Rolling down my wheelchair ramp at 7 AM, the wind overwhelms my bodily defenses. The latter must be scant in the temperature sensing and regulating departments. Only a few hundred meters from my home, the whole expedition seems marginal. Turning around could be wise. I don’t, of course. This is supposedly May, and by all accounts this is Central California, renowned for its late spring warmth. Unless I have forgotten. What I do remember is to make sympathetic remarks to Tom, my landlord, concerning the wind. He doesn’t like it. Because of the cold, I assumed, the first time he complained about the breezes. But no, there is more to it. The wind, I think, unnerves him. It’s that simple and uncomplicated. What’s really complicated is why this thought even enters my mind. What do I care about Tom and the wind? I care, because simply put, Tom is part of my current support system. I exist atop a house of cards. My aging landlord who was not raised the rent in something like 17 years. My tenant whose rent on one of my two apartments actually pays for both. Essential to keep Tom going. And being the child of divorced parents whose earliest job description involved the soothing, placating and harmonizing of two battling adults…well, this makes my current work rather easy.
Thing about rolling into my local supermarket at the excessively bright hour of 7:15 AM is that one can experience the brightness virtually alone. The staff seem surprised to see me. They can barely see each other, such is the hour. I practice my Spanish in the delicatessen department. Pavo being the word for turkey. I sail out the door with half a pound. Which leads back into the blustery day. The latter being the stuff of Winnie the Pooh. Such a day is neither hostile nor frightening in the hands of Milne. Yet the author’s embrace is not excessive. We shall hold, but not smother. Don’t worry. Also, don’t stay home. Yes, there’s a bit of discomfort. So what? The only alternative would be a Disney Day, all rounded edges, even horizons and characters without genitals. No, we’ll have a bit of wind.
Good to consider that all of the winter’s rains have sunk directly beneath my tires, down through the specially permeated surface of Menlo Park’s eco-friendly asphalt. Yes, our cars now park on this experimental pavement, somewhat coarse looking stuff that allows water to run directly through it. Better, our cars now park elsewhere, the hour being what it is. The parking lots shimmer like deserts, all expanse. My wheelchair zips from one to the next, out one driveway, up the next, and into another asphalt vista, an empty apron of diagonal parking spaces. This world is mine. It is the realm of the exposed, single-occupant vehicle, batteries roaring, distance melting. On and on through the carless deserts of early-morning Menlo Park. On to Café Borrone, or maybe not. Something in me is slowing. I have, after all, reached Trader Joe’s, one axis in this morning’s triangular trade. And the bakery is just up the street. Furthermore, I am getting a sort of read from the café that indicates ‘no.’ Maybe just a bit too hip. Not anonymous enough. Somehow, people notice each other there. My failure…while unspecified…seems too prominent this day. Besides, the café’s redoubtable oatmeal, the stuff of an aging person’s health…on this day it promises one oat too many.
What does it mean that all of the young women behind the counter of Le Boulangerie are Hispanic? Are they particularly skilled at baking? Or skilled at working for low wages? My morning’s copy of The Nation is full of articles about the loss of the two-wage household. The collapse of higher education for the masses. What can I do but give these women a good tip? In cash. I can’t finish my omelette sandwich, that is for sure. I box the thing to take home. I shall take myself home. I shall wear my trousers rolled.
But not before scoring some freesias at Trader Joe’s. Out of them, says the clerk, and not in season, and I am out the door. But not before a chat with Marty. I always have time for Marty, the only authentic Nepalese in my world. He tells me about a local fair, a green expo of sorts in nearby San Mateo. I know this is one of those moments when there is a chance to make contact, older man to younger one. He has a lot on the ball, Marty. He has much to do with Trader Joe’s store layout, it’s signs and painted announcements. I also sense that he is frustrated. In his early 40s, this isn’t much of a job. I could easily try to expand the topic, getting beyond the fair to the life beyond, even hinting at something else…what I have learned about solar installations in the Bay Area, for example. But not now, and the reasons are not clear except that I have to go home and…be at home. I wish Marty well. Later.
Jane has given me a very eco-shopping bag, all recycled and probably biodegrading as well. Which I know stashed in the kitchen, right next to the salad bowl and tinned salmon and the velvet bag in which the mortuary packaged Marlou’s ashes. To be precise where precision is due, her remains were in a plastic box, encased by a tough plastic bag, and then handed to me and to her father in this maroon velvet bag with a rope drawstring. And like everything else about my Miss Haversham life and times, yes, even this ceremonial sack is floating about my apartment. How has landed on a kitchen shelf is anyone’s guess. For a while it was by the front door. Now it is here. And now as though awaking from dream, I am here with it.
My first thought is that this bag has, by dint of its position, achieved the status of the other bags in the kitchen. Why not use it as a shopping bag? My next thought is to wonder how or why someone chose maroon velvet. Are they thought to be religious or regal? In our modern world, with everything given over to commerce, even sincere efforts at recapturing the ceremonial or trying to be respectful seem hollow. Not to mention suspect or even tawdry. Which gives us the constant challenge of reinfusing everything around us with significance. Or trying to. Which means I can’t go shopping with this velvet bag. Nor leave it there. Or throw it out. And because there is no rule, I must make a judgment. A lot for one day.
Also too little. I know that without enough walking, my sense of balance and ambulatory confidence declines. I fear being on my feet. It is very easy, even natural, inevitable, to grow accustomed to the ease of the wheelchair. Infinitely faster, requiring much less concentration, and I can grip things other than my crutch. A book. A cup of tea. Walking takes everything, including concentration. Although more walking takes less. The problem is that with long stretches alone in my apartment, my fear of falling deters me from getting up on my feet and hobbling about. An effort of will. And with Perry, physiotherapy assistant, on his way, I decide this is the moment, a relatively safe one. If I fall, I won’t lie alone for too long. At this juncture, it is not clear if I can get off the floor on my own. I haven’t tried this in years but can imagine the approximate sequence.
I would slide across the carpet. More precisely, I would attempt to drag myself over the rough ribbed woolen surface, traction unknown. Dragging would actually mean pushing with my one functioning leg, pulling with my arm, digging the elbow into the fabric. Dig, push, dig, push.
; And my destination? Perhaps I would try to get close to the grabber, the trigger-action hook device I use to reach things. Trouble is, this rests on my desk. Getting to it might be difficult. And even if I did, what would I do? Use it to grab the phone? A nice idea. But I can just imagine somehow getting the phone off the hook, its cord dangling…only to have the dialtone disappear. And how what I dial anyway? No, I would need one of the cordless phones. Possible, might be possible.
Even more likely, I inch myself over land, cross-carpet, to sofa or bed. Try to get my back against one end, then shut myself up, mostly with my good leg, working the shoulders higher, the upper back, sliding and sliding until I somehow get my butt over the edge and reached the stage of sitting. Anyway, this is the general specter that precedes any rising from my wheelchair. I am already exhausted just sitting and thinking about the prospect.
But not now. Look at me, up on my feet, crutch in hand, taking the first step along my office wall. The first being the most dangerous, and not because of anything philosophical, but sheer neurology. My leg spasms with unexpected force. Which may sound like something bad, or at least unpredictable, but it isn’t. This is how I walk, if one can use the word. Step, spasm, step, spasm. In this fashion I make my way out of the office, down the hall, and into my bedroom. The terrain varies wildly. In the office, there’s a wall to my right. So a fall in that direction, toward my paralyzed unprotected side would leave me leaning against a safe surface. Very reassuring. This abruptly changes at the entrance to the living room. The wall gives way and dangerous space opens. Never mind, for I continue, more wall now to my right, reminding me on one of those rare moments when I see them at eye level, that my hallway has become a gallery of Marlou’s family photos. Which no longer seems appropriate, out of balance. But soon out of mind, walking requiring everything. On the way back, the end of the bed is on my right, more hallway. And I’m glad I’ve done this. It seems a metaphor for aging. Everything feels more dangerous, takes more effort…yet has to be done in the service of living.