Thomas J. McCarthy

 

 

He travels on, and in his face, his step,
His gait, is one expression; every limb,
His look and bending figure, all bespeak
A man who does not move with pain, but moves
With thought...

 —William Wordsworth, “Old Man Traveling”

For some reason unknown to me, my 22-month-old daughter loves to find sticks that will serve as her make-believe cane. It can be a twig four inches long, and she’ll still hobble around pretending to lean on it. Watching her perform this ritual the other day, suddenly I was transported to a previous existence, pre-kids, some 10 years ago, when I would watch someone else who used a cane, though not for play.

He gave nothing away. Absolutely expressionless, his face neither offered nor suggested a clue. He shuffled, specter-like, down the sidewalk in front of my building at a painstakingly slow pace. His gestures were few and labored, and the cane on which he was heavily dependent kept him to a steady, ponderous movement. I would glance out and see him, wearing his blue baseball cap, baggy, gray wool pants and sensible black dress shoes, dragging his left foot with every step. His head was always cocked slightly back and to one side, as if in an attitude of superiority or reflection—as if he would at any moment stop, reach up, stroke his chin and utter something wise that I would never forget.

Of course he never did this, never even audibly uttered a word to me. But for reasons I could hardly convey at the time, I began to study him as he shuffled by the house. I believe he had suffered a stroke, but whether or not that was the case, I read in him a vibrant eagerness that, due to his circumstances, he had learned to spread calmly and evenly over the texture of his life. I had an inkling of some subtle spark to which his tardigrade pace served as the perfect foil.

I never saw him with his head down, and I never saw emotion on his face. He deliberately scanned his surroundings, his head moving side to side as if operated by low-powered batteries. The effect, to me, was that he seemed perpetually and irrepressibly curious, if in a detached way. I marveled at the way he thrived on his neighborhood walks: because he took everything in, without fanfare; because his body was debilitated while his determination and enthusiasm were undiminished; because, in spite of his blank gaze, he never appeared bored by his routine; and because he put mystery into my own dull routine.

It was probably a year after moving into that apartment that I took notice of him. It was another year before I began to say hello to him. To my greetings I got no reply, which I at times took personally and at other times attributed to New England chill. In ignoring me, he was no different from most of my other neighbors. In time I “forgave” him the slight on the condescending belief that perhaps he wasn’t even aware of his environment, that my greeting—my presence—failed to register in his crippled mind. No recognition, no blame.

What, then, was my excuse? After all, I had snubbed him for two years, rushing to and from my house, my car, my errands, assuming my environment—in which this man appeared to be a regular feature—would take care of itself. Then I began saying hello gratuitously. And once I relinquished the need for a response to my greeting and stopped resenting the blank stare I got in lieu of a reply, I found it impossible to blithely assume anything about him.

In time he showed signs of acknowledgment: certainly not a wave, but a slight change in facial expression, what I interpreted to be an incipient smile, and a few times I thought I heard a muted, barely audible “hello.” Maybe it was simply that I began to notice what had been there all along. In any case, I felt triumphant and a little self-satisfied, like some private detective who had followed an inauspicious lead and cracked a code, opening a long-buried chest and discovering a treasure.

Early one foggy, overcast morning in late November, I drove away from my house, the tense commute ahead weighing on me like a cold, wet blanket of leaves. At the stop sign at the end of my street I looked right before turning left, when I saw him on the far sidewalk. I waved across the passenger side, all but certain that he would not recognize the car and doubtful that he could distinguish me in the murkiness. No response. Dismayed but not surprised, I proceeded on my way.

Then as I coasted down the hill, now about 30 yards away, I glanced in my rear view mirror and saw him standing in the middle of the street holding his cane over his head: a wave. And what a wave. It is no exaggeration to say it felt magical, the surreal image of him standing there in the misty half-light, framed in my mirror—the only time I ever saw him not leaning on his cane. Stunned and elated, feeling part of some great victory, I couldn’t stop smiling. He had recognized me and, summoning some astonishing reserve of strength, made sure I knew it. So there we were in solidarity, hands raised high to begin the day. Yet the power his improbable gesture imparted was less about jubilation than affirmation: the extraordinary but quiet joy that, of a dreary morning, gets us through the day.

This was no lifelong or life-altering relationship; it wasn’t much of a relationship at all. But I revisit it lately, I think, because muted wonderment and modest triumphs constitute the riches of rearing small children, of watching and helping them discover the world. In ways equally remarkable and unceremonious, my kids expand and contract my world in the same instant. Glimpses of human glory come to me, if at all, in unforeseeable flashes that can both illuminate and blind, leaving me indelible images framed in an ineradicable, indefinable sense of hope.

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