Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Swimming and Bicycles

When I was in high school I met a girl and she quickly became one of my best friends.  Eventually she became my absolute best friend.  During those years I got to know her family very well. I was particularly fond of her mother, Marci.  One day, Mrs. Campbell, as I always called my friend, based on a play we both loved, and Marci came into the bookstore where I worked.   We all embraced, talked, and then they went about shopping for titles they had their minds.  I knew that at that time Marci, a single Mom, was looking for a part-time job.  We were looking for people at that time, so I had my manager meet Marci.  He liked her, had her apply, and she came to work with me.  

Marci and I usually worked the same shifts, evenings and some weekend days.  We used to talk a lot when things were slow. We did this for a couple of years. When I got older, on our breaks, instead of going and sitting in the back staff room, we would go next door to a little chain French bistro and drink a glass of wine.  She would encourage me to keep doing what I was doing, which was writing.  She always told me I would knock it out of the box. She was with me when an agent asked to see my stuff and my first story was accepted for publication. We drank a bit more wine that evening than we normally did.  She always encouraged me in a lot of ways; helped me to be a grown-up.

 One snowy, icy, night, when Marci drove me home, we went into a slide and were headed for a deep ditch and a retention pond. She put on the brakes and I opened my door, jumped out, dug my feet in the snow, held and pushed the car while she did her best to turn the wheels, accelerate, and try to get it back on the road.  We won that day.  When I got back in the car both of us were breathing heavily. Even though I was wet and filthy, she gave me a little hug and said, “I have always liked you.  I think I like you more now.“  

Later on, after I would come home from college, and work at the bookstore, we would keep up our routine of going for wine on breaks.  We, the two of us, and Mrs. Campbell would go to work parties together.  One night in the bistro she looked at me, and asked with serious eyes, “You have been quietly dating my daughter, haven’t you?”  It was true. Mrs. Campbell and I had moved to a new level of friendship but we kept it private because we did not want public scrutiny and wanted it to be more about us. I nodded my head. “You love her. You’re in love with her, aren't you?.” I didn’t know what to say, so I just said “Yes, Marci.” She sat back and crossed her arms. “Good,” she said.  "It's not like I didn't know already."

Mrs. Campbell and I were together for a few beautiful years after that, but distance relationships are hard, and it didn’t quite work out the way we wanted it to.  Although we married other people who we love, Mrs. Campbell to this day is, besides my wife and children, my absolute best friend.  Marci also remains one of my favorite people and I love talking to her, Mrs. Campbell and others when they call after a bit of champagne while having Christmas cookie-making parties.

Marci has reinvented her life a lot of times and always been successful.  That is something I admire about her.  That and that she is the kind of person who rarely gets angry, but when she does she lets you know it without ever raising her voice.  Mostly I love her laugh, her smile and her joy in life.

Marci never liked the water. She has always gone in the shallow end, up to her chest, but no more.  Recently her son posted a picture and made it known that Marci achieved another accomplishment.  In her early seventies she decided to learn to swim.  I  never learned how to swim myself. I am in the “rock category.”  You throw me into water and I sink like a stone.  I can save my life but I cannot swim. Hearing about Marci, and seeing her in this picture, I just might try again. She is beautiful, is she not?

When my family moved into the house we live in now, my kids were very young. We encountered an ugly neighbor who lived a few doors down.  My children called him the “mean man,”   He was an older, retired guy that  just seemed sit and wait until a kid or ball went into his front yard and then yell at them. The only time I talked to him was when he would come to my house as I was getting off the commuter bus from the city and work to complain about something, and poke me in the chest.

Then one night we woke because of the sirens and the lights. We saw the EMTs go in and the gurney come out as swiftly but quietly they went to the hospital.  The angry old man had a heart attack.  People in our neighborhood were worried about our neighbor. We volunteered to help his wife.  We mowed lawns, made dinner for her. He made it through.

 After that he was a different man.  He started playing with the kids, started waving at neighbors.   I see him now a lot working on the flowers in his front yard and playing games with his granddaughter, usually shooting each other with hoses as they wash the cars.

When my neighbor heard I had Parkinson’s he came by to talk.  He didn’t say much. All he said was, “Whatever you need and I can give.”

My kids are, or are almost, all grown up now.  One afternoon a year ago Steve, that is his name,came into my garage studio and said, “I have some tall chairs that would be good for this place.” He and I carried them down the sidewalk on a rolling desk chair and laughed because we looked so silly.  As he continued to recuperate I would see him on a simple one-speed bicycle pedaling around the block. 

Recently Steve had knee replacement surgery and so he has been walking from his house, down a house, to the corner, then a half a block, and then back home. At first he was on a walker and then a cane. He saw me one day on my cane, as I was watching my dog in the front yard and he yelled from across the street, “We have two choices; either we race or we sword fight.”  He’s walking fine now. Whenever I see him from my bench, through the open garage door, when he is taking his short walk, I go and walk with him. 

One dusky evening as I walked with him, he told me about when he had his heart attack. I love one of the lines he said. “Tom, when death came knocking at front my door, I decided to do a 180 and go out the back door. I have done a 180 in a lot of ways." When we parted he said, “We should ride bikes together sometime."  I said, “I don’t think I can do that anymore.. My balance is really screwed up.”  He said, “I bet if you really tried you could ride a bike again. I can help you.’ I said , "Besides I don't even have good bike anymore. The ones that hang here are decoration now." 

One day I stopped by his house on my daily walk and he put me on his bike and held it like a father does when they’re teaching their kids. I found that I could do it.  I guess you don’t ever really forget, and I guess you don't really know until you try. 

When it was my birthday, my wife asked me what I wanted.  I said "I want a bicycle." A week later, on Father' Day, when we went to celebrate with our family, my wonderful parents-in-law gave me a gold one-speed bicycle. I love it. My daughter likes to name objects. She calls my little Kia, that I have to constantly repair, somewhat sarcastically, the "Green Stallion." We decided the bike would be the "Golden Lion" 

A week or so ago my lawnmower broke down so I had to borrow my neighbor’s. After I returned it to them I walked by Steve’s place and he was washing out garden buckets. I went up to see him. He shook my hand. We chatted a bit and then he said, “I see you got yourself a new bike now. When I’m fully good on this knee I think you and I need to start to do evening block runs. I think it would be very beneficial for you, even if it is just to the corner.”  Our first run we went up and down the street and  then he said, “Look at this!” He went no hands. I couldn’t stop laughing. I said,"I'll get there too."

 I’ll leave this with one more anecdote about Marci. When I first met her she was divorced. Later on in life she met a man named Daniel, and married him. I have not met him yet but I want to so bad. He is a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin. He is a very gifted man who continues to research and write. He gives speeches and was there in South Africa for Nelson Mandela, who was his friend. Mrs. Campbell tells me that he is preparing for another speech. I have seen pictures of Daniel and I would have guessed he was pushing into his seventies. What I find fascinating is the reality that Daniel is beyond 90 years old and not stopping in the way he thinks and explores the world.

I guess the points I am trying to make here in this story are these: no matter where you are at in your life you can keep trying to do things out of your comfort zone and succeed. It's never too late. You can always do a 180 and change the way you approach the world to the better. In terms of your life passions, there is always, if you handle it right, plenty of time to make things happen.