Bernie and I had at least one thing in common, and that was a dislike for any show of weakness or vulnerability. For different reasons and in different ways, each of us stood ready to tough things out.
After his stroke Bernie changed; there wasn’t much choice. I went the other way. “The slower you go, the faster I go,” I used to tell him. There was always so much to do, so much to plan ahead for and take care of, and I would do it all. Early each morning I worked out the day’s plan so that we all knew what had to happen once Bernie got up and the caregiver arrived, all in addition to what had to get done in my own life. If it felt like too much, that was too bad, I would do what had to be done.
Yesterday I went with Harry and Aussie down to the local preserve to gather with other neighbors and their dogs for the weekly Montague dog-in. It was Harry’s first time joining this gathering of dogs of all sizes on a cold, blue-sky day, but I needn’t have worried. He mixed in with everyone, ran and chased, and had a whale of a time. Aussie, as usual, was in heaven; she’s always in heaven when she’s with other dogs.
The long, downwards-sloping entrance to the preserve was icy, broken into large patches of black ice or else full of white shards and slippery mounds. Ice everywhere. Only when we got fully inside, where the river pools and pauses, pond-like, closer to the woods, did the earth turn to snow and sometimes back to yellow/brown soil.
The dogs frolicked and chased one another, the humans talked neighbor and dog-talk, and after an hour several of us with our dogs began to walk back.
I was older than the others and have never felt safe on ice. I got nervous as I struggled to keep my balance. The others, more confident on their feet, walked ahead along with their dogs and mine, and soon the distance between us widened as I slowed down, till finally no one was with me at all, everyone else making their way up the slope towards where the cars were parked.
I was alone, and I felt alone. Unstable on my feet, I felt a sudden weakness in my legs. Please, I thought to myself, I don’t want to fall.
I looked up and saw Aussie. She, who loves canine company better than anything in the world, had left the others and come down looking for me. She watched me from a distance, at times turning to sniff this or that, but then turning again to watch me. And she stayed there till finally, with legs shaking from effort, I made it up to the cars. I worried that Harry may have run down the street, but they had kept him there by the cars till I arrived.
I was ambushed by the recollection even before I drove away. One Sunday some five years back I’d gone 15 miles away for a meeting, and during that hour icy rain had pelted the Valley. When it was time to drive home the roads were slick arteries of black ice. I didn’t even have boots on.
It took an hour to drive back those same 15 miles, the car shuddering and careening from side to side, other cars dotting the sides where they had fallen from the road. Finally I got to our street, turned slowly, and started the last mile home. I managed to drive the car uphill on the ice. Closet to home the road turned, I turned with it, lost control, and the car careened towards the steep drop on the right. I think I screamed in terror as the car went off the road, but it was stopped from falling all the way down by a ditch at the edge. There it rested, finally stopped.
I called Bernie’s phone and he, safe at home all this time, picked up. Panic-stricken, I told him what I had just gone through, about the terrifying hour’s ride and what had just happened.
“Call Triple A,” he suggested.
“Call Triple A!” I repeated. “You think I need you to tell me to call Triple A? That’s not why I’m calling you!” I hung up the phone.
Why did I call him? The house was below me, I’d have to torturously make my way down the hill and down the driveway, but I’d make it. I called him because I needed someone to hear the terror in my voice, the fear of doing these things alone, of being so close to the sharp edge that was just a few feet away from me.
And he had told me to call Triple A.
I opened the door, gingerly stepped out, and slowly started the slippery way down, convinced I’d slip and fall any moment. I looked down to the right and saw Bernie walking slowly up the driveway. He’d always been much more secure on ice than me. He made it up to the road, lurching a few times to the right and left, then turned and came up towards me. He held out my boots that he had in his hand. Leaning back against a tree, I put them on. Then, holding on to his arm, we both came down together, he slowing down to keep his strong steps in pace with mine.