The goal of his day: roses

MY husband, Will, is carefully putting one foot before the other in his daily effort to get down the walk from the door to the rosebush. In the acacia tree on the lawn, an extended family of sparrows hops and whirs a ritual of business: The red-breasted male harries the female from one branch to another while the juveniles cheep for attention and relatives crowd around giving advice. At last the matter is settled and they all fly off. The busyness of men and birds! It may appear that Will, after a lifetime of dealing in corporate real estate, is not busy anymore. His day starts at 10 a.m. with breakfast served to him. He conquers the space between table and easy chair with slow precision and returns for lunch at 2. Dreams preoccupy him in his chair again until 4. At this moment, after a cup of tea, he is approaching the goal of his day, the roses. He is not sensitive to roses. He doesn't want to pick one, or smell one. They are for him a light at the end of his tunnel.

Not a stressful day, you would say. But Will, behind the senior portrait of sloped shoulders and bent, white head, is a busy man. He is working on keeping going. He is working on reconciling his former, energetic self to his aging self. He is rationalizing past mistakes and remembering when he was 14.

In Will's mind, weakness is to be despised. I've noticed that men and birds won't tolerate a moment of panting fatigue. I am quite content to collapse here in the deck chair and declare to all the world that I am exhausted after vacuuming the upstairs bedroom. I am not ashamed. My body tells me it needs to regroup its forces, and I agree with it wholeheartedly.

It's a good fatigue, a feeling of ``resting roundly on myself'' that Will knows nothing about. On the old place, when Will finished chopping wood did he sink with relief on a log and rest? No. He straightened, propped up the sagging lines of his face with a grin, and said, ``That's done.''

It's easy to trivialize an elderly man's progress 25 feet down a concrete walk. If it takes patience on my part to watch him, then the problem is my own: I have a distorted sense of space and time. I am measuring his footsteps by the wrong yardstick and the wrong clock. Here is a man who not many years ago flew to Stockholm and Tokyo, to Frankfurt and Capetown, as casually as he put on his hat. He was back home almost before he started. His world was large but his vitality and ambition caused it to shrink. Distances that could have taken weeks to travel he spanned in hours.

These days, I've been seeing his world as small, but I must correct that view. For his enfeebled legs and fading sight every space, I realize, is a Sahara to be crossed. Right now he is bringing the same old ambition, and the vitality he has, to making his world manageable.

I'm thinking our real world may not be what we see but what we bring to it. There's something heroic going on here, like Scott's expedition to the South Pole or Lindbergh's solo flight to Paris. The same force that set those men against the Antarctic and the Atlantic Ocean is there, in Will. I can see it in the lines of his back, the no-nonsense tap of his cane against the pavement. I forget it's a mere front yard he's crossing, that his destination is only roses. I see him all at once as my hero.

We weren't brought up to think of this as success, me loafing in a deck chair, Will inching along with no visible incentive. We were children of the depression, raised to get through college and find jobs. The work ethic was born in me early. I was allowed to erase the Sunday School blackboard for a penny, which I was expected to put into the missionary collection (and did). Later, when I catered parties and decorated cakes it was for personal profit, but the religious motive never quite left me. Work was a privilege granted by God. If Will's motivation has not been consciously religious, he always gave his work respect amounting to reverence. Money was the rose glowing at the end of his day.

A woman, I'm thinking, has invitations to slow down that men don't usually have. Early on I learned to sit still nursing my babies and daydreaming about their future while they slept. Fathers rarely baby-sat in our generation. If Will was forced to it, his head worked at a furious pace while he held the bottle. He was gentle and patient, but dismissed the duty as a time expenditure of little value.

Neither of us had the time or inclination, until now, to listen to the inner voice that tries all our lives to be heard through the clamor. It tries to tell us there's more to living than this mad pace. ``Stop where you are,'' it whispers. ``Listen to what your body is saying, and the spirit.'' The voice is teaching us, if we would listen, what living is all about.

I can see that Will has been listening. Watching him, I feel like listening, too. We haven't always been on the same wavelength, Will and I. I learned after we married that he had his secret mental life, I had mine. Day by day we operated on different frequencies until periodically, in the mysterious rhythm of living, we would meet at some crossroads of intuition in perfect understanding.

It dawns on me that we could spend our remaining years at that crossroads. Nature is forcing us to stop the clock, to measure our steps. Call it a crossroads, call it a whole new world, where we are now, it is territory to be explored. How well do I know him? How well does he know me? Do I really hear what he's saying when he talks about being fourteen, or twelve, or seven? Does he know how I felt when my mother died? Do we share the same hopes for our married son and daughter? I ponder these things.

The sparrows return to the acacia tree. Their business is to be done all over again, the children fed, matters of state to be settled. Will has reached his turning point. He sets his feet carefully at angles and pivots his body, keeping his balance. He is coming toward me now, tap-step, tap-step. Time stops for me as he lifts his head and smiles.

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