After a brief, breathtaking preview of spring, the cold fog of winter grips us again. My bones ache. The dog shudders on the back porch and looks reproachfully in my direction, until I let her back into the house. A greyness descended overnight, a sad ending to our unexpected respite from cold.
I stood on my lovely front porch yesterday, a bit later than usual in the morning, lingering with a cup of coffee. From the south, two figures approached. The woman's shoulders bent forward, but the set of her face reflected resolve. The man wore a heavy jacket. Both bore head coverings, tied securely beneath their chins, framing the fragile, lined skin of their faces.
I sipped my coffee, watching their halting progress. I told myself that I should descend the stairs of my porch, travel down my walk, and await them. I should extend my hand, reminding the woman of my name. I should mention, not assuming that she knows, our shared past: She graduated UMKC law in 1984, one year after I did. I should, I should: I should beg their forgiveness for the twenty years in which I have watched them in my neighborhood and remained silent.
I let them pass. Their journey continues beyond my house, slower than the slowest snail. I watch until they move far enough north that I cannot see them without making the trip down my steps, something I will not do.
When I first moved to this neighborhood, the pair biked past our house many times a day. She generally zipped ahead of him, with a carefree backwards waive of her hand. He kept a steady pace behind her. He wore a smile, his eyes moving back and forth to check for danger, but mostly staying locked on the woman ahead of him. She drew him on, on to the grocery store where I would often see them slinging bags onto their handlebars; on to the walking path, their receding, sleek figures deftly navigating around the joggers, and the children, and the mothers with their fashionable strollers.
During the time in which my son struggled to learn to ride a two-wheeler without training wheels, this pair, this woman of Germany and her stalwart husband, slowed on our street and theirs to encourage him as he made his creeping way down the sidewalk. Her radiant smile, cast down to my son's small helmeted head, swept him into the world of bicyclists, a world that I do not inhabit, a world where he desperately dreamed of dwelling. He would raise his small face and his sweet smile and greet her, and then, pedaling with renewed determination, burst forward, if only for the few seconds when her gaze lingered on him.
I might as well have been invisible. I did not belong in the sweep of their exchange. But I did not mind.
As the decade waned, as the century drew to a close, I saw the pair less often. Eventually, they re-emerged: on foot now, making the same two-block circuit that my son and I often traveled in his childhood, one dog or the other straining on a lead in front of us. My classmate and her husband, now apparently no longer able to zip around the neighborhood, instead trudged a smaller distance, no less determined.
And I watched them, from my porch, with one cooling cup of coffee after another, traveling from the south, northwards, to the corner, where they would turn to go east and recede from my field of vision.
One day, a year or two ago, my heart wrenched: Here came the woman, alone, frail, sneakers tightly laced and scarf wrapped securely under her chin. She walked with eyes downward, scrutinizing the old broken sidewalks. Her stiff arms barely moved to and fro; her shoulders bent over her thin chest. Still I stood, on my porch, with my damned cup of coffee, and said nothing. I did nothing.
When the hard days of winter came that year, I did not see her anywhere. I do not know how she got groceries or medicine; I didn't know whether she went to church. She had never practiced law and I never learned what she had chosen to do instead. I had never learned her husband's name nor what his occupation had been. I assumed, because I no longer saw her with him, that he had died.
I do not know why I have not seen them together on any other occasion. My schedule rarely varies. Perhaps, having decided to spend a few minutes in the warmth of yesterday's unusual weather, I accidentally timed my lallygagging to coincide with their daily constitutional.
In the last few weeks, my parents-in-law have faced a crisis. My mother-in-law developed clots, requiring hospitalization and now, an extended stay in skilled nursing rehab. Their fifty-eight years of marriage set a pattern so strong that each depends upon its constant rhythm. I silently observe them, wondering which suffers more -- the one who is ill, or the one who is left behind to fret. They have been married a few months longer than I have been alive, almost as long as my mother got to live, nearly fifty years longer than I ever managed to remain married -- so far at least. They have journeyed far together, and long.
As I watched my neighbors make their slow and painful way past my house yesterday, in the gentle air, and the sweet sun, I understood what had kept me from speaking to them over the years. I have always thought that I remained silent out of cowardice, unwilling to offer assistance or get involved; or, perhaps, from fear that she would rebuff my overture. But now I understand, and I cannot say that I am less ashamed. For it was not laziness or pride which stayed my feet and held them on the cold concrete platform of my porch. Not at all. It was envy.
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