We had worked together and I found him ingenious and smart. He was also witty and likable. I enjoyed my time with him. I would go out of my way to invite him when I went for lunch.
Then it changed, ever so slightly. The first indication was the quality of his work. There were slight delays and minor slip-ups. Then, bit by bit, appeared more serious problems. Some of his work turned up unaccountably shoddy. How could a clever, well-informed man come up with such poor work?
Maybe because I liked him it took me so long to guess the reason. I kept covering for him. Frequently I edited and rearranged his work. Lately I was rewriting large parts of his reports. Yet the truth eluded me.
Finally, it became as clear as daylight. He was an addict. He had been on drugs for a while. Now he was in a state of utter dependence. He lost his job. I was severely reprimanded for trying to cover for him. I was told that I hadn’t helped him by enabling him to conceal his dependence. I had in effect permitted him to indulge his addiction for a while longer.
He was well paid, but he had used up all his savings. In fact, he had borrowed from several of his colleagues. Curiously, he had never tried to borrow from me.
The day he left I could barely bring myself to look at his face. He was leaving in utter disgrace. I doubted he would ever find another professional job. He was a qualified, capable man. But his dismal record in a major organization would make it impossible for him to find another decent job. I felt heart-sick for him.
He dropped out of my world. But I could not forget him. I remembered what a talented man he was. I did not know how he had acquired his addiction, but that was not the only aspect of the man. He was an intelligent, industrious man with a scholarly bent. His addiction had twisted his life and his capabilities. In my eyes he was still a worthy man. I simply did not know how to help him or wean him from his addiction.
I heard later that Henry had fallen on hard days. Apparently, he tried to borrow more from people he knew. I never tried to get in touch with him, for I feared he would ask for a loan. I knew I would find it hard both to refuse him a loan or to give him money that was certain to be misused. I did not want to have anything to do with him.
I left the organization years later and took a job that took me overseas for long periods. Years later I was back in Washington and went to see a throat specialist with a minor complaint. He sent me to the hospital next door for a strep test. I wasn’t sure where the lab was and asked the bearded man who sat at a corner, helping incoming visitors. The man directed me to the room and, then, as I turned to go, softly said, “Manish!”
I turned sharply and, despite his unkempt beard and longer hair, recognized Henry after a minute. I looked at his worn, creased face, but saw the friend I had once liked so much. I hugged him and briefly told him where I lived and what I did. I told him to wait a while and went and completed my strep test. Then we walked together to the hospital cafeteria.
Henry had clearly fallen about as low as one could fall. As we drank coffee, the unspoken question that hung in the air was how did it all happen. I could not bring myself to ask, but Henry must have known that my affection would prompt that curiosity.
“I lived a charmed life. I had a good job, a comfortable home, a devoted wife. I had a five year old who went to the nursery next door. One evening I returned from work and my wife told me that the child seemed to have a respiratory problem. I rushed to the emergency and, half an hour later, my life seemed to be over. The child was gone. My wife said we would have a child again. We quickly had a daughter. I don’t know what happened, but I just never got reconciled to the loss of my son.”
Henry paused, then resumed, “At some point I tried some coke. A friend thought it could give me some relief. It seemed so for the moment. But I needed more and more. You tried to help me at work. Nothing could help me. I think I was beyond help. It took another five years before I could finally kick the habit. My wife left me. All my friends left me. It took me three more years to return to normal life.”
I watched the lines on Henry’s forehead. He was about the same age as me, but he looked much older now. It hurt me to recall the pains I took to avoid him. I could have done more to help him. At least to understand him.
Now all I could do was to extend my hand and gently touch his wrist. Henry sipped his coffee and smiled back. As if to say he forgave me.