The Man Who Lost His Stripes

The old man had an honest face, one that can only be formed from honest work over many years and by eyes that have seen the truth in being an earnest person. His hair was white with just enough flicks of ash to make you remember that long ago he had nice dark hair, the kind he would spend hours fixing in front of the mirror, on his way to pick up his girl back in high school. Even though his eyes seemed to squint from gravity pulling down on his brow, his brown eyes still seemed to be full with wisdom and yearning, almost like that of a young kid looking at the mountains and hoping to climb them one day. But there was also a sadness in those eyes, a sort of sadness that only a life of doing bad things can cause. And perhaps this is what made the old man seem honest, that he had a bad life that now was good, or maybe he simply saw the bad and refused to let that inside him. Nonetheless, he was a good man, with an honest face, and I enjoyed talking to him from the start.

“Have you ever seen one of these?” he asked as he pulled out the gold coin from his chest pocket. He seemed to always wear shirts that buttoned down and with chest pockets. I assume it was because he now had two bad shoulders, and the thought of putting on a normal shirt seemed dreadful to him. I can imagine him, standing in front of the mirror at home, struggling to place one arm through the armhole, then dropping the shirt down low enough on his back to allow himself to get the other one through. I can see him finagling the positions of the shirt just right, adjusting it as if it was a uniform he would proudly wear for the day, on his way to making the world a better place. His old hands would take their time buttoning the shirt, starting at the top because that’s how his wife would do it, starting at the top so she could smile at him, and then making her way down. I don’t know any of that to be true, but I allow it to be so in my head, because a man like this should be allowed to have wonderful memories of a wonderful wife helping button down a pocketed shirt. We all should.

“I have”, I answered back, admiring the gold piece he has just placed in my hand, admiring the fact that he was brave enough to have one, and even braver to offer me a peak at it. I have seen several actually, but I have no need to tell him that. This is his special piece, and I understand the importance of it, and the meaning it has for those that carry them. I hand it back to him, “Thank you for sharing” I say, looking directly into his honest eyes with mine. He looks back at me with a new found respect, like perhaps I just told him the password for entrance into the hidden room that only he occupies in his mind, where his secrets live, or at least where they used to live, before he moved them outside and released them to the sky like white doves. He now knows I know about this place, but he is an honest man, and he keeps secrets no more, and I won’t keep secrets from him either. He also knows I am aware of what the coin means to him, and this makes him happy, like looking at a kids eyes light up when they hand you a drawing and you immediately guess what it is. His eyes soften even more, still honest, still brown, but now with a hint of blue, the kind you see in the morning sky whilst on a walk, when the world is young again. The old man is young again because the truth allows him to be so, but youth can be dangerous, and he is about to tell me the dangers of his, and how it lead him to the place where he got the gold coin.

We talk for hours, like old men like to do with young men. Over the span of weeks we get to know each other and we get to understand the similarity of our differences. He knows about my life in a small town, the hot summer days watching the Cubs and the cool nights staring up at the stars, the kind of star gazing that can only occur away from the bright city lights, away from the things of man.  He will tell me about his growing up in the city and the rough life he had, the kind of youth that only can be lived in a large city full of large scary things. The fights he witnessed and the fights he fought, and how the losing wasn’t the worst part. We talked about sports and of course we talked about women, how they can make you go mad, and how we can make them go crazy. He did a lot of talking, and I did my best to listen, for when an honest man tells you his story, it somehow helps make you more honest too.

“She was going to leave me”, he says, looking at me with the honest brown eyes, that I have come to enjoy looking at. “Told me a tiger can’t change his stripes, that I was no good and I would always be no good”. The hint of blue starting to appear, the vulnerability of his words are showing up in the darkness of his eyes and making them lighter. 

“Men aren’t tigers you know?” he would tell me. “I had to find out the hard way, but I learned it just in time”. He talked about the help, he talked about the work, but he talked about the book mainly, and the date he had written down inside it. He would also talk about the past he refused to acknowledge at the time and the fights that made him hard. We also talked about the fights he had with her, that would make her cold. He was now honest, the kind only a person who has said hard things a hundred times can be honest, in a way that the past was no longer his excuse for being bad. “The truth shall set you free”, he would say, meaning that he has told lies too many times, to her and especially to himself, and saw the slavery lies put him in, and the freedom that only the truth can command. The old man talked about the past in a way that it seemed like the past, and not the present, or the way of life he would have in the future. It was all just a memory to him now. Not good or bad, but just a memory, that he left behind on his way to finding new worlds, worlds full better things and happier memories, worlds that would allow him to be a man, and no longer a tiger.

The talks became lessons, and the lessons became truth. A man, this man, wasn’t a tiger, and he couldn’t change his stripes. The old man told me the single greatest words that he had ever heard, and me told me to listen to them, as if I hadn’t already been hanging on every little word he spoke up to this point. “The therapist told me that I was merely a man, but I had turned into a tiger because I was afraid of the world, and that I had to turn into something I wasn’t in order to survive.” he would tell me, this time looking out into the past as if the man that told him these words was standing in front of him. “The key isn’t to try and change your stripes, the only way to do that is to skin the tiger, and if you skin a tiger you will kill it. The only way to change your stripes is to realize you weren’t a tiger to begin with, and you don’t need to be one anymore. That you are a human being and that is enough.” He said, slowly nodding his head as if he was hearing the words again for the first time. He turned his gaze to me this time “you are enough”.

I do not know where the old man is anymore. It has been enough years that perhaps he is gone, gone to the place he was finally able to allow himself to go. I often hope that I will see him, while I am out on one of my many walks, admiring the freshness of the blue morning sky in the large city where stars can still be seen at night. I imagine him showing me another gold piece and the proudness he has in his eyes for getting it. I will tell him of the son I now have and the struggles of life that sometimes make me want to just scream. And I can see him now, his button down shirt and his wonderful honest eyes looking into mine and reminding me “you are a human not a tiger, don’t let the world turn you into one, don’t form the stripes that you can never change. Be human and be brave. You are enough.” He will say, as his honest eyes meet mine, “You are enough”.