It was a Saturday when I met Kostos the angel. And as these things go, I have only a faint recollection of how I began talking to the ridiculous-looking, pot-bellied stranger, never mind telling him my deepest troubles.
I remember aimlessly walking in my depression around the cobblestone pathway of one of Tarpon Springs' many lakes, oblivious to the gentle breeze wafting off the January waters and unaware of the elements of fate gathering at that moment to provide me with lessons that would last a lifetime. I faintly remember a sudden swish by my ear, being lashed in the cheek by the half-brained backswing of a fisherman's pole and then untangling myself from nylon loops of 20-pound test line.
"Yo ho there, younga man." The gravel-voiced stranger turned to me in slow arthritic motion. "You gotta watch where you walking. You got my line all tangled up now!"
I ran my fingers across my cheek, checking for blood. Cursing out the man never occurred to me; somehow the sting of his rod had felt good, a cosmic force of sorts that jolted me back to full consciousness for the first time in weeks.
I stood and gawked at the odd-looking stranger. He was dressed in a white bathing suit, oblivious to the 50-degree temperature. The skin on his arms and face was dark and wrinkled, accustomed, it seemed, to harsher forces in his lifetime. If I couldn't tell the man was Greek by his accent, the Mediterranean face gave him away instantly.
But most outstanding in the comic demeanor was his emblemed captain's cap. It at once finished the cartoon image, yet at the same time hinted at another soul. A soul of someone who had, at some point in his life, wielded power. I must have just stood there, watching him fish for some time, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to be slapped in the face by a stranger's fishing rod. And I'm sure it seemed the most natural thing in the world when after a while this complete stranger said:
"Hey, you got some a problem, young man. C'mon, you can tell it to Kostos. Nobody understands problems like Kostos. I was a millionaire three times in my lifetime, lost it every time on a woman and gambling. And I'm now the poorest, most wretched 70-year-old former casino owner you ever met...and the most happy one, too!" With a vicious cast of his line, which I managed this time to duck under with split-second timing, he proclaimed: "There ain't a thing you can't tell to Kostos!"
And so I told him...about Patty, about my broken heart, about my life, about it all. Just as if it was the most ordinary thing in the world that this stranger should ask.
And just as naturally he said the words that lifted my burden as if it never had been there.
"Boyo, you 21 years old, you the most young doctor I ever met. You just startin' this here wonderful life, got everything goin' for ya, and look at the damn mess you got going on in that head." Somehow, instead of insulting me, his words made me see, really made me see myself.
"You should write that young lady the biggest thank-you letter like nobody ever has. She's done you the biggest favor anybody ever coulda. Boyo, at your age, you gotta be a crazy thinkin' about hookin' yourself up wit' just one a girl. You should be goin' out wit' a million girls!"
Anyone else could have said the same thing. Others had. But somehow, coming from this man at this particular point in time, the words resonated with near-biblical meaning.
But he wasn't done with me yet. "Somethin' else is botherin' you, boyo," he said. "You can tell me. C'mon kid, now's the time. Get this thing off your chest. Kostos can see it's been there almost as long as you have!"
How did he know? How had this man, this crusty old fisherman who never met me before in his life, read into the deepest, most holy part of me as if my heart were an Essene scroll and he a scribe knowing exactly where to unfurl it to my most shrouded secrets?
So I told him. I told him about wanting to be a writer. Told him about thinking that I'd never enter practice. Told him, most of all, about the extreme tension between me and my father, how I couldn't do anything without my father wanting me to do something else, how every conversation between us the last few years had turned into a shouting match.
His voice suddenly became stern. "Boyo, let me tell you somethin'. Your parents? They're the most important thing in the world to you. Do you hear me?"
I nodded, not daring to speak.
"I got a son. That boy calls me from California three times a week! You hear, three! He don't, he knows I come out there and I box his ears! And you know why?" I shook my head. "Of course you don't, no kid knows. But ya know what?"
I shook my head.
"Every damned parent knows. Because I gave birth to that boy, that's why, and for no other reason. I gave that boy life, and whatever there may be between us, I love that boy like nothin' else in this world."
I felt weak.
"And you know what else, kid? Your daddy feels the same way 'bout you. That's why he's always tryin' tell you what to do. Understand?"
I nodded, not comprehending why I, who never shed a tear, suddenly was afraid to blink.
"Now, let me ask you somethin' else. You got brothers and sisters?"
"Well, I had a sister," I said. "But she died of cancer five years ago." Kostos slapped his forehead, almost falling over backwards into the lake.
"Boyo, you got any idea how important you are to your parents? You even begin to know how much they love you, how much they worry about you?"
I shook my head.
"There ain't a second that goes by in any single day they're not thinkin' about you. And you know somethin' else? Wit' all that hard time your daddy gives you, there's only one thing that he really wants from you."
He stared at me. I whispered: "What's that?"
"Respect. That's all. Respect. Just that you listen to him. Listen to the advice he's givin' from all his years of experience, goin' through all them hard times."
I was speechless. The fisherman gave me a few seconds to let it sink in. "You understand that, boy?"
"Yeah," I said, but suddenly feeling some of my old rebelliousness rising. "But what do I do when he wants me to do something I don't want to do?"
"You say, 'Yes, Dad, yes, sir, yes Dad.' "
"And then, providin' that you've decided not to take his advice...you go out and do exactly as you was wantin' to do."
The reply dumbfounded me. For a moment I was speechless.
"But won't he be mad at me for not following what he said?"
"He won't have the chance if you don't tell him until after you've gone ahead and done whatever it was you wanted. Right?"
His psychology was boggling. It defied all logic...but somehow it made perfect sense.
"Listen," he put his arm around my shoulders. "Your dad don't want you doin' exactly like he says. No more than I want my son to. He won't have nothin' to be proud of that way. Your dad just wants you to hear him out."
Those words I did hear. And they spelled a changing point in my life. For sure, I'd have many more fights with my father over the years, but none so vehement or so prolonged that I would let them create any shadow of a doubt that I still loved and respected him. I realized that my father, like Kostos, was from the old school. There was nothing I could do to change him, change his need to advise me; yes, even to boss me. But Kostos was right-however tarnished, however obscure the message after passing through the filter of my father's psyche, everything he said came from his deepest core of love. So even though we'd still fight--almost as if by biological principle--I'd always end up swallowing my pride and calling a few hours later to tell Dad I was sorry. To tell him I was taking into consideration what he said. To simply say "thank you."
And it wasn't until now, now that I no longer have someone to consult with, someone to...yes...even fight with to iron out my own thought processes, that I realize how much I did indeed value my father's opinion. For why else did he always get to me if I really wasn't seeking his approval? And how I now wish I had him here, if only to bounce an occasional idea off him.
After my encounter with the Greek, whenever I wanted to do something I knew would meet my father's harsh disapproval, I did as the fisherman advised-not tell my father until after the deed was done. This was how I sold that first practice after owning it less than a year and a half.
Though I was making more money than most 21-year-olds could imagine, I was completely unhappy--with the town, with the style of practice, with my entire life. And looking back, I thank God for my decisiveness, otherwise I would now be a very rich but totally miserable young man probably with a drinking or drug problem. Though it would take years, I would eventually find my niche in the health field, one that would bring me unimagined fulfillment-and incredible happiness to my father for seeing me so fulfilled.
But when I decided to put that first practice up for sale, I knew the fisherman was right. I couldn't tell Dad. So I waited until after it was sold. And to my amazement, when I did tell him, though he was stunned-shocked-he accepted it. What else could he do at that point?
Strangely, I never again ran into the fisherman, try as I might to later find him around the lake casting his murderous line. But like some odd, brown, oversized angel, he served a divine purpose in my life just when it was needed most. I now realize that our times of greatest strife may often become our moments of greatest revelation. And since that day of meeting the old fisherman, there always has been a prayer of thanks in my heart that he was sent my way. And for my father who, though less than perfect, nevertheless perfectly loved me.