There she was again, the elderly woman I so often saw outside my uncle’s apartment building when I went there to take him out. Like him, she too would be waiting to be picked up by some member of the ever-hurrying younger generation. She was glaring at me, same as always.
I felt I knew why. It was because when Uncle Ed spotted me from the lobby and began trudging out along the 40 feet of canopied walkway, I would stay in the car. “What’s the matter with that girl?” I just knew the woman was thinking.
I looked away from her to wave at this 91-year-old uncle who was by then pulling himself patiently along with his cane.
“Why does she just SIT there?” I was sure she was thinking. “Why doesn’t she get out and help him?” So, this time, I got out of my car and approached her.“He won’t let me help him walk you know,” I said without introduction. “He just won’t!”
He didn’t mind the assist once he got close to the car though. Then I would jump out, hug him, take his cane and stand ready to help him ‘come aboard’.
Crippled up as he was by arthritis in his hips, he would take this process very slowly, using his still-mighty arms to pull himself up into the air, pivot and then land, one haunch at a time, on the front seat.
Sometimes he could do this in one motion and sometimes he couldn’t.
When he couldn’t hoist the right half of his bottom successfully into place he would laugh and say, “Turn the other cheek!” then try hoisting the other.
Eventually, he’d be belted safely in place and we would drive off to eat our picnic and feast our eyes on all that passed before us as we sat by the Town Common or the little pond behind the library.
I was still standing next to The Woman Who Glared as these thoughts rushed through my mind.
“Really I’m just following orders,” I went on. “He also says ‘Don’t get out!’ when I bring him back here, and scolds me if I try. ‘I’ve taken enough of your time today!’ he always says.”
“I know you must think that I’m awful,” I concluded.
She looked at me and blinked.
“Awful?” she finally said. “That’s not what I think! I see you and think ‘How does she do this so often, coming to take him out all the time?”
I didn’t know how to answer her. Could I tell this stranger that I was trying always to atone for the fact that I had been so slow to understand about the loneliness of the shut-in? Could I tell her how remorseful I still feel not to have sensed the loneliness in my own mother, who only wanted to see me and be around me, but alas I was too ‘busy’?
In my speechlessness I could only take and squeeze her hand, and now here was Uncle Ed, smiling and calling “Ahoy!”
I did not know on that early-April day in 2012 that this would be the last afternoon I would have with him; did not know that five days later I would find his poor body, fallen and cold in his neat-as-a-pin apartment.
We so often act as if we’re omniscient; we even imagine we can read the thoughts of others. But in truth we are like children in the backward-facing seat of those station wagons of yore, seeing only where we have gone and never, ever, where we are going.