Tuesday, April 2, 2019

The walker

Ever since Fred Bird surprised us with that first wobbly, uncertain flight a couple weeks back, he has gotten in a little flying almost every day. Sometimes he’ll get in two or three launches, but often he’s a one-and-done. He’s OK midair, but landings have been tough, usually just random drops into the field. Then he’ll just sit there in the weeds until one of us picks him up. It’s hard to figure out how Fred feels about this flying business, perhaps because he’s uncertain himself. Often when he’s outside for some flight time, he’ll perch on K’s arm and lean forward and flap his wings like crazy—but won’t let go. “He’s really holding on,” K has said, and I know what that feels like from both sides. I’ve had Fred on my arm while he flaps away but stays firmly in place, claws gripping my arm until I think it’s going to snap in two. But of course, as a human being, I also know what it’s like to be afraid to let go of a known thing. I understand fear of falling.


My father is 90 years old. He has trouble seeing, hearing, talking, and walking, but has found workarounds for all of these ailments. He gets large-print books from the library so his less-than-perfect vision won’t keep him from reading, and happily as a result his mind has stayed sharp as well. As for hearing and talking, as he told me recently with a chuckle, “I just avoid having conversations as much as I can.” The walking, though, had remained problematic until just this week.

“I keep telling him to get a walker!” my sister frequently yelled to me. My sister is one of the only people I know who still calls people on the phone instead of texting. I kind of hate it, to be honest, since I am one of the many people who hates talking on the phone, but because she lives near my parents and I don’t, she’s been tasked with their care, so I don’t complain when the phone actually rings and I have to answer it with my voice and have a conversation. Shudder.

“He is so stubborn! He says he’s afraid the walker will trip him and he’ll fall. That’s what the walker is supposed to prevent!” she shouted. My sister raises her voice a lot when she talks about our father. I suppose the text equivalent would be all-caps and some angry emojis.

“He’s saying that as an excuse,” I offered. “He’s just afraid of having to try a new thing. And then there’s his pride, too.”

“Yeah, I know. He hates the idea that he needs a walker like an old person. Uh, you ARE an old person!”

Our parents live in a senior living community. It’s not assisted living; it’s just a gated community for people over 55, and given that I’m distressingly not far off from that, it’s not much more than an ordinary neighborhood. At 90 my father is likely one of the oldest residents there. Neighbors 20 years younger have to get around with canes, walkers, or wheelchairs. “Everyone there is old and needs help getting around,” my sister pointed out. “Why would he care what other people think? Who cares if he has to use a walker? They probably think he’s stupid not to use one!”

But our father has never cared much about what people think of him. Because he is sensitive to cold temperatures, he often wears several layers of clothing, and each layer will be a different, vivid, non-matching color, including his favorite pink sweater. “Who says pink is a ‘girl’s’ color? It’s a color!” he would insist, and don it over two shirts, maroon and blue. So I doubt he cared about other people thinking he was weak and helpless. He cared, I suspect, about not feeling weak and helpless himself.

This past weekend, however, common sense finally prevailed. “We got a walker!” my sister all-caps shouted. “And he’s happy with it! He said it makes walking so much easier.”

“Duh!” we shouted in unison.

“It’s got a built-in seat he can pull out and sit on if he gets tired,” she continued. “He likes that. He also likes that he can walk straight and upright. And he doesn’t worry as much about falling.”

All of us know that at his age, one fall could very well be the end. A walker won’t keep him living forever, and nobody can ignore the reality of a tired, frail body. Life is endlessly, relentlessly humbling. But at least he has this now: he can continue to move through the world, one slightly more confident step at a time.


After a flying session, Fred often seems quiet and subdued, like he’s still trying to make sense of what just happened. Flight, the thing he seemed to yearn for so keenly and desperately whenever he saw Boston and Phoenix take off, is now suddenly, terrifyingly, real to him. And it, too, is a humbling experience, replete with failing and falling and getting up shaken and afraid. Yet, continuing, in whatever way, as long as it’s possible.

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