Monday, November 7, 2011

Mary and James

She moves more slowly now than ever.  Think weebles wobble but they don’t fall down.  She’s short and round.  One leg appears several inches shorter than the other and the extreme limp is actually the result of many years of hip degeneration, a couple of operations, and failed physical therapy to alter destructive patterns of movement that go back to her childhood.  Her soft tongue protrudes with the concentration it takes for her to stay on her feet.  She looks down to see where her feet will land but somehow, out of the corner of her eye, she’s also aware of the need to get across the traffic lane.  So she speeds up.  In so doing she tilts and wobbles at ever more extreme angles.

He seems to glide across the parking lot as if on a slow conveyor belt.  He carries his slim frame like a torch, but there’s a small stoop to his shoulder and his left arm bends close to his chest, his weak fingers curl near his heart.  His prominent smile and squint behind thick glasses tells us what he told us earlier.  He’s just really happy to be alive.  They do not touch as they walk; each make their way as best they can. But they are definitely together. 

Lots of people stare.  They stop traffic as they navigate the parking lot and I think they should have held on to the shopping cart, or at least she should have, since it worked as a kind of walker for her in the store.  After many months of our not seeing one another, I’m alarmed by how unsteady she seems on her feet these days.  I do not hover.  I walk at my own pace and trust they'll make it through this gauntlet on their own terms.

“That was fun, Sweetie,” he says in a gorgeous baritone radio voice I keep thinking he could have used as an announcer had his circumstances been different in life.  She says “Oh yeah Honey, we should do this more often,” and they hug and slide in to the back seat of my Toyota Highlander. 

My sister, Kate and I have just taken our youngest sister, Mary, and her boyfriend, James to lunch and to Walmart.   This “sister day” was a day Mary had been advocating for for many months. The four hour drive and my busy schedule have prevented me from visiting Mary in her own apartment, sadly, for over two years. While I see her regularly at family gatherings, this is different. 

Today I think the distance and my life are no excuse.  We’re aging. Time is passing.   This sister, who, in my mind, will always be a sweet girl with odd ways in need of my protection, now has grey streaks in her thinning hair, and seems on track for a wheelchair if her body doesn’t miraculously straighten out.  Still, she navigates without me day in day out. She works with James 5 days a week but they never see one another except at break times.  So Saturday Lunch and shopping.  Meeting James.  Mary's wished for this more than anything for a long time and it's taken me too long to make it happen.  While there's plenty to worry about on my sister's behalf,  James is not one of those things.  In fact, he's a beacon and their tenderness for one another gives me pause to think all is well in the world for the moment.

But five hours together is enough for her, as I suspected it would be.  By late afternoon we have accomplished all her sister goals for the day. We visited at her place, fetched James, ate a meal out on the town, did some shopping.  She exchanged her faulty Discman, purchased new headphones, some beloved “office supplies”: pens and spiral ring notebooks.  She got to snuggle and laugh with James in the back seat as James told me his story and wished aloud for a place of his own like Mary has.  When we dropped him off at his group home, they hugged but did not kiss.  “Love you James,” Mary said.   “Love you too Mary,” said James.

I got to see Mary in the world with the man she loves.  She helped him cut his sandwich at lunch and was by his side to sort out his financial transaction at the Walmart check-out counter.  “He’s good to me,” Mary says.  “She looks out for me, Beth,” James says.  

When we leave her, Mary hugs Kate and me each quickly but completely, totally ready for us to clear out so she can have her alone time.  She has house chores to do and a schedule to keep.   I know this includes listening to music on her new Discman and writing her version of the day down in her notebook. 

BLR for the Poplar Grove Muse  11-7-11


  1. Vivid and moving. Age comes upon us all, whether we have achieved a conventional adulthood or not. I love the mutuality of the gifts Mary and James bring to each other's lives. MKP

  2. Such a beautiful story.I teared up at the tenderness that Mary and James have for each other. What a gift that day was for everyone.