Our house is one of nineteen that circle an island of twelve other homes. The neighborhood is defined by its sense of fellowship. We’ve known most of our neighbors for decades. We’ve attended family picnics and laughed in unison as people do when they care about each other. We’ve seen children grow and have children of their own. And we have cried when some of our neighbors have passed away.
It feels good to live on Quarterhorse Way. It feels like home.
The loop around our neighborhood measured exactly a half mile. I had my recovery track.
On my first morning home, I was ready to walk, but I couldn’t do it alone. A week after the operation, I was still wobbly. I needed a safety net, but I knew it couldn’t be Nita. She was even more shaky than I. But one of the neighbors on Nita’s support team came to mind. Her name is Elaine.
In some ways, Elaine was my counterpoint. She’s scientific, I’m artistic. She’s athletic, I’m poetic. She’s introverted, I’m extroverted. She loves coddling her world-class vegetable garden; I prefer feasting on her harvest.
That said, there is one thing we have in common: although Elaine’s commitment eclipses mine, we both possess a loving heart. Well, even there she and I are different. Elaine enjoys helping others without being praised. I enjoy helping others too but expect to be lionized for my efforts. Different again.
For two weeks, Elaine and I walked every day at 6:15 a.m.—early enough to beat the summer heat. The first week was ponderous, I carrying my bag of urine and feeling the twist of the damnable catheter with every step. I wasn’t really walking. What’s the verb? Shuffling? No, that’s too ambitious. My gait was more like slogging—a tired tortoise trudging across the road.
And if my shoe scuffed a pebble on the road, Elaine shot one hand toward my tummy, the other to my back. She was on constant alert.
“You’re looking out for me,” I said.
She half smiled, seemingly embarrassed by her vigilance. “You got me,” she said. “I just want to make sure you’re safe on my watch.”
Slowly, our walks stretched from a half mile to a mile and a half. I felt a little stronger every day and little more spunky.
One morning, I asked Elaine to tell me about her father.
“He was a shy man,” she said.
After she spun out a story about her dad, I asked, “Do you think of yourself as being shy?”
She paused longer than I expected.
“You’re taking your time,” I remarked.
Elaine rocked her head. “In some ways, I am shy. In fact, it’s probably my go-to social style.”
I stopped in the middle of the street as I often did when I wanted to emphasize a point. “That’s not how I see you,” I said. “You seem very transparent to me.”
Elaine turned and faced me. “You’re…well, different. I’ve never disclosed as much as I have with you. You seem to have a way of drawing me out.”
I gave her my most salacious Jack Nicolson stare. “Hmm, so I’m having my way with you, little girl.”
She laughed as she always did—freely, genuinely. “Eh, something like that,” she said warily.
“There’s a trick to what I do,” I said. “Would you like to know it?”
We edged to the side of the road as a neighbor approached in his car, slowed, waved, and continued on.
“It’s this,” I said. “When I’m with someone, anyone really, I have a clock ticking in my head. And with that clock, I track airtime—to ensure the minutes speaking and listening are roughly equivalent.”
“Oh, I see,” Elaine said as if she had just landed on the meaning of existence.
I narrowed my gaze. “Most people don’t do that. Either because they never learned—”
“—or don’t care to learn,” Elaine said, finishing my thought.
“Exactly. In general, people are oblivious to the concept of shared airtime. They don’t think of conversation as a dialogue but as a monologue, where the winner is the one who fills the room with the most words.”
“I’ve never thought of communication in those terms,” she said.
In any exchange, I often look for a moment where I can tease. And Elaine was always ready to play along. “Well then,” I said with a wink, “I’m glad I took a moment out of my day to make you a better person.”
Not one to go down without a fight, Elaine said, “Well, you know what they say about successful men.”
I folded my arms and set one leg to the side. “Are you saying I’m successful?”
She huffed. “Get over yourself.”
“Okay,” I said. “What do they say about successful men?”
It was Elaine’s turn to fold her arms, lower her chin, and stare at me from under her brows. “Behind every successful man…is a surprised woman.”
At the end of two weeks of walking, I was feeling a lot stronger. My catheter was out—thank the salted firmament (but more about that in the next chapter)—and my pace was steady and secure. I felt like a natural man. Well, a little more like a natural man and a little less like an orangutan.
Now that I was healthier, I was sure I could safely return to walking with my wife again.
At the end of my second day strolling with Nita, she showed me a whimsical trinket depicting a slender woman gardener. “For Elaine,” she said.
It was perfect.
I decided to compose a few lines to accompany the thank-you ornament. When I had finished, I walked to Elaine’s home, just four doors away. Although it was still mid-morning, the temperature was already pushing ninety.
Elaine was in her front yard, drenched in sweat. She was wearing a T-shirt, shorts, and kneepads, her right hand fisting a pair of pruning shears.
“Elaine, I’m glad I caught you. I wanted to offer a souvenir for our morning walks along with a brief thank-you note. May I read my tribute?”
We walked under the shade of a line of towering arborvitaes. I opened the card and read aloud.
You’re a treasure—not just to Nita and me but to our entire neighborhood.
I’m trying to peg why I feel so at home with you. Your wit and compassion and good humor play a part. But there’s something more—a trait more central to your spirit. It’s this: in a word, you are present. By that I mean you’re devoted to serving the needs of others—even one as quizzical as I. What a great way of being.
Thank you for being my walking partner and keeping a hawkish eye on my precarious stride. But mostly, thank you for being my friend.
Your high-stepping sidekick,
When I had finished, Elaine said, “Oh, Allen. If I were not swamped in so much sweat, I’d give you a hug.”
“I feel it all the same.”
“Thank you for your words,” she added. “You’re very generous. I’m not sure I deserve so much praise.”
I smiled. “Elaine, when I write, I only write what’s true.”
“Still nothing. Only the truth.”
After writing this chapter, I sent a copy to Elaine for her approval. Two days later, she sent me the following message:
Your story and thank-you note brought tears to my eyes and a jumble of internal emotions I’m still sorting through. I was deeply moved when you read your note under the shade of the arborvitaes. I hadn’t expected it. I was embarrassed, overcome with shyness, and wished the asphalt pavement were hot enough to swallow me whole.
I have received so much during our morning walks with you and Nita—more than I can possibly express. Being your “safety net” was no hardship; on the contrary, it was a pleasure. I have only one regret: I feel guilty for knowing I’m not the selfless person you’ve made me out to be. You’ve given me a new mission: To become the person you think I am.
My thanks to you and Nita for the wonderful gardener ornament. You’re right, it’s perfect, even down to the unruly curly hair. I’ve placed it on a shelf in our living room that contains mementos from special people in our lives—and you and Nita are definitely special.
With love and appreciation,
Elaine’s words reminded me that Paul McCartney had it right when he penned the lyrics to the Beatles last song, “The End”:
“And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”