When an Old Man Dies, a Library is Burned With Him

An old proverb.  I think it comes from Africa: “When an old man dies, a library is burned with him.”

London, December 2019: We were very tired.  Long flight, no sleep, and hungry.  On the train, luggage in tow, we were looking up at the map to find the station near our hotel.  Noticing our weariness, an old man got out of his seat and asked me, “where are you looking to go?” 

As I began to answer, he pulled a folded map from his pocket.  This map was probably the entire map of the London underground, so the lines and font were very small.  To add to that, the train was shaking back and forth.

It was like trying to understand IKEA instructions on a roller coaster.  We both quickly realized this was futile, so he put the map away and asked again.  When I told him the name of our hotel and the street, he said, “we’re getting off at the same stop”. 

Then he said, “I’m a dying breed; a native Londoner born before the destruction of WWII”.  This 85 year old man had the whole look too; a three piece ensemble and round glasses.  He knew London like no one else.  Not sure why he needed that map.

He said he was on his way to the library to do more research for a book he was writing about London.  He said a lot of stuff that in any other situation would have been riveting, but with my level of fatigue, I could barely focus. 

Even when we got off the train and made our way through the station, he walked with us and continued.  Now … if you’ve ever had one of those moments in life where you look back and absolutely know you blew it and missed an opportunity, this was one of those times.

All we could think of was food and finding our hotel.  He helped us find a place to eat and told us which direction our hotel was in.  To get this kind of help and conversation from a man like this was incredible serendipity.  But we blew it. 

With our tunnel vision, we failed to recognize this opportunity.  This man was a living library and, this sounds awful, but we just wanted him to go on his way.  I know.  Ugh.

I’m very sure that if we asked him to join us for a beer, he would have gladly done so.  Instead, I shook his hand and thanked him very much for all his help and walked the other way.  I regret the way we handled that situation and I regret not getting his name or information. 

After we ate and took a nap, our souls were returned to our bodies and we became human again.  We wished we could’ve contacted him to invite him to dinner and felt terrible of how we handled things.

We let the library walk away. 

I keep looking for his book.  Did he complete it?  Is it published?  Is he still working on it? 

And I wonder, was the library really at the same stop as ours?

Don’t let the library burn before absorbing the volumes within. 

Photo by Giammarco on Unsplash

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