On our way out of the grocery store parking lot, I watched an old woman begin to cross Main Street. First her right foot stepped forward, barely leaving pavement, then she moved her bag one inch toward the road and set it down. Then slowly, she lifted her left foot and shuffled it to meet the right. I recognized her. Last year, after we had waited in the checkout line behind her for several long minutes and it became clear that this elderly woman was intending to actually walk home, my husband offered her a ride. Tonight, though it was just me, my boys and their friend, I was not willing to drive away and let someone spend ten minutes moving like molasses across a busy street, hoping all drivers see her in a grey sweater and denim skirt at dusk.
Her body is permanently bent at an angle that allows her to see to her left easily but not to her right without considerable effort. When I called out to offer her a ride, she stopped, tilted her head to the left. In a loud voice, I repeated the offer. Slight nod. I threw my vehicle into park, ran to the back of my van, picked up her grocery bag and set it just inside the door. Then I walked over to her, reaching out my hand to help in hopes that my assistance would speed her pace (oh please?).
I was struck and then calmed by the softness of her hand.
No longer allowing myself to indulge in impatience, I observed that her skirt, sweater and large tan orthopedic shoes were spotlessly clean. She said she only needed to go to the corner nearest her apartment and would be fine from there.
Because I remembered the slow scene last year, after a brief confusion looking for her corner, I asked permission to pull into her driveway. I then carried her groceries to her front door and came back to find her slowly looking for her house keys in a makeshift purse, a green, reusable grocery bag. As minutes ticked by and she continued to sift through her purse, she told me about her cat, the upstairs neighbor (a busy music student) and a stray couch left in her alleyway. Keys finally located, I ran her purse up to her front door. When I returned, she took my hand, scooted inch by inch by inch to standing. Then we walked, half a foot at a time around to the front of our van, along a cracked sidewalk, and up the stairs.
On this journey of sorts, she told me how her cat scratched up the alley couch, that she was considering seeking social services for help even though she didn’t want to be a bother, and how dangerous her driveway could be in winter. Since the boys were waiting in the van I felt I should get going. She asked my name and thanked me sweetly. We said good-bye on her front porch.
Not two blocks later, I wondered why I felt the need to rush away before she was safely inside. Hadn’t the children been doing fine all along? In the shadow of my doubts, I pictured my new friend falling from her place at the top of the stairs before she managed to get the door unlocked. I saw her crumpled in a bloody ball on the bottom step. I tried to go on, convince myself she was fine. But that small voice of doubt wouldn’t hush.
I rounded back, shoulders growing tense. Driving down Illinois Street, I passed the front of her house which was now dark and blessedly empty. I drove home grateful my impatience hadn’t been rewarded with tragedy.
Once home, I could still feel the impression of her soft hand in mine. I wondered what stories I’d missed.
Heidi Baker is a second-generation poet and story teller whose writing reflects inner landscapes shaped by journeys of miles and other measures: from Illinois to Arizona, work to home, childhood to adulthood to parenthood. Gentle, imaginative, full of honesty and wonder, her clear writing captures the sacredness of everyday moments. In addition to her growing body of published works, Heidi creates space for other writers, youth and adult, through facilitation of workshops and groups.