This was the second time in recent memory that Horace had experienced some disorientation when exiting a store – or was it the third time, he wondered? Standing in the doorway, he didn’t panic – years of martial arts training had taught him the difference between an imaginary crisis and real emergency. “Heck,” he thought to himself somewhat unconsciously, “even in a real emergency you can’t lose your head.”
Horace turned his torso half way around to look up at the name on the store. “Ahh, the pharmacy.” He was beginning to get his bearings – at least he knew that he was in his home town. But where was his car? And what did he come to the pharmacy for?
He glanced down at the flimsy white plastic bag in his left hand, and brought it up to his face to peer into it as he pulled it open with the other hand. “Nail clippers,” he said out loud, with a slight hint of recognition – “I came here for nail clippers.” Holding his hand up in front of his face, he surveyed his nails and grimaced. “I hate when my nails get long.”
In reality, his nails were only showing about a millimeter and a half of white beyond his nail bed, but for Horace, they had to be kept trimmed flush.
Horace took a careful step down off of the curb into the parking lot, looking for his car, while alternately surveying the immediate surrounding buildings to get his bearings. “OK,” he thought – “the Walmart there, the McDonald’s there – I know where I am now.” But damned if he couldn’t remember where he had parked the car!
It was about 20 seconds before he realized he didn’t know what kind of car he was searching for. “Was I driving the Chrysler? Or did I get a new car?” Making an educated guess, he decided he was pretty sure he had a new car, a sporty dark gray sedan of recent make. A nearby vehicle sparked familiarity, and he spoke out loud to himself, “there it is.”
He navigated between the cars, careful not to rub his coat against their dusty exteriors. Sidling up to the vehicle, he pulled the handle, expecting the usual beep and automatic unlock that the keys in his pocket would make possible.
Nothing. No click. No beep. He pulled the handle again, but it did not open. He bent his tall frame down a bit and glanced inside the car. Looked like his – well, except that he kept the car so clean that there were no real distinguishing contents – no hat, or gloves, or coffee cup. He was like that. No food in the car, and leave nothing in there, that was his rule. So, it looked like every other new car with a black interior.
Reflexively, he reached into his pocket, and was relieved to find his keys and fob filling up the bottom. He brought the keys out and clicked the second button from the top – nothing. He tried two or three more successive button presses, but to no avail. Horace let a curse slip out of his lips. He then smiled ironically to himself as he pressed the panic button, holding his key fob aloft to give it the maximum range. “I’ll find that car one way or another,” he thought. Nothing.
“Well, looks like my problem just got bigger,” he mused. Years of problem solving in his job kicked in, and he began to mentally assess the possibilities. “The battery could be dead in this fob,” he thought, “but this thing is pretty new, and I don’t think I’ve ever had a battery go out on one of these things.” Scratch that off of the list.
“Maybe I’m too far from my car,” he mumbled, and began walking the length of the lot pressing the panic key with his arm lifted. “Well shit,” he muttered. There was only one other probability – he had walked to the store.
On a day like today, that was quite likely – the sun was out, and he only lived about a half mile into the development. “Guess I’m walking,” he told himself. And with that, he sighed, stepped onto the sidewalk, and began the trek home. He knew at least the general direction, and was sure he would recognize the street names and landmarks as he went.
Though it was a crisp fall day, the sun was warm. He was grateful for his jacket, but even more for the rays warming his face. He stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and shut his eyes, facing the sun. “Thank you God for this day, for this moment,” he prayed in his mind. “I am pain free, I’m not hungry, and I feel your warmth.”
Just as he was finishing his prayer, a cloud passed in front of the sun, and he opened his eyes to see an entire front of dark clouds coming in from the west. “Damn, I better get moving,” he warned himself, and picked up his pace again.
But Horace couldn’t walk too quickly. He was older, and had collected the cadre of lifelong injuries that never completely go away. He had turned his ankle in that basketball game in high school, and it had never been entirely right since. He’d had knee surgeries after college, having been too aggressive with his martial arts.
How he wished he had learned the art of quietness and self control before he overdid it! A young man doesn’t know his limitations, nor how much anger can hurt him until it is too late.
He continued his survey of injuries. The neck injury from wrestling with buddies drunk in the dorm hallways that led to his habitual cracking of his neck vertebrae. He wondered if people viewed him strangely for turning his head a few times an hour trying to crack it. He had to admit, though, he enjoyed it when people grimaced at hearing the crack when he did it just right.
The broken wrist that never healed (“do they ever?” he wondered) and that couldn’t hold a cast iron frying pan anymore. The lower back that lurked, waiting to shock him into submission onto the floor. But worst of all, the knees – “yep,” he frowned, “that’s why I can’t walk at mach speed anymore.”
Having long ago come to a point of acceptance with his various physical disabilities, he enjoyed his slow pace and began to survey his route. Across the next intersection, he could see the home that had been converted into a pre-school. The school where his children had attended and started their journey into being bilingual – how beautiful his daughters had looked in their ballet folklorico dresses, spinning them this way and that like fancy ribbons. He remembered the smell of their hair as he kissed them when they were young, and how he wondered if any of the boys would one day be their husbands (he had hoped not, none of them seemed good enough for his daughters back then).
Waiting at the intersection, he realized that this might be his turn. Was it this street, or the next? These modern developments all looked the same. Every house a clone of the one next to it. The pedestrian light that led to his right turned white, and he took that as a good enough reason to cross into the development. This street would surely take him to his house.
The sun now at his left, he continued past a few streets, and to a circle. “This is familiar,” he thought to himself, “this is where I hit that dog that night.” The large pit bull had run right in front of him and pretty much bounced off of his bumper, unfazed. It ran to the door of the house it was trying to reach, and looked a little shaken, but not hurt.
He remembered the first animal he had killed with his car. He had been only 17, and had just gotten his license that same year. It was dark, and the ‘possum had run out of the woods right in front of him. He heard the dreadful double thump, but saw nothing as he glanced back in the red glow of his tail lights in the dark. He remembered driving back that same way later in the evening, and seeing nothing in the road. Maybe it had lived. Or maybe it had crawled off to die in the bushes, he didn’t know.
A cool breeze carried some drops of water and spat them on his cheek, which made him look up at the clouds he had seen earlier. They were upon him, and they looked like they meant to do him harm. He wasn’t going to make it home – not without getting pretty wet.
He looked around and saw the yellow park on this left. The park where he had taught his children how to climb. The top of the slide had three sides and a roof, and he instinctively headed for it to avoid the rain that was now increasing, and with not a little wind. He carefully climbed the stairs to the enclosure and sat down in the back corner, pulling his jacket tightly around him. This was as good a place as any to wait out the storm.
The heavy drops whooshed against the heavy plastic sides and roof as they were driven by the gusts, but Horace was pretty well sheltered, or so it seemed to him. As he looked over the amber playground equipment, he replayed the moments that he had taken to teach each child to climb. “Put one hand up first,” he had taught, “then one leg, then PUSH that leg straight.” It wasn’t long until each of his three toddlers had learned the trick. Then they wanted to do it over and over. How exciting accomplishment had been for them! And even more so for Horace.
Having children in his late 30’s made him appreciate them so much more than if he had been in his 20’s. By that point, he was already somewhat aware of the shortness of life, and the meaninglessness of worldly accomplishments. Soaking in and enjoying these moments with his children was what life was about. And now, thinking back on those days, he knew he had made the right choice to slow down and enjoy the moments.
Not that he had seen all of them – there were plenty of times where he was trying to make some self-imposed deadline, or was just frazzled and tired, and had missed out on some precious opportunities. But right now, those few moments that had stuck gave him joy – a deep kind of joy that seemed timeless – except that the memories were a little dimmer now. But the feelings remained.
For a moment, Horace was lost in the reveries that, surprisingly, those times in the park now provided. How many times had he not gone to the park with the kids because he was tired? And tired for what? Whatever those reasons were, they seemed insufficient now. Those memories were worth it.
The rain seemed to die out as quickly as it came, and Horace decided to gingerly make his way down the stairs when a funny idea struck him – this tornado slide, it was enclosed and dry. Why not take the easy way down? Could he stick the landing, or would he shoot out on his butt and hit the back of his head on the bottom of the slide? After doing a short risk calculation in his head, he decided walking back down the wet wooden stairs might be more dangerous – and he quickly pushed himself down the chute, reminding himself to be careful at the bottom.
He swirled down the tube, as if in a cyclone of experiences and memories from childhood. A slide was still fun. “Go figure!” he thought as he put out his feet at the bottom and somehow used his momentum to bring his body gently to a standing position. “Well,” he said out loud, “that’s easier than standing up!”
Turning his face towards what he thought might be home (he was still watching and hoping for more familiar landmarks), he worked his way back onto the main sidewalk and sauntered on.
Another circle? How many circles were in this place? Having a general sense of where he should go, he started to turn left, but then began walking the circle as if he were navigating it in his car. “Take the third exit off of the circle,” he said, mocking the voice of his phone’s gps.
He remembered how, on days when he had a full car of children, like after church, he would purposely miss his turn ¾ of the way around and go all the way around again, even faster to pull some g’s to make the kids scream. They always loved that – but he could only do it when their mother wasn’t present, she would get sick and give him that look of disdain – the mommy look.
His thoughts turned to his wife. He saw her face in his mind. How was it still so pretty to him after all of these years? Maybe it was just familiarity, but it brought him comfort either way. When was the last time he had talked with her?
A troubled look came across his face. He couldn’t remember any recent conversations with her at all. A deep sadness squeezed his heart. Was she still alive? Had she died and he had forgotten? He tried hard to remember the last time he had seen her, but all he could remember was her last visit to the hospital, and those terrible breathing machines and tubes. What had she been in there for?
It didn’t matter, did she make it home? He couldn’t remember, but his pace quickened unconsciously. He had to get home. His hand clenched the pharmacy bag tightly as his arms began to swing more vigorously.
Horace turned a corner and recognized his own street. “This is it!” he nearly shouted, and continued walking briskly, searching for his house. Down the street, he noticed a grouping of police cars and an ambulance with their lights flashing, and wondered for a second.
“O my God, that’s my house!” he shouted, and broke into a hobbling run. Perhaps his wife was in trouble, and he had been gone! The guilt of neglected responsibility filled his body as he lumbered down the sidewalk, unaware that he was shouting to the officers, “hey, hey, hey!”
Just then, as they were looking towards him, a woman burst out between two burly men – it was his dear wife! But she looked so panicked. Had one of their children had an accident? What was happening?
As they ran up to one another, he could see her eyes searching his face, asking him some question, but he couldn’t hear her because he was shouting at her – “Are you okay? What’s going on?”
Her hand came up to his face, in a sort of motherly caress, and he finally heard her asking him, “Where have you been? We’ve been looking all over for you! You can’t just up and leave the house!”
Horace surveyed his front lawn. His wife in front of him. The officers and medical personnel all looking at him with concern. And he remembered. He was the one with the memory problem. Alzheimers. He had taken off and made everyone worry. He was the one everyone was taking care of. And he would probably forget all of this crisis by tomorrow.
“I’m not totally gone,” he told his wife, looking into her sweet face. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly, embracing her and looking up at the sun, now fading behind the hills. “I’m sorry,” he said again, closing his eyes and savoring the moment – his wife in his arms, the sun setting.
“And thank you,” he said to the sky. “And thank you.”