As the sun was setting and dusk draped itself over the Village of Jackson yesterday, Atticus and I took Will out for a walk. Well, technically, Will rode while we walked.
The Will Wagon has proven to be indispensable for us since it gives Will a freedom to get out and about. It’s always been important to me that he doesn’t stay a shut in. That he gets to enjoy the things we all enjoy: fresh air, the wind in our faces, the smells, textures, tastes, sights (as limited as they may be), and social interaction.
Will is mostly happy sleeping much of the day away, he, like all of us, likes to get out and do things, even If he can’t do many things.
I was laughing as we walked along the road with Atticus in the lead; Will stuck his head out of the unzipped portion of the Will Wagon on the left hand side to better watch Atticus and the world pass. His pointed ears, looking not unlike a silhouette of Batman, and his head off to the side, looking like an engineer in an old locomotive. He rides contented along.
I had a rare thought of my mother. I don’t think about her much because I don’t remember much. She died so long ago. I was seven. What does come to mind is an occasional drifting memory. She had Multiple Sclerosis by the time I came along, the ninth of nine children. She wore heavy braces on her legs and made her way around the house on crutches, the metal ones that wrap around your forearms and offer up a soft clank each time they are planted. After she died the crutches stayed behind and in my high school years they became my constant companions. I had problems with my legs and most of the time there were either casts or immobilizers on my left leg and I’d hop around with great dexterity on those same crutches that gave her freedom to move in our house. At one point, in the summer before my senior year of high school, I started doing four mile loops with them through the Medway late day summer air. I was determined not to be held back and to be able to get out into the world and away from the house on my own.
But outside, Isabel Shea Ryan needed a wheelchair if we went anywhere. And my father did a great job of making sure we went plenty of places. What a sight it was, Isabel in a wheelchair, often with my father pushing her, followed by nine kids. Trips to a restaurant. Shopping. Even up to the White Mountains on vacation.
So last night I thought about how we used to take turns pushing my mother around as I pushed Will around. The concept is the same, to not let those we care about be shut up inside and isolated from the world because of a physical limitation.
When I push Will, Atticus does his own things, gets his own stimulation. He leads the way, or floats behind. He likes it better when it’s just the two of us and we have more freedom, but he’s patient and kind when Will is with us.
We stop often, so that Will can experience things we take for granted most of the time. The rumble of the covered bridge when cars pass through it, or the smell of the aged wood. A patch of wild flowers. Visits in the front yard with Kevin and Michelle at Flossie’s General Store. At the town park I take Will out and let him trundle unevenly along, circling and hopping. At first he hangs around me, a little tussling and wrestling between us, and then he gets bolder and starts to investigate what’s around. I let him go for quite a distance to give him his freedom. Every now and then I redirect him or bring him back to where we are and he starts out again.
Then there’s the soft lapping current of the Wildcat River. Atticus drinks from it on our walks but I carry Will across the rounded rocks that are difficult for him to negotiate and I help him stand in the river. I think of the elderly I used to care for during a short chapter in my life and how much they would have loved to feel wild waters made soft by the miles they have travelled, fresh and cool, swirling around their feet on a summer night.
From our home, the loop we do is 1.4 miles, and we pass by a few inns, some restaurants, the post office, and Carrie’s Dutch Bloemen Winkel. In the early morning, the promise of a day is dawning and all looks optimistic in the soft, golden light. At the end of the day it feels differently. Lights slowly come on like the stars coming out above us. I think of what it must feel like to Will as we roll along to see the change in the lighting, to feel the textures his wheels pass over, to feel the coming night.
As we rumbled across the old Stone Bridge last night, we waited for Atticus, who was sniffing some wild roses. I took Will out again and held him in my arms. We both looked down on the water and followed the current through a corridor of darkening trees until it disappeared in the distance. Even then I tried to imagine the sensations he might be feeling.
While approaching home, on the last stretch by the golf course, two locals called out to us and we crossed the road and stood on one of the greens chatting with them. Atticus said his hellos and they greeted Will, who they’d never met. I took him out and let him bounce around the spongy putting green and it gave him a chance to pick up speed and enjoy his freedom. I chased him down and carried him back to where we all were. That’s when Will had the opportunity to feel another sensation. Being held by the woman we were chatting with. She squeezed him in her arms and he graciously accepted it. He sat snuggled, his face against her cheek, watching me, inhaling her soft scent.
While the three of us talked, Atticus watched and sat while we stood, and Will was cradled for several minutes before he wanted to get down and bounce on the green again.
By the time we arrived home, the stars were out completely. I had my headlamp on and a pair of glowing eyes looked our way from the back of the property.
“Hello,” I said to the passing bear, before the three of us went upstairs and left him sniffing Will’s wild flower garden. As soon as we got inside Will took a drink, then found his way into the bedroom and went to sleep. The ride to touch his senses capped off a full day.
I’m not Will but I do my best to recognize him by putting myself in his place. He’s elderly and highly dependent on me, but he leads a pretty cool life. I know I’ll most likely not live as long as he is going to. Most of us won’t. But I think of myself as an old man and I consider what I’d want if I was in his place. Time to time I come up with new ideas about what to share with him, but mostly, I know what he appreciates is a place to belong, someone to belong with who cares for him, and allows him to be who he is. Although I take care of Will, I avoid many of the endearing terms some like to use with animals, just because, while cute, they minimize, they put animals below us. That’s not my intent with Will. I like the idea of honoring his life. Of treating him as I would any elderly individual.
When I worked in that nursing home with many long-forgotten people, I would sit quietly with them and ask, “Would you tell me your story? Tell me about what makes you happy? Who you miss and who you love and what you want to do today?
In his own way, by the responses he gives me, elderly Will, ancient in so many ways, tells me his story and I do my best to honor it.
Will has his limitations. We all do. But I look at him and see he’s more alive than many people I know who are supposedly in the prime of their lives. We start the day by me carrying him downstairs. We end it by me pulling a blanket up over his body as he lies softly snoring. In between, he lives. We live.