A matter of heart

Better is the end of a thing than its beginning, and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.

-Ecclesiastes 7:8

Last week didn’t start so well.

On Sunday, I broke a bone in my foot while simply walking (and falling, somehow) down the garage steps.

I’d already taken Monday off to attend my brother-in-law’s funeral but spent it on my couch instead with my newly-damaged foot elevated, commiserating with my husband, whose leg has developed a discolored, painful bulge—the leg from which veins were removed for his bypass surgery last fall. It’s not a clot, and that’s all we know until his appointment this week.

“I never would have believed that I wouldn’t be able to attend my own brother’s service,” he sighed. It’s a seven-hour round trip; neither of us was up to it.

I surveyed our legs, propped on the same stool. His left, my right. Mirror-images of each other. Except for my orthopedic boot.

I sighed, too, the entire left side of my body sore from overcompensating for the right. “I know. This is like being eighty years old or something.” Which is decades away…

Our college-student son, passing through the living room, quipped in his deadpan way: “Well, at least you’ll know what to expect when you are eighty.”

So. That was Monday.

On Tuesday I returned to work. It happened to be the 100th day of school, meaning that most kindergarten and first grade students (and many of their teachers) came dressed as old people. White hair, glasses, wrinkles sketched with eyeliner, canes galore.

For a split second, I mused: Who wants to live to be a hundred?

But the kids were adorable, their teachers were having fun, and God knows we all need to have more fun at school. Too much of it isn’t.

That is where my mind was when a little “old” person wandered up to me in the lobby where I rested on a bench between the arrival of buses, my morning duty.

A kindergartner. Big, mournful eyes moving from my boot to my face: “Are you all right?”

“Oh yes! I am fine,” I said, touched by the obvious concern in that small voice.

“What happened to your foot?

“Well, I broke a bone in it.”

“Does it hurt?”

“No, really, it doesn’t. The boot is a cushion for it, see, and it doesn’t hurt at all right now.”

A flicker of relief across the little, made-up old face. The tiny pseudo-centenarian went on her way.

That was Tuesday.

And Wednesday, and Thursday, and Friday. Everywhere I went, the kids wanted to know: What did you do to your foot?

I shared the X-ray with some of them, saw the fascination in their eyes.

Some didn’t ask anything. They came up to me just to say I hope you will be okay. I hope you feel better.

As I labored up and down the staircases, one careful step at a time—the elevator at school is BROKEN—I thought a lot about the curiosity and compassion of children, how natural these things are for them, how comfortable children are with asking and expressing. If we can preserve, nurture, stir curiosity and compassion through all of their formative years … what a different culture, what a different world, it would be. Possibly our greatest work.

The week ended much better than how it began. Not because of satisfying still more curiosity about my broken foot with ongoing questions, or the taste of true human compassion at its purest. Not because I made it through the first week of recovery, although that was a glad milestone. No. Friday was a day of festivities, of celebration, all shining from the children’s faces.

“Happy Valentime’s Day, Mrs. Haley!” called the little ones when they passed me in line in the hallways, inviting me to their classrooms to share their candy, their cupcakes, their joy.

Valentimes. The mispronunciation seems almost poetic. As in, these times are made for Valentines. Definitely for love.

Oh my, thank you, I’ll come see your goodies but you keep them; they were given to you.

You yourselves are gifts enough to me, children.

You as well as puppy therapy. ❤️

Dennis the dachshund takes turns between my lap and my husband’s while we prop our legs.

Twist of fate

For all the clear memories I have of moments and conversations in years past, I cannot quite recall how this happened two days ago…

Early Sunday morning. Tote bag with Bible and Sunday School lesson, studied and ready to teach. Annotated cantata book for Easter drama practice, ready for first rehearsal and casting. So much to do. So much to think about. Mind full of minutiae to remember. Let me put all this in the car, lest I forget something… wait, the sweet pickles for lunch. I forgot to take them to church with the sandwich stuff for rehearsal. Let me put the jar in my bag. There. Ready…

Opening door. Garage steps, red brick. Car is right there, I will put everything in the backseat floor…

—Falling. Fast.

Everything in my hands scatters across the cement floor; I watch the music book and all my papers sliding away with remarkable speed.

I cry out. I don’t know if it’s during that split-second fall, or on impact.

A snap.

Sharp pain in my right foot… I am only wearing socks, no shoes.

My son, Cadillac Man, is there in an instant. He heard me fall.

I am clutching my foot. It’s bad.

—Mom, is that blood dripping down your bag?

No. Pickle juiceget my Bible out of there.

And get your father.

His father tries to help me up but I can’t stand and he can’t be pulling on me; he is still healing from bypass surgery.

Don’t touch me, I tell them. I don’t know how to move. I have to figure it out.

I crawl back in the house. I take off my sock.

My foot looks intact.

I will try to stand…

Knife-like stab.

No.

My husband and son do not know what to do. It is Sunday morning; one is a pastor, the other, a music director. They each have church services waiting,

Go, I say. I have to figure this out. Maybe it will be better by the time you get back. If not, you can take me to an urgent care. Just go.

They go.

I wait until they’re gone to crawl down the hall and, sitting in the floor, change from pajamas to street clothes, for I know I’ll be going somewhere about this foot.

Suddenly everything is exponentially harder than it was.

That’s when I cry.

*******

X-rays reveal that I broke the fifth metatarsal on my right foot. The tech tells me I snapped it and I say yeah, I heard it. Now I am in a boot for six, eight, ten weeks; who knows? These things are slow to heal, says the orthopedist.

And no driving with the boot, she adds.

So now my husband and son must take me to and from work, every day for weeks on end.

I cannot do this, I say to myself.

But I walk, lopsided, imperfect, maddeningly slow in my Frankenstein boot, out of the office. My husband takes me home.

I watch the countryside whizzing past the passenger window. I know what this is shaping up to be. A hard lesson in dependence, at the least. It’s not like I haven’t lived this before. Seventeen years ago, just after my father died, I broke my foot—the same foot, different bone—while preparing to direct a church play. This second time occurs just after my husband’s brother died. Déjà vu. A curious twist of fate. None curious-er. I am seventeen years older; this is going to be harder.

—Well. It’s just going to have to be one deliberate step at a time.

Oh, how much I take for granted.

Today, back to work.

Just a good bit slower than before.

Of the earth

Midway through lunch, the din in the cafeteria is too much. The new boy brings his tray to where I’m standing:

Can I sit here at this table?”

It’s an empty table, save for my phone, closed laptop, electronic entry key, all the things I carried with me because I didn’t have time to put them in my room before this daily duty.

I consider his brown eyes, looking up at me. Pleading.

I consider his boisterous classmates and the seat he left behind.

“Are you moving yourself here because you feel it’s a safer place for you to be right now?” I ask.

He nods.

“All right. That seems like a good choice.”

His face breaks into a grin. He sits.

And the questions start: What kind of phone is that? Do you have a dog? Do you like Doritos? What kind do you like best? What’s your favorite color? Where are you from? How old are you, twenty-nine? Forty? Older?

How old are YOU? Eight? Did you move over just here to ask me all these questions?

He just smiles and takes a swig of his strawberry milk.

Then:

“Mrs. Haley, what’s your favorite snake?”

“What? My favorite SNAKE, did you say? Yikes—I don’t …”

Of course I am about to say I don’t like any snake whatsoever, but something in his expression stops me. “Um, do you like snakes?”

He nods. “I like pythons.”

Heavens. I refrain from telling him about a man I saw on the news this week. He happened to find a boa constrictor in his couch and had no idea how it got there or from whence it came.

He’s watching my face. A keen observer, this child. He’s waiting for my response.

I could say I like green snakes, but I don’t. I could say I like black snakes because my granddaddy said they eat rats and mice, so don’t ever kill a black snake. I think about the copperheads Granddaddy killed on the dirt road where his barefoot grandchildren ran in the summertime. I think about the coiled baby water moccasin I found in front of the kitchen cabinets when my first son was just three, and I how I was about to pick it up, thinking it was an odd piece of rope . . . until I almost touched it. And saw its eyes. Or that time I was cleaning the attic and discovered a complete shed snakeskin; I nearly knocked a whole new exit in my ceiling, trying to scramble out of there . . .

I DO NOT LIKE SNAKES.

But this boy with the strawberry mustache is waiting. His eyes are shining.

And then I recall a little creature lying across my sidewalk a couple of weeks ago. So little that I thought it to be a large worm at first; it was the same pale tan. I noted a faint pattern of scales on it. Could it be a snake? I looked it up. It was. “Smooth earth snake.” They are shy; they live mostly in the dirt around trees and bushes. I’d just had all the old bushes around my house pulled up. Apparently this little fossorial serpent was disturbed, or even damaged, as the equipment pulled away deep, tangled roots. For whatever reason, it crawled out in the open only to die there on the sidewalk. Who knows, maybe it was just trying to get to safety.

—Poor little snake. The only one I’ve ever mourned.

I look at the boy. He’s new here. He’s been uprooted.

Perhaps he did come to this table for safety, after all.

Even as I begin to speak, I think of earth and geosmin, the organic element in soil that humans can smell to something like the trillionth degree (we can detect one tablespoon in three Olympic-size swimming pools) and why that should be, unless it’s because we were meant to live close to the earth, that we came from the earth, and to the earth we will return. A curious kinship with that little snake. With all living things.

“My favorite snake is the earth snake. It’s very small. Have you heard of it?”

He wants to see a picture, so I do a search on my phone just as it’s time for classes to clean up and go outside for recess. To run, to play, to breathe the fresh air, to enjoy being children . . . how well I remember.

The silence in the cafeteria now is too much.

Photo: Smooth Earthsnake. Cygnus921. CC-BY