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The beginning of a friendship in Augusta, Georgia, was unlikely, but its repercussions were profound. Subscribe to the podcast to hear every Kind World episode.
For years, Dan Peterson and his wife Mary were inseparable. “She was an angel,” Dan says. They met late in life and did everything together: She drove him to work every day, and he ran errands for her business in floral design.
“I’ve always been a bit of a loner, so we had each other,” Dan says. “We just devoted ourselves to each other. I had it all figured out that I was gonna die first, and so that’s no problem. And then all of a sudden, she was in the hospital for 35 days.”
Mary’s 80-year-old heart was beating abnormally fast, and it went faster and faster until finally, after 35 days, it stopped. Dan sat by his wife’s unresponsive body for hours, trying to come to terms with his new reality.
Over the coming months, Dan didn’t know what to do with himself. He spent time in his garden, remembering his wife’s favorite flower: white roses.
“I’ve never been able to get a white rose to grow,” he says. “All of mine are red.”
A darkness settled over Dan that he couldn’t seem to escape.
“I’m sitting here staring out the back window of my house, just waiting it out to see how long I was going to live. I felt like about all I had left to do was get in people’s way.”
Six months later, on dreaded grocery-run-day, Dan felt particularly depressed.
“I hadn’t shaved for a couple days and hadn’t had a haircut probably for three months and didn’t really give a you-know-what about anything. What do I do tomorrow? Watch squirrels?”
Tara Wood, a mother of seven, was also grocery shopping that day. She remembers when they walked by Dan. “He was furrow-browed, and he didn’t look like the friendliest man.”
That day, Tara had her 4-year-old daughter Norah along in the shopping cart.
“And all of the sudden," Dan says, "I come to the end of the hall, or aisle, and here’s this little girl, and she’s sort of bouncing up and down, and pointing at me, and she said, ‘Hi, old person. Today’s my birfday.’ I didn’t know quite what old person she was talking to, but then she kept pointing at me.”
“I thought he needed a friend, because he was sad,” Norah says.
When he saw Norah, Dan couldn’t help but smile. “When you have a little girl bouncing up and down and being so happy to be alive, you sort of change. It sort of made my day that day, frankly.”
Dan and Norah chatted briefly (“Well hi, little lady, how old are you today?”), and then both carts went their separate ways.
They hadn’t gotten far before Norah stopped her mother. “Can I take a picture with that old man for my birthday?" she asked.
"I encourage my children to talk to strangers," Tara says. "I mean, not leave the park with strangers, but I don’t want my children to be afraid of people who look differently than them."
So Tara doubled back, and the 81-year-old and the 4-year-old posed for a photo. Then Norah asked him for a hug.
“I don’t know,” says Tara. "It was magical and profound. It’s this cosmic sweetness that happened right in front of the dairy section of the grocery store.”
In the days that followed, Norah wouldn’t stop asking her mom about "Mr. Dan." Was he lonely? Was he cold? Did he have enough cheese?
Tara posted Dan’s picture on Facebook, and one comment caught her eye. A woman wrote that she knew the man in the photo, and she said it was the first time she’d seen him smile since his wife died. That’s when Tara decided she would call Dan and ask to visit. They planned a lunch.
Tara watched as Norah ran up to Dan like she’d known him all her life, talking and climbing over him like a monkey. Dan was delighted.
“And of course every time I turned around she’d come back over and hug me again,” he says.
Norah’s reasoning was simple: “I just promised that I loved him.”
It wasn't typical Norah behavior; she hadn’t done anything like this before. Something about Dan spoke to Norah.
“We ended up spending, gosh, almost three hours together that day,” Tara says. “I couldn't bear the thought of him being in that house by himself with no one to talk to, so I just decided then and there that, whether he liked it or not, we had just absorbed him into our family of nine.”
As they left his house, they passed the large rosebush near his porch. It had a single blossom: an enormous red rose. Norah leaned over to smell it.
“It was precious to me,” Dan says. “The only thing I had to give back. So I cut it and gave it to her.”
With his pocketknife, he slowly carved every thorn from the stem and handed it to Norah.
“That sort of sealed our friendship, I think.”
Now, Tara and Norah visit Dan every week with Norah’s younger sister, Marigold.
“[Norah] just blows in like a whirling dervish and plunders through his cabinets, and he slaps his knee and laughs and laughs and laughs,” Tara says. “They giggle and tell each other secrets.”
Norah and Dan planted seeds in the hot house he built, and now they watch the seedlings grow. “They’re gonna be big squash,” he tells Norah.
Dan joins Norah's family for holidays and birthdays, and he’s become a real friend to Tara. “He’s so fascinating,” she says. “He’s lived a thousand lifetimes, and he’s got so many stories to share, and he’s never going to be alone again.”
Dan still watches the squirrels through his window, but now, the squirrels bring him joy.
“Norah got me out of the loop. Gave me something to live for,” he says. “It’s like the sun came out, you know?”
This segment aired on March 28, 2017.