A Moment of Reflection

A chance meeting and a man out walking with ski-poles changed the way I see the world.

I originally posted this over at The Girlfriend’s Book Club blog.

Out where I live there’s an older gentleman I used to see walking along the road. He’s pretty tall, with hair that’s thinning on top and more white than gray. He’s got a bit of a paunch, but he walks at a brisk, slap-dash pace. He has a red-orange ski-pole clutched in either hand. Whenever I’d see him I’d think, How odd. Why is he walking with ski-poles? He was moving along at a good clip, so I always wondered about those ski-poles. It seemed so delightfully eccentric.

The area where I live is rural, so there’s no sidewalks, just the road with all the dirt and detritus that’s the result of cars and trucks speeding past. The road is the main route to the Coast Guard base and to the beach. The cold and treacherous Pacific Ocean is about a 45 minute drive from my house. I wondered if maybe he was using the ski-poles to pick up trash.

Mostly I thought it was great he was out there getting exercise. I’d wave from time to time if I saw him when I was slowing down to make the left turn to the dirt road that leads to our house. Sometimes I’d see a younger woman walking along with him. It’s nice to have company, I thought.

A few months ago, I was buying my son’s bus pass for school, and I got into a pleasant conversation with the lady at the school district office. She had cute puppy pictures at her desk and we talked about puppies and dogs and exchanged a few stories. She mentioned she lived in the country and, it turns out, only a few hundreds yards (as the crow flies) from my house. We live up a hill and, as I learned, we can see her house from our deck.

Then she mentioned her father, who lives with her and has Parkinson’s disease. It was her father I’d been seeing on the road, walking with ski-poles because his balance was precarious. And from time to time, that was her, walking with her father who was trying his best to stave off the effects of his disease.

She was a lovely, cheerful woman, but concerned about her father and his health, though you’d never know it just talking to her in the normal course of things.

It got me to thinking about how we see only a slice of the world. I’d see her father, walking alongside the road with his ski-poles and think it was such a strange thing to be doing. Ski-poles? They’d be ruined by all the dirt and rocks and bits of glass. And he must have been thinking about how important it was for him to move a body he could not really trust. A body and mind that needed ski-poles for balance.

I’m bounded by what I know and by the fact that I cannot know everything. What looks odd and even amusing to me, in my ignorance, is someone else’s private struggle.

In real life, and in my writing, I hold on to the lesson that we are, all of us, always partially blind. My characters, whether they are Regency era ladies or contemporary demons and mages, inhabit a world in which what they see and experience is only a slice of the real world of the novel. As the story progresses, they will always learn something that changes their perceptions. For them, the world changes and that change might well be a humbling experience.

I haven’t seen the gentleman with the ski-poles in a while. If I hadn’t met his daughter and chatted with her, I’d think nothing of it. If I even thought about not seeing him, I’d think he must have changed his schedule or, like so many of us, given up the exercise.  Instead, I’m sorry because I suspect it means his disease has progressed to the point where not even red-orange ski-poles are enough.

My encounter with his daughter changed me and changed the meaning of seeing, and then no longer seeing, a man walking briskly along the side of the road.

Updated to Add: I bought my son’s school bus pass yesterday (8/12/2011) and chatted with the woman again. She and her father have moved to another town which is why I don’t see him any more. She said he’s doing well and is able to walk up and down their driveway which is safer for him than walking along the road.


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4 Responses to “A Moment of Reflection”

  1. A lovely reminder that there is so much more to people than we first assume.

  2. Linda says:

    My father, a retired school teacher and previously very athletic, passed away 2 years ago from complications of Parkinson’s disease. When I was going through his things I found a card in one of his pockets. It read, ‘Please understand, I am not drunk; my Parkinson’s disease makes it appear so.’ I wonder how many stares and remarks he had received over the course of his last years. First impressions, wrong story.

  3. Aaron James says:

    This is another scenario in which one remembers the old saying “you can’t judge a book by the cover.” One would be hard-pressed to find a truer statement.