door with us would be a man called Bill. He’s 76, and always buzzed with life and energy. To be honest he was an inspiration, because when I’m that age I hope to still be training as well as he was – and to look as fit.
Like many things, Bill became a small part of the fabric of our life. We’d exchange brief words about football, or he’d try to encourage me to watch Strictly Come Dancing (he’s a big Brucie fan), but mainly it was just a friendly wave as we got on with the business of training.
In May of this year he stopped appearing, and word came from the receptionists that he had cancer. I remember our shock at this tear in the fabric, the sense of unfairness for someone so vital to be struck down in this way. We hoped for the best but somehow reconciled ourselves to the worst – after all, he’s 76… A card was organised from all his friends at the gym; I guess for many of us a desire to do something, but with the ridiculous British reserve that made us feel we didn’t know him well enough to impose ourselves more.
This morning, a cold December morning, I was on the running machine. It overlooks the weights area, and I suddenly noticed an old man on the leg extension. It was Bill. Looking older, more frail, but still Bill. I watched that man for the next twenty minutes, moving from machine to machine, so slowly and carefully, obviously in pain, but so obviously determined. I felt humbled by his effort and I’m not ashamed to say that my vision became increasingly blurry. That’s a British way of saying that I was in tears.
I found him in the dumbbell room sitting on a bench. Tired as he so obviously was his face still split wide in a grin. I was so overwhelmed to see him that I hugged him, sweaty as I was. He took it in good part.
Bill is dying. He’s had the operations, but, from as much detail as he wanted to go into, it’s a question of time. Yet what he wanted to talk about was how he appreciated the card we sent, “those little things really matter”; he was so amazingly grateful for such a small effort, and returned to it several times. He wanted to know about my wife and I, how our life was; and when I mentioned that Bex has been dragging a virus around for a couple of months now he was concerned. I felt ridiculous for bringing it up, but his interest was so genuine it came out as part of a natural flow in an unnatural moment.
So the man is dying and he still puts his tracksuit on and brings his pain to the gym. Why? “You’ve got to live while you’re living, haven’t you, son?” He said. “I’m going to keep on doing what I want to do, while I want to do it. And I want to do this.”
I left him hanging on for Pat, a young professional boxer who is fighting this weekend in London. Bill wants a ticket, in case he has the energy to go, but partly I think he just wants Pat to know that he cares.
I teach and preach positive psychology. I routinely talk about how it’s not what happens to us but our response to it that dictates who we are. I quote Victor Frankl when he said that man’s last freedom is his attitude to his situation. But rarely have these things leapt from a page and into my life in the way they did today. Bill continues to inspire me, and now I know he always will. But not just to keep fit, but to appreciate the small things I can do for others that matter, and the things that others do for me that remind me that I matter too.