Back in November, I found a volunteer position with the Australian Multicultural Community Services. Being an expatriate in Australia, I wanted to contribute to any work related to Polish people in this country. I was very excited about the idea of befriending an elderly and lonely Polish person. I miss my family and in that my grandparents, who live back far away. So my volunteering motivation also had some source in my feeling of guilt, as well as in the urge of giving back to the society.
Julia, my volunteer coordinator, introduced me to Mr Stanislaw when visiting him at his place. Before that, we both meet for a volunteer induction and I was provided with all sorts of information necessary for my future role. It was great to have Julia as a mentor and someone whom I could always speak to. She is definitely a person with a calling to help others.
After Julia introduced us to each other, was a bit disappointing! This was due to my expectations, I should not have to have any! The man gave me the first impression of being very self-centered and also depressed; mentioning a few times that he is willing to die. It was hard to carry a conversation… Nevertheless, encouraged by Julia and my intuition, I still wanted to give it a go, meet him at least a few times and then decide to commit for a longer term (which is a logical requirement of this voluntary role).
On my next visits, I realised that Mr. Stanislaw had amazing stories to tell. He would repeat the same stories many times. He loved telling one of an Indian doctor, at whose house he did gardening work. They developed a great friendship and the Indian doctor invited him for a trip to his country. When he was introducing Mr. Stanislaw to the rest of family in India, he presented him as his brother. Mr Stanislaw asked him then - “look doctor, we have different skin colours, we speak different languages and are from so distinct cultures, why do you call me your brother?” at which the friendly doctor responded: “Stan, we are both humans, so we are brothers.” - I probably have heard this story each time I visited Mr Stanislaw.
The more I met with Mr Stanislaw, the more I got to know about him and his family. As a volunteer, I was interested in helping him and I never judged what he would tell me. After all, who am I to judge? I have never experienced hardship nor forced labour or forced migration. Thus, the more I heard his life stories, the more I appreciated every moment of my own, pretty lucky, life. Despite being separated from his wife (and also family, to a certain degree), he always spoke about them well and he truly missed them. He held pictures of his grandchildren visible in his apartment and with great engagement, he would tell me the story of each. He was also proud to guarantee his family a better life in Australia, in comparison to the place and times in which he grew up (war, poor little village in Poland and later forced work in Germany). I admired his hard work to achieve it.
He was 94 or so, but he looked much younger, especially when he smiled. I took a selfie with him when we became close.
Mr. Stanislaw told me once “You have brain - use your brain,” and I think this defined his mantra. After he retired, he continued working for 20 more years. Then, his legs started to hurt and his walking became difficult. When I got to know him, he would only walk with help or use an electric little car to do shopping and go out in general. Yes, at his age of 94 he was independent, did shopping and cooked on his own. He would collect some items thrown on the streets, clean them or repair and then send them to charity. He was also able to read and I saw many times at his place Polish books borrowed from a library. As my mother sends me Polish magazines by post, I would bring him one each time, and he was very happy to be updated!
I once gave him a walking pole, and at the next visit, he gave me a pack of chocolates as a sign of gratitude. I didn’t want to accept it, but he insisted. At that time, he showed his real sense of humour, by pretending that he would be very upset and playing on that.
The other time he sang me a serenade of beautiful old Polish songs, probably from the war time. One started with words “Goodbye my angel, I have to go to fight….” and he sang it when I was just leaving. I biked back home with tears coming out from my eyes…
My first impression about Mr. Stanislaw was so wrong. Although he might have been depressed, he had a good reason - his legs were not having as much force as during his younger years. And he still had this amazing eagerness of working and being active. He spoke a lot about himself, but this came from the fact that he was very lonely (and he admitted that). He also was a man of honour - he never asked his family to take him to their house(s). He preferred to deal with his life on his own, although this meant being alone for most of the time. He told me a lot about himself and I am so happy that he did! I learnt to listen like never before.
Although this memoir is a bit long, my story of regularly meeting Mr. Stanislaw is very short. I knew him roughly a few months. I am so glad and grateful to the organisation that I did know him. It did not only developed in me a great feeling of empathy towards elderly and lonely people but also a feeling that even me - a small person, can do something about it. At our last meeting, Mr. Stanislaw brought me a huge bouquet of flowers. He thanked me for my visits to hospital (he was at the hospital numerous times, and he was always so surprised and happy with me visiting him there). A little bit shy, he asked me whether I would like to become his adopted granddaughter. I felt really touched. Within such a short period of time I got an amazing friend.
The very last time I saw him was at the emergency unit at the hospital. He was sleeping and doctors were not able to wake him up. I spoke to him Polish, he opened his eyes but closed them within a second and continued the sleep. That day I brought him a polish book…but it was too late.
A few days later, the bouquet of flowers that he had given me and that had smelled so beautifully in my apartment, withered. It was on the same day when my adopted grandfather Stasiu passed away. Now I miss him and our meetups, but I am also so happy that I gave him company and made him smile many times in his last weeks of life. Thus my appeal: “Let`s rush to love people because they leave so quickly” (words of Jan Twardowski - Polish priest and poet).