Walking Behind

By BJ Yudelson

 went out on my first date when I was 11. For years afterward, my mother laughed whenever she conjured up the sight of scrawny, brainy, bucktoothed Danny Byrd striding six feet ahead of me from my front door to his mother’s car.

 

Decades later, I found myself wondering if my mother would be equally amused at the sight of my husband marching resolutely several feet before me in Saratoga Springs, New York. As we sought out each Victorian house listed in our walking guide, Julian managed to keep a steady two or three steps ahead. Whenever I quickened my pace, hoping to catch up, he quickened his. Julian’s longer stride guaranteed that we never walked abreast. Despite the day’s brilliant sky, I moved under a cloud of frustration bordering on fury. On my 46th anniversary I felt like that little girl on her first date with Danny Byrd.

 

I took Julian’s hand, but, as usual, it didn’t stay in mine long. I’ve found that nothing keeps him close for more than a few seconds when we walk. “What,” I asked myself for the umpteenth time, “would it take to get my man to walk with me?”

 

A month after our Saratoga Springs visit, I got my answer. We were on vacation with my sister at an Adirondack resort we love. Returning from a glorious group hike to a swimming spot along the upper Hudson River, Julian was, as usual, out of sight ahead of me. I slipped on a log, pitched forward, and felt my right wrist collapse against a stone. Cradling my arm, I was too stupefied to cry.

A quick-witted fellow hiker splinted my wrist with a sapling branch. The rest of the hike passed in a throbbing blur. Back in the car, Julian navigated the dirt road gingerly. Even so, every bump reverberated through my arm. With my right elbow resting on the open window frame and my makeshift splint sticking awkwardly out the car window, I contemplated how I would function with only one hand. Through the pain, I thought of my mother, thrust by a stroke into one-sidedness when she was a year younger than my current age.

 

“I always thought that the way Dad flossed Mom’s teeth all those years was an unimaginable act of devotion,” I mused aloud. Silently, I wondered if Julian would be able to muster similar patience on my behalf.

 

From the backseat, my sister responded, “Really? I always saw it as Dad’s need to control her care.”

 

“Maybe. But flossing someone else’s teeth nightly for fifteen years has got to be the epitome of devotion.”

 

We returned home the next day, two days ahead of schedule. Surgery was set for a week after my fall. I discovered I could eat left-handed as long as Julian prepared the meal and cut my meat. We decided against canceling our dinner guests, and Julian pulled together food items from the freezer for our Sabbath dinner. As he headed upstairs to dress, Julian informed me that he had put out the plates and glasses but left the silverware, “So you’ll have something to do.” What gave him the idea that I wanted to do anything? Just lolling in my painkiller-induced haze seemed barely manageable.

 

Through my fog, I recalled how my father, nurses, and visitors had rushed to push Mom’s wheelchair whenever she attempted to maneuver it on her own. Her plaintive words still haunted me: “I could be more independent, you know.”

 

Grateful that my disability was only a temporary inconvenience, I slowly began to do more. I annoyed Julian by filling out a deposit slip with barely legible left-handed printing. He wanted to know why I didn’t just ask him to do it. I struggled to dress myself. I discovered I could put on lipstick, but turned to Julian for help with the earrings without which I feel naked. With my left hand, I sent out embarrassingly error-riddled, no-capital-letters e-mails.

 

Through it all, I thought of Mom. Nine years before, I had obsessed over my then-impending 60th birthday, the landmark decade that had turned my mother into an invalid. In a flash, she had changed from a vibrant 67-year-old into an aphasic old lady in a wheelchair. While still sweet and lovable, she bore little resemblance to the mother of my first three decades.

 

Once I recognized my dread of a similar transformation in my sixties, I was better able to tuck my fear away and enjoy my birthday. This fear was nothing new; I had long identified with Mom physically. Sometimes when I looked in the mirror, Mom’s eyes glanced back at me. She gave birth by Caesarian section, and so did I. Like her, I am short and bottom-heavy. Was I doomed to spend the last years of my life as she did hers?

 

For ages I had insisted that Julian and I take active trips that included hiking or paddling in out-of-the-way places where you can’t maneuver a wheelchair. “We’ll save those trips for when we can’t walk,” I had told him. “For now, mountains will take precedence over museums.” Recognition of the fear underlying my birthday obsession hadn’t eliminated it, but I could ignore it until I got closer to the dreaded 67.

 

Thankfully, I reached the age of 68 fully intact—still chattering, still walking, still fully cognizant, still like my mother “before.” And now two months later, I had a useless right hand. I wondered how many times I would have to brush my teeth left-handed before it would feel comfortable. When Julian found a one-handed flosser at the drugstore, we were both relieved: devotion expressed through technology.

 

Struggling to do things one-handed, I thought about Mom more than ever. I marveled at how she had remained true to herself even after her world turned upside down. She had learned to accept help graciously although she’d previously been used to giving it. But I wondered now how she had really felt when Dad cut her meat, when caregivers planned her days, and when she no longer ran the household. Was this broken wrist to be my version of Mom’s helplessness? I prayed that I would regain the ability to chop an onion, type, knit, and paddle my solo canoe.

 

I heard my neighbors splash in their pool. How I longed to join them! I couldn’t swim, couldn’t exercise, was too drugged to read. I entreated Julian to go for a walk with me. Clasping my good hand firmly, he adjusted his pace to my sluggish one. We circled the block side by side. I pictured myself pushing Mom in her wheelchair. Thank God, I’m still on my own two feet, I thought. Thank God, my husband is beside me when I need him.

 

As we moved lethargically toward home, I squeezed Julian’s hand and wondered: Is this the price of paced companionship? And if so, is it worth it? Wouldn’t I rather walk half a beat behind, pain free and independent? And why should independence and companionship be mutually exclusive?

* * *

A year has passed. Surgery and months of hand therapy are behind me. Julian learned to ask whether I wanted help or whether I preferred to struggle alone. I knit more slowly, type less accurately, and paddle with less agility. I revel in driving my own car, cutting my own meat, and putting on earrings unaided. I have reclaimed the kitchen.

 

But when Julian and I walk, he has resumed his position up front. Sometimes, in Mother’s spirit, I chide him about his “Danny Byrd” approach to walking together. More often, I picture myself leaning forward to talk to Mom on our wheelchair walks. And then gratitude strikes: unlike my mother, I have regained my independence and adulthood.

 

 

——————–

B.J. Yudelson, a former writer for not-for-profit agencies, lives in Rochester, New York.  Since retirement, she has found her voice in creative nonfiction, studying at Rochester’s Writers & Books. Her work has appeared in Colere, Democrat & Chronicle, Eclectica Magazine, The Griffin, Jewish Action, The Jewish Georgian, The Legendary, Tiny Lights, and in the anthology Flashlight Memories. When not writing, she visits nine grandchildren on two coasts, tutors first graders in a city school, and travels with her husband.  Her favorite place to be is in her solo canoe, searching for loons on an Adirondack lake.


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