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It's a sad lesson in loneliness

Published Oct. 9, 2005

Tuesday morning, Emil Westerman, 85, rolled up the windows of his 1984 Pontiac and, in what police called a suicide attempt, drove into 7 feet of water in Freedom Lake in Pinellas Park.

Wednesday morning, I went to Northside Hospital where Westerman had been brought after being pulled out of the sinking car by police Officers John Milligan and Geoffrey Moody.

Westerman told police he had no relatives and had been depressed lately. Hospital authorities assigned him to their cardiac department, and soon there were grounds for cautious optimism. His condition was upgraded from critical to guarded to stable.

Meanwhile, after the story in Wednesday's St. Petersburg Times, dozens of people, mostly strangers to the patient, called to ask about his health.

Westerman would not take any calls and would not see any visitors, which seemed sensible enough to me. Even under happy circumstances, I would think twice about letting myself be interviewed by me.

I had come to the hospital with Lisa Eve Hargus, a country music singer and once-frequent performer at the Grand Ole Opry. "But that," she declared, "was before they put in that great big new building and changed everything."

Ms. Hargus did not know Westerman, either, but she had read the newspaper story, and she is a woman of quick sympathies.

"The paper said that nice 85-year-old man didn't have anyone left, and he was all sad and moody, and I felt so sorry for him."

Ms. Hargus looked sadly out from under the brim of her cowboy hat. "I know how he must feel because I don't have any relatives in this area, either. But if I could talk to Mr. Westerman, I could convince him there are people all over the place who care about him. Then maybe he might perk up."

Indeed he might. Even the sight of Ms. Hargus would improve the morale of most men. She bears a strong resemblance to another country singer, Dolly Parton, with perhaps a couple years of wise living added into the mix.

For the hospital visit, Ms. Hargus wore her performing clothes: black cowboy hat over lemon yellow hair, black mesh top over white bermuda-length shorts, black cowboy boots and appropriate jewelry, including a diamond-crusted horseshoe ring.

She brought fruit to the hospital. She is bringing some pies to church next Sunday evening. "I try to think of the lonely ones."

This is an area unusually full of the lonely ones. You see them tramping disconsolately through the malls, waiting in line outside restaurants, not so much for the early-bird prices as for the chance to have a conversation with others in line.

They kill time at the $1 movies, seeing films they didn't even want to see the first time around.

They also kill time at the supermarkets, looking wistfully, sometimes, at children shopping with their mothers. You wonder, have their own grandchildren grown up and left the area _ or do they have no grandchildren in the first place?

They seem so needy, these old people. Emotionally needy. Perhaps this frightens off those living fuller lives on faster tracks.

Yet it is possible to make a new friend, to take a small, civil interest in an older person. You can maintain your priorities and your privacy and yet allow someone new and otherwise lost into your life.

Talk to them, stay around a few minutes longer than you might wish, smile, listen.

And remember that once, in Pinellas Park, an 85-year-old man couldn't think of anything better than to roll up his windows and drive his car into a lake.