By James Spandoni
If you have ever been to Southern California, one of the nicest features about the area is its beaches. For years, every summer my family and I would go to the beach and play in the waves as well as relax in the sun. Over the past couple of years it has become increasingly difficult for me to enjoy the sand and the waves due to the onset of my disease and its side effects. Since the wasting process is a gradual process, it is not something that happens overnight.
Every morning we wake up and look in the mirror and examine our bodies for imperfections and changes. Since the wasting process is very subtle, you tend to not notice the changes but admire areas of physical improvement, that is, if you are in the exercise mode of your daily routine. Having exercised for many years, I began to notice some of those changes that were happening to me, ever so subtly. That being said, I thought to myself, “You know what, you don’t look too bad, in fact you’re actually starting to look pretty good!” I also had lost some weight and was feeling pretty trim at the time. I determined that perhaps the beach was not such a bad idea after all! So the upcoming weekend I informed my family we were going to go to the beach.
Have you ever answered a phone and looked around for something to write down a number and could not find a pen or pencil or even a piece of paper. Well on Friday, the day before our trip to the Beach, the phone rang. I am not the most mobile guy around the house but nobody was home and it was one of those rare times when your actual home number really rings, not your cell phone! When that happens it’s usually a good sign that the call is important. After rushing to the phone and listening to the call, it was for my wife, something to do about some sort of bill or dues or something, but…I needed to write down a specific phone number for her to call back. I looked around the phone and of course nothing was near, I then spied my daughter’s art box which I knew was filled with felt tipped Sharpie pens. I opened it up and grabbed the first pen I saw, it was green. I then began looking for a piece of paper and, low- and- behold; of course, there was none to be found. Wanting to write on something, I first thought of my hand but then remembered my hands tend to get a bit sweaty and since it was my wife’s message, and did not want to incur her wrath from a possible smudge mark, or erased number, I elected the next clearest piece of skin I could find. Being the hairy guy that I am, the only clean hairless spot that I knew the number would not go away from, was my left forearm on the underside of my arm about 6 inches up from my wrist. I carefully wrote the number 9496330099. And when my wife came home, she kind of chuckled after I gave her the number and proceeded to tell me, “You know, that was with a Sharpie and that’s not going to come off for a couple of days!” I simply replied, “That’s ok”, not wanting to tell her it’s better than the lashing I would have gotten if she did not get the number. And that evening, as I was so determinedly scrubbing the green numbers off of my arm, but to no avail, a dull faded green was what I got. It suddenly dawned on me; she has definitely trained me well!
It was Saturday morning, another glorious day of sunshine in Southern California, a perfect day to head to the beach.
One more added visual to the whole scene of me at the beach, is my unbelievable shade of “whiteness” that my skin emits, a true North westerner. And as my wife sometimes say’s “You almost appear to glow with your shirt off.” I also have developed a definitive need for a walking stick every time I go to the beach or go hiking.
So here I am, walking on the beach, thinking to myself, “You look damn good!” And as I slowly began walking onto the beach, I started to notice people were watching me and I observed their eyes glancing toward me. Some of those eyes belonged to much younger females as well as very attractive ones! My confidence grew, and I now returned those glances with a smile and acknowledgement, (having been non-flirtatious for many years due to my own lack of confidence that I did not quite personify the perfection of Adonis). I must be looking good because people were indeed checking me out!
As I walked further down the beach, my family in tow, I spied a very old lady in the distance, walking towards me. I did not pay much attention to her since I was completely full of myself at this point. As she began to come closer, I also noticed that she appeared to be accompanied with a younger man, perhaps her grandson; he appeared to be about the same age as me. However, I could still not help but notice how incredibly old she appeared. And for a moment I thought, “Isn’t that sweet, even someone as old as her can still take a walk on the beach.” As she began to get closer to me, I could slowly begin to make out the details of this decrepit old lady, she was wearing an old floral brimmed hat, with a scarf tied around the top of her hat. The ancient legs were boney and severe arthritis had set in, giving a gnarled and curved structure to her hands as well as her feet. She tended to waddle as she walked, using her cane as a third instrument that only an expert could wield. Most of her upper body was covered in an oversized floral waistcoat that only a person of her stature would be inclined to wear. Her grandson was continually making comments to her whilst still pointing out specific details about the beach.
As she neared and was but a few feet away from me, she glanced up at me from her aged and ancient frame of a body, as much as her body would allow. And at first, her eyes tended to wash over me with an acknowledgement of my presence, but nothing more. We past each other and my mind felt sympathy for a brief moment but then searched for new enticements.
I then heard a voice from behind me call out in a distinctly German tone, “Hans, Hans, ist das dich?” The voice was old and time had worn the vocals, but I continued to move forward when I heard the same call again, “Hans, Hans, ist das dich?” This time it was louder and stronger with a sense of urgency. I stopped to see if I might be able to find this person who was being called. As I turned around and saw the ancient lady, it became apparent that it she who was her calling for this man. She was turned facing me when she looked up at me and called again saying “Hans, Hans ist das dich?” This time she directed the question to me. For a second I was dumbfounded and looked around thinking I might have missed this “Hans” fellow that she was calling for. There was no one around just the two of us and her grandson. She took a step toward me and then uttered, “Ist das dich, ich weisse, das es ist dich!” I then replied, “Excuse me madam, but I have no idea what you are saying, you must be mistaken”. I stood there and then turned my eyes toward her grandson looking for some sort of help with the situation. I then asked him “Do you know what she is talking about?” He replied to me, “This is my grandmother I apologize, but she does not speak any English.” He then turned to her and uttered a few words in German that I could not understand, and then turned back to me and said, “Apparently, she feels she knows you.” Having never seen this old lady before and quite frankly taken aback by this confusing situation. I replied “I am sorry she must have mistaken me for someone else.”
With that being said, he turned to his grandmother and spoke a few more words as I slowly turned to get back to my ego boosting beach walk. I then heard a shrill cry of “NEIN, Nein, Nein! Das ist Hans!” I was immediately stunned and abruptly turned my head back to this outburst. Her grandson was obviously shocked just as much as me. He could see a determination in her eyes as well as I could, that she was convinced I was this “Hans” individual. I turned to her and as politely as I could, and speaking very slow English,” I am sorry but I am not this “Hans” who you are looking for”.
Her eyes darted back and forth between me and her Grandson, her grandson then asked her “Wer ist das Mann? Diese Hans.” She then turned to me and pointed directly at me and said to her grandson, “Err its Hans, err its!” I looked at the grandson once again and asked him, “What did you say to her” he replied “I asked her, who is this “Hans” and she said it was you!” again being dumfounded and not quite sure what to say, I turned from her and him shrugging my shoulders and then said to him “I have no idea what she is talking about.” In the next instance I was shocked as to her reaction to when her grandson relayed the message to her.
As I turned to walk away, I felt an incredibly strong grip grasp my left arm, like that of a steel vise, I turned and could not believe it but this shriveled old lady had grabbed my arm and began shouting to her grandson “Heir! Hier!….die arme, die arme, er hast dem Mark auf dem Campe, Wir hatten gewohned aus Auschwitz zusammen!!”
I was totally shocked by this sudden assault on my arm; I pulled back and very angrily asked, “What the hell is she talking about!” A spirited dialogue between the two still did not bargain for the release of my arm by this fanatic! I then asked as politely as I could, “Could you please tell your grandmother to release my arm. And if you would be so kind as to tell me what the hell she is talking about!”
After several more moments, he turned to me and ever so kindly asked me in a very gentle voice, “My grandmother believes that you are Hans, a childhood friend, Hans was an individual that my grandmother played with in the later stages of World War II as she was interned at Auschwitz. She says that very few of the people she knew survived the death camps and that Hans was very special. She says you bear the mark of a camp inmate on your left arm, new inmates were tattooed with a set of numbers on their left forearms instead of issuing names, they became numbers not humans” as he pointed to my left forearm, (phone number for my wife). With that his grandmother rolled up her sleeve to show her mark to her grandson. He then asked me, “Was it so horrible that you want to forget that stage of your life in the death camps?”
As you could probably imagine I was completely blown away by this situation and perception. The look of sincerity and empathy in his eyes as well as the look of hope for some link to her past in the old ladies eyes, definitely floored me!
Being the kind and gentle soul that I am, I turned to him and replied, “Tell your Grandmother I am not the Hans that she thinks I am, and yes I do remember the horror of the Camps, but I was not in Auschwitz but interned in Buchenwald during the war.” As he relayed my message to the old lady, I could see a sense of understanding and an acknowledgement that only a tortured soul such as hers could express with her eyes. I bowed my head as she came toward me, our eyes met, and with a teardrop in her eye; she reached up to hug me. The look of understanding was deep within her eyes, I acknowledged the look, and wished her and her grandson well.
As I walked away, a huge reality sunk in! I suddenly was becoming aware of why everyone was looking at me and why my family was walking so far behind me as well! My actual physical appearance was more reminiscent of a death camp survivor, rather than a buffed out male supermodel that I thought I had become!
As I called for my family, I slowly watched the Old Lady and her Grandson walk away, with his arm wrapped around his Grandmother, I couldn’t help seeing the old ladies eyes glaze back to those horrible days of her youth and her memories of her childhood playmate “Hans” and the feeling my appearance re-kindled in her.
I did take some consolation in the fact that perhaps the old lady was not the last of her kind to be a survivor from the death camps, at least in her mind. As I sauntered down the beach, now more than ever, crouched over then before, I was determined to find shelter to hide my shameful appearance and recoil back into my shell of a body. As my eyes darted around, looking for a hiding place, I spied a potential haven, but it was heavily populated with young beachgoers and their children. With as much speed as my “death camp” legs could carry me I shuffled closer to my hidden spot on the beach. I stopped for a moment to see how far back my family was, hoping to keep a distance to avoid the shame they must be feeling. As I crouched over in my decrepit frame of a body, I heard another comment coming from two little children, probably no more than 9 years old each, as both of them stopped abruptly in front of me as they yelled back to their mother, “Mommy, Mommy, look at the old lady she’s not wearing a bra! And look, she has a beard!” As I glanced down in further humility at my swaying breasts, (now a solid B-cup) as I was leaning on my walking stick, I was curious to what the mother’s response was going to be. I looked up at the mother and unfortunately had my own critical evaluation develop in my own mind of who this person was that was going to impart a life lesson into one of her children about the qualities of a person’s physical appearance. In my own cruel and critical evaluation of her as determined by the tattoo’s that were encompassing her pasty white back and belly, along with the very attractive tongue piercing accompanied by the black colored fingernails. I looked toward her direction and waited to hear the guidance she was going to distribute to her children.
She glanced up at me as she pushed aside her bag of Jumbo sized Nacho Cheese bag of Doritos and put down her Monster energy drink. The pause was obvious as she was not sure what to tell her children, she then barked out to her kids “Bobby! Brittany! Leave the old lady alone, she’s obviously from Europe and they do things different there!” Bobby replied, right in front of me, “You mean ladies can go to the beach and show their boobs?” “Yes Bobby, now leave her alone!” As she then reached for another handful of Doritos.
I then heard the familiar cry of “Daddy, Daddy where are you going?” My youngest daughter ran up to me and said “Were overt here next to the big log, “Mommy told me to come get you,” she whispered into my ear as she grabbed my hand and pulled me away from the kids and said, “Mommy, said that’s where all the weird people were and we have been looking for you all over the place.”
As she was leading me away and telling me about how big the sand castle they were building was, and how much fun we were going to have Boogie Boarding, I suddenly realized that to my wife and my family, through all of the perceptions that others have of who I am and what I look like, it still didn’t matter to them, I was still just, me!
Later that day as I was running into the waves, unabashed as my breasts flopped up and down in the surf, not hitting me in the face, I couldn’t help but wonder about the old lady and Hans, for she was a women who until she died, must live everyday with the horrors within her own past and reflect on her life as she remembered the innocence that was destroyed in her childhood so violently and viciously. And when I struggle and slip into my periods of self pity I suddenly realize how pathetic I can become compared to her.
Smile, I hope you did, I do tend to stretch the truth a little bit, but seriously this male boob growth thing is really starting to worry me, why just the other day I was looking at my friends newborn baby girl, I bent over her crib to get a better look at her, when she suddenly spit out her pacifier and began making grasping hand movements and then began grabbing for my shirt while puckering up her mouth trying to grab one of my boobs! To make matters worse, I’m not even lactating!
I know you laughed on that one!
The people that love you, do not love you because of what you are, they love you because of who you are! Everything else does not matter; they are just moments in time.