By Mark Svetz
I wouldn't have called it vanity until now, but for most of my life I was confident – you might even say cocky – about my strength, stamina and agility. Now, Sarah tells me my “mobility issues” are a direct result of that cockiness and its attendant carelessness or, I might even add, foolishness. That's not what I really want to talk about, though. What I want to talk about right now is the four-wheeled walker my friend Carol lent me recently, and how, if I can get over my vanity, it might let me walk around Willimantic again as I have done for most of the past 50 years.
First of all, these “mobility issues” revolve around bulging discs in my lower back that are causing me a lot of pain, especially when I am standing or walking. This is a long-standing problem. My first episode was in the late 80s, when I was carrying an oak table down a twisted, narrow staircase and lost my footing. Now, this is where the foolishness comes in: I continued to move furniture and do pretty much everything else that was normal for me despite the pain.
Now, 30 years later, I can no longer ignore the pain, and find myself stuck at home most of the time. Although I work right here in Willimantic, I drive to get there. I drive to the Willimantic Food Co-op to shop and socialize. Driving around town is something I have never done very much. I have always walked to work, shop, visit and most everything else during the time I have lived in Willimantic. Driving to the Co-op makes me feel like a failure!
Now, thanks in part to a gift of membership to the Mansfield Community Center and the wonderful warm Therapy Pool there, and Carol Silva's concern and generosity, my back has improved a little. I find I can sometimes walk with relative ease. When the weather was cold and snowy, I was happy to use the walker around the house, when we were alone. It made walking easier than it had been using a cane.
I thought about going outside, walking around the neighborhood with the walker when the weather broke, but the image of myself using a walker was disturbing to conjure. I was in conflict, and this conflict occupied my mind and spirit for some time. It's easy to understand how a walker represents physical decline, from age, sickness or injury. I find these images of myself disturbing, despite my present circumstances. It was confusing and troubling to hold these conflicting thoughts: my love of walking and this perceived blow to my pride.
I can't help but wonder if that kind of pride is the source of the prejudice about aging and infirmity I see all around me. There, but for fortune, go all of us, after all. I know that I want no part of that prejudice, and I am anxious to keep it from informing my own view of the world and especially the choices I make.
Something happened on a recent weekend that clarified things a little for me. Our granddaughter, Miriam, came for a sleep-over and I decided to walk to the Co-op with her and Sarah. Walking over the footbridge had been a favorite past time for the three of us since Miri was born. Lately, however, we've been driving together, or even worse, I've driven while Sarah walked with Miriam in the stroller. On this Saturday, it was clear and dry, and fairly warm, and the prospect of walking downtown with Sarah and Miriam was more powerful than my pride. So, off we went.
As I was walking down Bridge Street toward Main, I felt the familiar joy of being out in my community, watching the passing traffic, waving at the occasional acquaintance, noticing the changes at houses along the way. I realized the resistance I had felt to using a walker in public involved being self-conscious and embarrassed about what others might think. As I walked, I asked myself “What might they think? That I'm getting old? That I must have hurt myself somehow?”
Well, my next thought was that both things are true, and so what? There is no shame in growing old. When I think of some of the things that have happened to me over the years, getting old is a great victory. Injuries happen to the best of us. Why should I be immune? I'd like to think I'm indestructible, and I once entertained that delusion, but I have come to realize just how foolish it was.
That's not even the important 'lesson' I was learning. You see I can still hear my mother saying “What do I care what Bobby thinks? He's not going to buy you a new jacket.” And that is really the point: Pride, for me, is really an excessive concern about what others might be thinking. I knew, walking down Bridge Street that Saturday morning, the only two people in the world whose opinion mattered to me were walking in front of me: Miriam and Sarah. And I was pretty sure they were glad I was with them. I know I was glad to be there.
And we did have fun. Miri and Sarah ran around the new Whitewater park, making footprints in the snow. They even built a snowman! And I was able to watch and enjoy their fun, rather that simply hear about it when they got home. I was not able to make it all the way to the Co-op, but I had a nice walk. I decided to call it “walk and roll,” just to make it feel more like the old days!
Health and weather permitting, I intend to resume my daily walks to the C0-0p for coffee and companionship. Now that is something that will make me proud!