Tuesdays with Si

Life lessons over the Ping-Pong table

Tonight, Si says of Paul, "I like a person who is a fighter, won't give up. Now he is. . . . You see, he's going to make it, because everyone changes and he changes for the good."

Paul recalls that one night, after the paddles were put away, Si told him his feet hurt. So Paul spent 45 minutes digging out Si's ingrown toenails. Then Si asked him to trim his fingernails.

Si and son, in Bill's championship days.
courtesy of Si Kenig
Si and son, in Bill's championship days.
Ping-Pong Paul.
Hector Acuña
Ping-Pong Paul.
Si lives up to his nickname, The Wall.
Hector Acuña
Si lives up to his nickname, The Wall.

Sure, Paul said, pretending they were in a beauty salon. Pull up a chair, tell me your problems.

Si was quiet. Paul teased him, he remembers: "You're lucky! No problems!"

If only that were true. Si has lived by himself for three years, since a stroke put Sara in a nursing home. He gets lonely, he admits. And he falls a lot. Sometimes his teeth fly out when he falls; a few weeks ago, he cracked his bridge in half.

Si's been on the maximum dose of his medications for several years. A dose is supposed to work for three hours, but Bill says it now only works for one, and it makes Si sleepy. Si has an appointment with a neurological surgeon soon to see if he's a candidate for a brain implant that would control his shaking.

Most people in Si's position would be immobile by now. It's Ping-Pong that keeps him going, everyone agrees -- including Si.

"The doctor says there's not another man like me, to have this 16 or 17 years and still fight," he says. "Somebody calls for a lesson, I say come on over, no matter how tired I am. I never refuse."

Once he sits down, Si says, he's stuck in the same place for 5, 10, 15 minutes. But when he plays Ping-Pong, he thinks only of the game.

"I'm playing because I like it. I'm playing because to wake up in the morning and play makes me feel good."

More and more, Paul has been helping Si out, and not just with selling paddles and balls. Paul brings Si home from the table tennis club on Wednesday nights, helps him undress. He installed a louder ringer so Si can hear his phone.

Paul says his parents have inspired him to help take care of Si. Paul's father had a heart attack several years ago, and since then Paul has tried to treasure his time with his dad. He felt the same about Si when he caught up with him two years ago and saw how he was deteriorating.

"I realized that Si was slowing down and I realized that this would be maybe my one last opportunity to spend some time with him, and I never wanted to look back and say, 'Oh, I wish I would have continued taking lessons and keeping up with what I started.'"

Paul's mother, Pauline, is wheelchair-bound; his sister takes care of her full-time.

"I've been around sick people and I realize that people who sometimes can't help themselves really appreciate what you do to help them. It's one thing to donate money to charity, but it's more of a reward when you directly help someone in need, when you have that physical contact," Paul says.

Si has other students and friends, and, of course, Bill, who visit and help him out, but it's clear Si can't live alone much longer.

Paul asks Si if he's afraid of going into an old-folks' home, as Si calls it. When he retires, Si says, he wants to go to a home with a big gym. He'll donate his Ping-Pong table, so he can keep playing. And he'll play with the other people who live there.

"So they forget the troubles they've got."

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