Flannery O’Connor, in her 1953 short story, told us that, “A good man is hard to find.” While that may be debatable, I am very fortunate to have found one.
Leo is the custodian at a high school where I used to work. And he is not a good man. He is a GREAT man. And if you knew him, you would think so, too. He is tall, thin, handsome and almost always wears a baseball cap. He has many caps. Leo is the happiest man you will ever meet. He is a gentle soul with a warm, brilliant smile that stretches from ear to ear.
Every morning when I walked through the door, up the stairs and around the corner and saw him cleaning, I would greet him and say, “Leo!!! Good morning. How are you today?” Sure as the sun will rise, he flashed that great big smile and his response would be, “I’m good, good. I’m great!!!!” “Does he really mean that?” I’d think. “Is he truly that great, that happy every single day?” I believe in my heart, that yes, he is indeed, and I would often think to myself, “I want what he’s got.”
Every day I would hear him joyfully singing in the halls, in his native Spanish, as he mopped the floors. When the last bell rang, and the students had left for the day, his quiet song was no longer muffled, but loud and clear and strong, straight from his kind heart. He didn’t know it, but his song was a gift to me and made my heart sing. My office and his supply closet shared a wall. Sometimes I would hear him on the other side, singing. I would knock on the wall letting him know I heard him, and I’d hear that wonderful, good natured laugh.
Late in the day, as he drifted peacefully throughout the halls, and made his way outside my office door, happily wheeling his pail and mop, I would occasionally stop what I was doing and chat for awhile to learn a bit more about this chronically happy man.
Leo is a hard-working, humble man. He came to Lawrence from Dominican Republic in 1990. He has been happily married for 39 years and has three children, and six grandchildren, who all live nearby. He sings in his church choir and occasionally “counsels” parishoners in need. He told me that he occasionally works seven days a week at a second job, if work was available. I asked him, anxiously, with a look of concern if he was careful and wore a protective mask when he was doing that job, and he assured me that he did. It was asbestos removal.
I learned that Leo doesn't like cake. I once offered him a slice of my birthday cake and he immediately scrunched his nose and shook his head. Woah. I guess that meant "no." He does, however, like Italian food, peppermint bark and enjoys a daily spot of afternoon tea.
One day, when I asked Leo if he has a good life, he nodded, shone those pearly whites, and said, “Oh yes! My life is good and simple. I love my family and I am at peace with God.” He started to walk away, wheeling his bucket, then stopped, turned around, and said, “And I am a legal citizen and I love the United States.”
Once, when I was on vacation, I bought Leo a hat to add to his collection. It was royal blue with a subtle white shore bird on the side. I smiled on those days when I saw him drift by my office and I would catch a glimpse of it on his head. One day, I walked into my office and there, in the middle of my desk, was a brown lunch bag. In it, was a package of organic blueberries and an apple. I thought it belonged to a colleague, whose office shared a wall with mine, and that, perhaps in a hurry, she mistakenly dropped it on my desk. It wasn't out of the realm of possibility as she would occasionally leave behind her water bottle or glasses on my desk, as I would hers. Nope, it wasn’t hers. Yup, Leo had secretly left it on my desk.
A day without Leo was like a day without sunshine. Fortunately, I was never without his golden rays because I had never once known him to be "out of the office" a single day. He brightened my long days with his kindness, smile, and song. They say happiness is contagious. I think it is, because, even the briefest of interactions with him made me feel happy at that moment.
When it came time for me to leave, I was afraid to tell Leo, because I suspected I would get teary eyed. I decided to tell him the week before, at the end of the day, once the halls became quiet. Sure enough, when I pulled him into my office and told him my news, I felt sad. His jaw dropped, in surprise. He had a look of curiosity on his face that seemed to convey, "Why would you do such a thing?" He just kept asking me, “Why?” I don't think he understood why in the world I would ever want to do so. I had this strange subtle feeling that I was abandoning this warmhearted man. I realized then, how much of a very special fondness we had for each other.
Upon my departure, I gave this eternally happy man, who is content and radiates goodness, a gift. It was not nearly as special as the gift he unknowingly gave me. It was a framed copy of an edited version of this essay, translated into Spanish. I chuckled to myself when I saw him open it, because with no fanfare, he just ripped the paper wrapping right off of it. I had to tell him to be careful, since it was fragile. When he was reading it, he furrowed his brow a couple of times, and I saw his expressions change. When he finished reading, he smiled at me, put his hand on his chest, and said, “My heart is happy.”
I gave Leo a big hug and as I walked through the hall, around the corner, down the stairs and out the door, we both yelled "I love ya!" Leo is truly a very special person and I will always miss him and his undying optimism and good cheer. He is one of my absolute favorite people, and proof positive that a good man is NOT hard to find.