We met soon after my husband and I moved into a house in a forested community in Chapel Hill. Still working full time, I took my long walks over the weekend. As I trudged up a particularly steep hill, an older man wearing a floppy hat and listing slightly towards the right, ambled towards me. Happy to meet someone from the neighborhood, I stopped to speak with him. He told me that he was a retired physiology professor and strolled the neighborhood trails twice a day to “keep in shape.” When we parted, he touched the brim of his hat and said, “Good day.”
So dignified, I thought.
The professor and I met sporadically until I retired. Now, each year, after the winter yields to spring, I run into him a few times a week. I know that he takes a different path in the morning and afternoon. Sometimes when we meet, he just tips his floppy hat as I pass by. Other times we stop to banter about the weather, or how fast I walk, or how slow he walks.
Once we strolled a while together as he spoke of hearing loss, memory problems, and stiffness in his joints.
“My neighbor always tells me to ‘take care.’ What do I have to take care of?” He laughed. “I’m eighty-eight years old.” He stopped to catch his breath and his smile faded
“Walking is a good way to slow the aging process.”
“Yep,” I agreed. His words unearthed my own fear of getting older. I wanted to hug him, pump him up with clichés of “use it or lose it” and encourage him to “keep on truckin.”
I did none of those things. I smiled and picked up my pace.
Somehow the professor’s longevity has become bound up in my own fear of deterioration. I want him to keep his mind sharp and his conversation snappy. I don’t want him to wear out.
Weeks pass by before I see his familiar shape again: a thin man listing to the right, trudging down the road. The signature floppy hat.
I rev up my pace. When I sidle beside him, he smiles his bucktooth smile. He dark face wrinkles and crumples his eyes into slits. He lifts his hand to the rim of his cap.
“I haven’t seen you for a while,” I say.
“Well, you know the weather has been cold and I’ve been busy with my income tax. Got to find all the information. Takes a while.”
“Guess I’ll see you more now that the weather is getting mild.” Before he can respond I add, as casually as I can, “By the way, we have been talking to each other for a few years now and I never did learn your name.”
His name is Joe. His last name is a string of consonants. He spells it out for me. I know that this is a name I’ll recognize if it appears in the obituary section in our local newspaper.
Trotting along side of him, I note his slower pace. He looks a little thinner. He makes some comment about never being able to catch up with me. We laugh. I jog ahead as he trudges behind me.
Two days later, I spot the professor in Dillard’s department store on the arm of a white haired woman wearing a deep red jacket. Her lips match her coat. Her eyes are bright and alert. Her posture’s perfect. I approach them. He recognizes me. He smiles.
“This is my wife, Helen, she just had a bad fall and I’m holding her up.” This is probably a well-worn joke between them because they both laugh.
I tell Helen that I run into her husband frequently on either his morning or afternoon walk to different parts of the neighborhood.
“Oh, he walks the same path morning and afternoon now,” she says. “The afternoon way became too hilly for him.”
He nods. His eyes look unhappy. When did that happen?
After we chat a bit more, I say as I turn to leave, “See you on your walk later.”
“No” he answers, “This shopping trip will tire me out. I won’t be walking this afternoon.”
Again, I sense sadness in his voice, or is it my own sadness?
I circle the cosmetic counter so I can watch the professor and his wife clinging to each other as they saunter towards the men’s department. He lists towards her, their heads almost touching as they talk and walk. It disheartens me that aging is wearing him down but I’m glad to know that he has someone to hold on to.