The gray-haired man in the hospital bed looked more dead than alive but I discerned a slight twinkle in his eye as he studied the photo I’d given him. It was him in a better day, and not long past, when he stood in a faux-saloon in a little town in northeastern Kansas with a pretty dancehall girl at his side, her all gleaming ivories and batty eyelashes and him grim-faced and square-jawed in his knee-length duster, the Colt .45 single-action at his side just itching to clear leather.
“When I get out of here,” he said with a rasp, “I’m going to forget about this place. I’m going to pretend it never happened.”
“I’d do the same,” I said, and though I meant it at the time, I didn’t know what I was saying.
I do now. And if I had it to do all over again I’d tell him to remember. I’d tell him to never forget, not the valleys, not the summits, not the long hard scrabble from the lowest, deepest depths.
One night I went out for a walk. Not far, only to the nursing home and back, maybe a quarter mile. I slipped into my jacket, donned a wool hat, put a flashlight in one pocket and, almost as an afterthought, grabbed the cane.
It was the first time I’d been out with a cane and it felt intrusive and unwieldy, maybe even a little pretentious. Not that I had much to worry about being seen with it because the night was dark and traffic almost nonexistent. For the first hundred yards or so I swung it jauntily as I’d seen British officers do in old war movies, but after almost launching it into space I decided to play it more circumspect. It wasn’t a fashion statement, for Pete’s sake.
The unevenness of the gravel road was a real test to my imbalance, and more so in the darkness. Surprisingly, I found the cane to be a real help. By the time I crossed the long black void between street lights (and almost died of fright when the cattle resting against the fence stampeded at my sudden presence), it became my third leg. By the time I limped up the driveway cursing myself for having pushed myself beyond my physical limitations, the cane was the only thing holding me up.
Pushing myself, though, was necessary. It’s how we grow, how we mature, how we heal. My walks were infrequent but welcome, and incrementally easier. Everything, in fact, was incrementally easier. There were days when I paid the price but those days were shorter and more spread out, and though they were as intense as anything I’d experienced previously they were impermanent, and I knew it. They could hurt me, but they could not defeat me. This, too, shall pass, I’d say, and it did.
A week later, after unconsciously navigating the stairs to the basement without thought or pain or struggle, the sudden realization made me delirious with joy. I did it twice more in spite of being winded, and gasping in the kitchen I remembered what my friend in the hospital said. Forget this? I thought. I want to remember this until the day I die.
And I also want to to remember the pain, how it turned the world white like an ocular lake effect blizzard, how it seared through my body like lightning bolts or supernovas, how my nerves went mad and fired up until pain killers slowly returned existence to its corrupted state of being, and how a few hours later the process would repeat, repeat, repeat. But most of all I want to remember the Barnes Lighted Horse Christmas Parade, how we parked north of the downtown area and walked through the alley to the fire station on Highway 9 and back up Center Street to the shops and boutiques where Santa enthralled the children with his jolly old self and up and down the street filling with cars and throngs of people and then, with special permission, climbed the steep, treacherous stairs to the second floor opera house where I popped out a screen and leaned far out to frame the entire length and breadth of the downtown with a superwide lens and captured it all, the colorful lights, the decorations, Mrs. Claus following the procession with a diminutive elf at her side, the temporary population explosion of a small rural town, and then made it back down without mishap or wince or groan or imbalance, and went on the following day to photograph a high school senior in another opera house with a sloping ramp that was for the first time in two months not an insurmountable obstacle. I want to remember the immense sense of accomplishment I felt when skipping pain killers for an entire day, and then another. I want to remember the moment when ramps and stairs were no longer a problem. I want to remember it all, the valleys as much as the summits, so that in the future when some slight, trivial thing injects itself into my doings I can shrug it off as easily as removing my jacket. You’ll have to do better than that, I’ll say, and I’ll carry on as if it never happened.