The long walk

The cycle of your life is reflected in walking. When we begin life, walking is impossible. Almost a year passes and we’re ready to give it a go. My sister has a young son at this age now, and though he’s built to fall, she agonizes every time he totters and collapses. But she need not worry. Our learning to walk accelerates quickly, we become proficient so fast, it’s a little mindboggling.

My sister, who has a catch phrase for just about everything, loves calling her son a “small human.” Walking really brings that home. When you see your little child taking those first, springy, unbalanced steps, and then they transfer into a lengthened, confident stride, it really does humanize us. Maybe that’s why biologists love to call us the upright ape.

You might remember the riddle of the sphinx – what starts on four legs at the beginning of life, switches to two, and ends life with three? It is the human, crawling as a baby, walking upright through most of life, before stooping over a cane in old age.

We typically enjoy years of comfortable walking, barring injury or other misfortune. But somewhere along the line, it becomes less easy. I play basketball in the mornings at the local YMCA with guys that are older and younger than I am (and I’ve only got one direction to go in that regard). Those of us on the decline joke about how we used to talk about our feats on the court after a game, and now we just compare injuries. One of the players, a good friend, has been having increased back and hip pain. He plugs along – to get a good sweat, he says – but mostly for the comradery. He and I walk to the train station after we’ve showered, and his stride is rolling thing, painful to watch. You can see the years weighing on him.

I write all this for two reasons. First is my youngest daughter, who was born with many problems, including low muscle tone. We wondered whether she would do more than lie in bed all day, let alone walk. The good news is, she does, and though it can leave you breathless (her balance can sometimes be questionable), she makes her way in the world. She gets therapy at a center, and there are many children there who don’t have the privilege of walking. The riddle of the Sphinx could not apply to them; they depend on wheels and parents. Yes, walking is a very humanizing experience, but it doesn’t have to be the only one. I would have been ok if my youngest hadn’t walked, but I’m glad she does. She sees the world independently.

The second reason is because I recently walked my father’s coffin to a gravesite. The riddle of the sphinx has a lesson to teach about the seasons of life, and my father had reached the final one. At the end, my dad had gone past three legs, and was now immobile, trapped. His independence had filtered away like sand slipping through fingers, impossible to cling to, and he was bound to a bed, his blue eyes the only window to the man he was and they were confused, pleading, wistful, contented, resigned, blazing in sudden anger, seeking comfort, asking questions. Why? Why me? Why this way?

The way you walk is as distinct as a fingerprint. I remember my dad’s now. I remember him walking around the land in Arizona he loved. I remember him walking with me and my brother along the high cliffs in California, stretching out his arms to point out sea lions breaking the surface far below. I remember the first time I noticed how thin his legs had become, and that the hair had disappeared. He had a direct gait, leaning forward a little, feet pointed straight forward, no pigeon-toeing or duck-walking for this podiatrist. I remember walking with him after the first surgery to remove a cancerous tumor. We walked around the residential streets of the Colorado town where he lived. He tried to explain to me his hope to be cured and his post-surgery hallucinations. He would make some declaration, telling me God had spoken to him, grip my arm, and say, “So, I don’t know” in a hopeful, expectant way, hitting me with his blue eyes, waiting for me build him up. “Maybe, Dad. I don’t know either.” And we would walk on.