Thursday, December 09, 2004

Frank and Frances (or 500 Steps)

So you're all caught up in your troubles, the world's weight is on your shoulders as you round the corner and prepare to head to work in the deceptively cold Boston winter. All manner of loose ends are floating about in your head; you need to wrap them up before the year ends. And then you hear someone muttering something behind you. You turn and then you see her: it's that old lady from your building, leaning back on a parked car, walking stick in hand. She'd probably been trying to call out to you when you passed her but her wizened voice was barely a whisper and, truth be told, you had your game face on so she simply didn't register.

She's headed to the lab at the hospital, just around the corner: a few hundred meters. But "there's too much wind" and so is considering turning back. You were a boy scout once, and have helped her and the other old ladies in your building on numerous occasions with their groceries, laundry or other odds and ends; this can be your good deed for the day. You offer to walk her over.

She settles on your arm, leans on you and you begin to make your way. It takes a few moments for both of you to get comfortable as you shuffle along. You have to walk in the middle of the streets; Cambridge sidewalks are far too treacherous for her. Luckily, for part of the journey, there's a bike lane and so she can concentrate on staying on the right side of the white line in the road, legally protected from predatory taxis. Plus you're there as her anchor to prevent her being buffeted by the (in your view, slight) wind.

There's nothing so humbling as seeing someone disarmed and perplexed by the sight of a manhole cover on a road. It's said that the perils of old age include infantilism but in this case it's more like a renewed curiosity and bemusement. She notices the smallest deviation from her routine: the new items on her path - the empty trash cans the garbage men discarded carelessly, and the missing leaves since today's street cleaning has just taken place.

The pair of you make an incongruous sight. She's almost 90, shriveled down to just about four feet, and light as a feather. You're "six feet one, dark and lovely" like Big Daddy Kane used to boast. The traffic stops and horns blow as they consider your snail-like progress when you cross. It's rush hour. You should be rushing like everyone else.

She's gets out of breath every fifty yards, you reflect that you could have carried her and done the trip four times over. Apologetically, she explains that she doesn't call a cab because drivers hate such short trips.

Your four minute walk is turning into a half hour stroll so you settle down and exchange pleasantries about life in the building and other marginalia. You listen to her stories about the old days, like the time when old Mrs Calloway went to sleep having forgotten to turn the gas off and when she smelt it and had to call the gas company to save the day. Mrs Calloway has had to move to an assisted living community this past year just after her 92nd birthday. Or forty years ago, when she first moved in along with her husband, "this was a grand building back then". Your own 8 years of residence make you a mere amateur.

You wish you'd had the patience, back when Papa had Alzheimer's, to listen as intently as you now are, for there are pearls of experience in all her anecdotes. Best not to dwell on that though, the impatience of youth is a commonplace. Keep chatting...

You've observed her in the past embarking on her expeditions - she continues to insist on running her own errands. You wonder how much longer she'll be able to survive on her own. She doesn't have any family that you know of and has to be very frugal, relying on clipping coupons and manufacturer's specials in her dotage. This little journey "to the lab" won't be much fun once the snow and ice starts in a few weeks. You ask yourself "Do you really want to grow old in this cold country?". And all those other questions that are coming to mind. Hush. One foot before the other.

So you finally deliver her to the hospital, surviving the rush of high school students and a scare with the semi-automatic doors that threatened to bump her awkwardly. You are attentive and make sure that she settles in the waiting room and that someone knows she's here. Everyone knows her at the lab so the stress is lifted from her face, she even starts humming a little to herself. She beams and thanks you repeatedly. She mishears your name again: Koranteng becomes Frank, not for the first time with her. She's Frances of course. Frank and Frances had a nice walk today. "See you in the building".

You turn and head towards the square. Those loose ends again.

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