Sunday, March 15, 2015

Not Zen 153: Degrading

"Step up, please," said the driver.  Eight passengers shuffled toward the open door as it swung open.

The mere act of taking the bus made her feel like her life had fallen apart.  Her car had broken down, she couldn't afford to repair it, and she couldn't justify asking her husband to replace it - not when the bus route ran by her house.  Her husband's job paid more than hers.  It was twice as far away.  Yet he took the bus himself.  He hadn't bought a car.  She wasn't going to ask him to give her a convenience that he didn't give to himself.

She still felt angry about having to take public transportation.  The people smelled.  They dressed in layers that made them waddle like penguins in the cold.  They carried backpacks and umbrellas.  On the way home, many of them carried groceries or other packages. 

Then there were times like today.  A middle-aged fellow, slightly short and a bit heavy, put his foot on the first step of the bus entrance and paused.  He reached for the hand rail but missed it.  His arms started to flail.  For an instant, she was mad enough to kick him.  He was slowing everyone down.  The man in front had to turn and put his hand on the fellow with the problem.  He steadied the man and pulled him up.

As she stepped up the ramp into the bus, she heard the man in front remark to the one behind, "You're twitching, man."

"Yes."  His tone sounded wary.  Probably he'd been heard similar comments before.

"So what's up with that?  Are you sick?"

"I guess so.  But you can't catch it.  My body is degrading." He had a deep, steady voice despite his trembling arms. He named the disease that he'd been diagnosed with.

She couldn't tell if the illness were an excuse or not.  All of her ride home, she sat far away from the man so she didn't have to look at him.  She put her arms around her knees.

At the dinner table that evening, she asked her husband about the sickness by name.  When he asked why she wanted to know, she told the story of her ride.

"Wow, that guy is screwed," said her husband.  "He's going to lose muscle control and die."

"He's already losing muscle control. Obviously."

"The process will take years.  Try to be understanding.  He'll probably spend half of that time riding the bus.  He'll get a lot worse before he has to stop."

The next day, she met the man waiting for his ride home.  He climbed onto the bus with a waver to his step but he didn't slip and didn't grab at the rail.  She didn't see him the next day.  Then came the weekend.  She noticed him during the following week and the week after, too.  Her irritation with him came and went along with her sense of his disability.  Sometimes he seemed normal, even energetic.  There was no apparent reason he should slow down everyone else.  At other times, he weaved up the stairs like a drunk and she felt that he shouldn't take public transportation.

The regular bus driver never asked questions but he seemed to understand.  He yelled at everyone else to hurry.  He never said anything to the trembling man.  Once, the driver stuck out a hand when the passenger's legs wobbled.  He grabbed the fellow by his shirt sleeve for a moment.  He nodded.  The trembling fellow nodded back.  That moment passed, the driver let go, and the passenger moved down the aisle.

Summer came and went as she saved money to buy a car.  Her bus rides had started to seem normal.  She didn't feel as rushed to make the car decision.  There were weeks when she didn't see the diseased passenger at all.  In those times, she wondered if he were on vacation or if he had given up on his job.  In autumn, she met him at the bus stop.  He leaned on a brown cane with golden handle. 

His legs shook but his left arm held a firm grip on the cane.  He climbed the steps of the bus.  The driver smiled at him and nodded.

The next Monday, he seemed struck by tremors as he tried to board.  She'd learned to board first on most days but this time she'd let him step in front.  As he started to flail, she regretted it.  His arm swung back.  He hit her with the knob of his cane.

Just as she shouted in pain, he slipped backwards off of the first step.  She reached our and grabbed him, certain that they were going to tumble to the pavement.  But he was lighter than she thought.  His hand found the rail.  She put one foot backwards but managed not to step on the person behind her.  She steadied herself.  So did he.

"Thanks," he whispered.  With that, he removed her arm from his waist and boarded.  She stepped up behind him.

The bus driver smiled at her, something he hadn't done before.

When she sat across from the disabled man, she thought about how thin he'd become.  His jacket was loose.  She hadn't noticed that earlier.  His muscles had felt shrunken and weak.

He stared at her.

"Sorry that I hit you," he said.  He still had his deep, steady voice.  His gaze drifted down for a moment then back up to her.  His eyes seemed bright.

"It's all right."  She touched her forehead.  There was a welt starting to rise but she didn't feel upset about it.

"I don't think we've talked before.  I had the sense that you were one of those avoiding me because of my illness."

"Maybe."  She looked at her hands, folded in her lap, and decided to hide behind another truth.  "But it's not like I talk with anyone else on the bus either."

"I might be over-sensitive about it.  I thought that sometimes you were impatient and unhappy with me.  And now you're being nice."

"Sometimes I'm impatient."  She shrugged.  Apparently, her feelings had shown more than she meant them to.  "I don't like it when other riders are slow.  But I know you've got a reason."

"Does the cane make it better?"  He held it a bit higher for her inspection.  The golden sheen of the handle seemed cheery.  "I've noticed in just the few days that I've had it, people seem more understanding."

"It's a reminder."  She nodded to herself.  "When I saw the cane this morning, it told me that you have to move slowly."

"There are a lot of other people who are slow.  They have bad knees or bad feet.  Or they've gotten too heavy over the years.  Or they're just sick that day.  They aren't being lazy."

She hadn't thought of that.  Really, she hadn't paid much attention.  In the pause in their conversation, she folded her arms across her body.  She leaned back and wondered what she could say.  Maybe the conversation was done. 

"I was in a hurry all the time, too," he confessed.  He gestured to his legs.  "Before this, I mean.  I wish I'd been nicer to the folks who had disabilities that I couldn't see."

"There can't be that many of them.  Can there?"

"I'm not sure.  Over the course of time, it's everybody.  We all lose control of our bodies and die.  I'm closer to that than you are, sure.  But I'm not the only one who deserves kindness."

She thought about her grandmother, who she'd been promising to visit for months.  No, it had been years now.  Had she written a note, a card?  She hadn't, not even a holiday card. 

"You've got a lot to look forward to, probably decades and decades of good stuff."

"Not everyone does.  Not you," she blurted.  She put a hand to her lips.  She'd been thinking about her grandmother.  The idea that similar limits applied to him had come to her suddenly.

"Probably not."  He bowed his head.

"How do you deal with it?" she wondered.  "Do you accept what's happening?"

"I can barely deal with the kindness I don't deserve."  He closed his eyes for a moment.  "My failing body, no, I try to put it out of my mind a lot of the time.  But it's happening to everyone at one speed or another.  It doesn't matter if we accept it."

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