I walk my dog twice a day near our town athletic fields, so there are people I see there on a regular, even daily, basis. It’s quite an array of humanity and languages: cricket players from Pakistan who practice bowling and batting in the early mornings on the otherwise empty basketball courts; groups of Italian and Armenian men, walking around the track very closely together and shouting their entire conversations in their native tongues; groups of Muslim women circling the track in various styles and degrees of hijab; a woman who runs get-in-shape “bride-to-be bootcamps,” wearing fatigues and barking like a drill instructor at the women in her classes; groups of Chinese men who get together to play tennis several times a week. You get the idea. In short, there’s a whole world of sights and sounds just steps away from my front door.
The most regular walkers on the track that encircles the soccer field are a couple I’ve seen nearly every day for the past six years, sometimes twice a day. I’m not sure if they’re husband and wife or brother and sister. I’ve heard the story told both ways. Apparently, the man used to be a firefighter. One day he was caught in a burning building as it was collapsing. I’ve heard that he rescued anywhere from one person to an entire family to all the family’s pets. Every story I’ve heard about him ends with the fact that he was nearly dead when his fellow firefighters pulled him free. He was badly burned and hospitalized for months afterward. Now, at least twice a day for at least half an hour each time, he and his sister/wife walk laps around the track. He always has on big sunglasses, a hat, and headphones that cover his ears. He mostly wears shorts, even in the winter. Even from a distance of 20-30 yards, I can see that his legs have been badly burned. In the summer time, he is often shirtless, and I can see from even farther away that his upper body and arms are mottled with burn scars.
Burned Man walks slowly, and with a hitch in his short, hopping steps. After watching him take lap after lap around the track over the years, I’m guessing that the hitch is because his legs don’t have much of a range of motion as a result of the burns. Wife/Sister walks slowly next to him, talking to him, even while he’s wearing these huge headphones over his ears. She is always on his left, and there is always a curly cord, like an old boingy telephone cord only thinner, that tethers them to each other at their wrists. For every step of hers, he takes two or three hitchy, hoppy steps. Sister/Wife calls out to me and/or my dog on a regular basis, and I have developed a kind of a connection with these two people that is purely based on saying hello, commiserating about the weather, and admiring the clownish nature of my dog.
This morning was a picture-perfect New England spring day: sunny, cloudless, breezy, cool, no humidity. The grass glittered with dew in the early morning light. Flocks of Canada Geese nibbled their way across the sparkly soccer field, honking their alarm upon seeing the dog. As I watched Burned Man and Wife/Sister make their slow, steady progress around the track, their visible connection – that curly cord – really struck me.
Since I have never seen them walking without that cord connecting them, it occurred to me that maybe the cord that tethers them to each other is also a means of living an unfettered life – free of restrictions. Maybe Burned Man would be housebound without someone willing to tie on and walk beside him. Maybe the experience of nearly losing Burned Man, of seeing him suffer through the agony of recovering from being so badly burned over so much of his body, of knowing all that she could have lost makes Sister/Wife relieved, happy, and grateful to be connected to him in such a tangible way. Maybe it’s easier to walk at someone else’s painstaking pace when the alternative is to live without them.
Tethered and unfettered. Maybe that’s what makes you strong.
“That’s What Makes You Strong,” by Jesse Winchester from his album “Gentleman of Leisure”