The following article is an open letter from a friend that was brave enough to openly voice the impact that an elderly stranger had on his life.
I’m not sure why I agreed to take you on as a client when I received that referral call back in September ’14.
All the hopping back and forth between school and the gym from 6am until 11 pm gave me only an hour break. Sixty measly minutes to eat, catch up on emails, fill up my car with gas—and if i’m lucky, an 8-minute power nap.
Also, I had zero experience working with older clients. (I didn’t lie when I was asked if I did, I thought they meant 60 year old’s.
O.k fine, I didn’t have experience with sexagenarians either.) So I panicked.
The night before our first session, I had no less than 40 tabs open on my browser; all of them search results for “balance and strength training for seniors.”
That feeling of panic paled in comparison to how I felt when I saw you as you entered the gym at 12 noon, on the dot.
You were hunched over, shuffling your feet with every step. it was quite an effort for you to look up for introductions and shake my hand, and I’m barely 5’9”.
Throughout the session, I had you hang on to the handrails attached to the wall.
I was mortified at the thought of you losing your balance and falling.
While doing some shallow squats, a single joint pop had me thinking you broke a bone.
After that first meeting, I wanted to quit you and go back to the comfort of training younger—much younger, and much fitter muscly guys.
I didn’t want a challenge THAT challenging.
But it’s true, it’s not about getting what I want, it’s about getting what i need.
And apparently what I needed was 50 minutes, three times a week, to realize it’s not all about reps and sets and weights.
It’s not about keeping busy and feeling self-important hurrying to the next appointment on my calendar. It’s not about the anticipation of how I’m going to look in the mirror.
It’s not about the excitement and the rush; both of which, I pictured a trainer’s daily life were filled with.
Don’t get me wrong, it was exciting to see you walk a longer route around the grounds.
It was definitely a rush to see you change the pin on a machine and set it to heavier plates than the week prior.
Thankfully I didn’t quit you. I don’t exactly know when it happened, but i realized you reminded me of my Opa’s.
Both of whom were stately men who were strict yet nurturing. They spoke at a slow steady pace, but with intent and the core message was always received.
I enjoyed all of our conversation, all the stories you told me: your fighting days as a boxer (it made me smile when you’d start to circle around me, shadowboxing), your years as a Marine, you surviving wars.
Even when you echoed Fox news—which was always on every TV monitor at the gym—and when you criticized Obama; you never pulled me and baited me into a contentious dialogue.
Despite having 60 more years of life experience, not once did you ever make me feel like I wasn’t capable to speak my mind. You taught me expressing differing views can still result in mutual respect.
You taught me a lot, really. You taught me strength isn’t always packaged neatly as bulging pecs and biceps.
Boy was I wrong when I thought you were frail and meek.
Your determination to not let the aging process get the better of you, and your drive to simply walk upright without shuffling so you can carry your daughter’s luggage for her whenever she visits.
These qualities of yours leave me still and in absolute awe.
That day during one of our sessions—a rare moment when I paid attention to the tv and not you—I was looking up and trying to make sense of Fox News.
You tapped me on my shoulders and said, “Marlond, look.” You lifted one foot off the floor and you held your balance as you stood on your other leg.
You were so proud of your progress. You were standing so tall. You were smiling so wide. It took every muscle fiber in my body to not scream out, “WELL DONE TOM!!!!.”
After we high-fived, I quickly turned around and excused myself to go to the bathroom where I cried.
Happy tears that I quickly wiped away so I wouldn’t embarrass myself in front of you. Tom, I was so overjoyed I was breathless.
I pray that I will never forget that moment. And when I’m 94, I hope to re-tell and share that incredible moment, over and over again.
I was so excited to see you during my first trip home to the California desert after moving and being away for 16 months.
But Reba, your nurse—I’m sorry that I have to remind you, but I was told your memory started to fade after I left for Denver—told me it wasn’t a good idea since your conditions were deteriorating fast.
This time though, no amount of training and lifting can slow down the aging process. I was crushed. Reba and I broke down and sobbed over the phone.
After the tears, no acting out from me this time though, Tom. Third time’s a charm perhaps.
I was an angry teenager when Opa Markus passed away, then I became an even angrier twenty-something year old when Opa Dirk passed away.
I didn’t spend enough time with those two and they were taken away from me way too soon. But someone up above must have heard all my yelling and saw all my raging outbursts.
I needed another grandfather figure apparently. I didn’t need another training client.
I am so thankful that I was given a chance to grow older with another Opa. Tom, thank you for choosing me and for trusting me.
I didn’t know you had worked with many trainers before I came around. I’m not sure I’m supposed to know this, but Reba told me I was your favorite.
I’m sorry I didn’t get to say a proper good-bye or give you a quick “see you later.”
Please know that I’m a better man having had you in my life.
Every time I train clients with unilateral work focusing on balancing exercises, I think of you.
One last thing Tom, whenever you see me get down and doubt myself, just do what you always did to make me smile, tell me “hands up” and start shadowboxing; I promise you I’ll put up a fight and stand tall, just as you showed me.
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