Lately, I’ve been noticing people with canes. I understand how useful they can be if you have injured your foot, your leg, for instance. Use a cane while it heals.
But the canes I have been watching are being used by older people. Typically, they are not pretty or decorated. They look worn, they bow sometimes from the weight of their owner. At every other step, there is something to hang onto, to lean on, to use to keep your balance.
I wonder what the first day is like with a cane.
At my bus stop, there is a wonderful woman who waits for buses with me nearly every morning. We’re both older than most of our compatriots on the bus and like many older people, we worry about tomorrow a lot more than we let on. She and I grouse about the bus drivers and we keep tabs on other regular riders.
Something she said to me once has bothered me since it first came up months ago. We were talking about walking home from the office in a power outage. We agreed it would be an effort to cover this distance on foot and she told me suddenly, “You know, I’d hate to have to start using a cane. I want to hold out to the last minute.”
We both walk now unaided and many days, I will go out of my way to find nice walks because walking clears my head. In fact, I know that I could walk the entire route to my office more often if I had the organizational skills necessary to get out of the house a half hour to forty-five minutes earlier. She, on the other hand, might not be as comfortable, even though she clearly does not need a cane. Today.
But how do you know it’s time? Is there something that cries out to you that today is the day you surrender to old age and start using a cane? Does a doctor tell you to use one? Or is this something that creeps up where you just don’t remember later how it started, how you found yourself in the store, picking out a cane?
I can’t imagine they would be any harder to get used to than my new hiking poles. I took them out for a spin and had the rhythm down pat in just a few steps. If the height is right and the feel of the handle doesn’t irritate your hand, how difficult would it be to use a cane? It’d be pretty simple, right? Step, cane-step; step, cane-step; step, cane-step. And off you go.
But then, there’s no going back, is there? Now you are officially a senior citizen, an older American, a what, disabled person? With that one stroke, you would go from being abled to disabled and unlike the ones who use canes when they have sustained an injury, you will know, deep down, there’s no going back to normal. You don’t get to improve or get better. This is the moment you would have to realize you can only get less better. Today, cane; tomorrow, walker? Then, wheelchair? And those beautiful canary yellow hiking poles that were so exciting the first time out, will be left in the closet for someone else to use.
I am not ready to give up hiking just yet. I want to walk unaided and I relish every single chance I get to do so. Of course, I worry this walk today or maybe one tomorrow could be the one where I realize I just can’t do it anymore. It’s too hard or I worry too much that I could fall.
But, I hope it’s not this walk. It’s almost sunset now and the breeze is amazing. I feel it on my face and when I step out, it nudges me forward. I stretch up to my full height at each street corner and I step carefully across all those cracks in the sidewalk. I catch a glimpse of kids on the swings, the men playing dominos at the card tables alongside the vegetable market, and the young girls comparing notes on that boy across the street. I don’t want to miss any of this, this wonderful and exuberant life of the city and it’s fabulous that nobody even notices me as I walk by.
"As I walk by." God, I love those words.