Yesterday, I was driving drowsily home. I turned off of the main road, onto a sort of sub-main road; a busy little side street that runs past some schools and businesses.
The speed limit is 25. No one does that, but no one "flies," either. Between obstructing cars parked on the side, I saw something topple and I tapped my brakes. My brain tried to make sense of it. It had all of the characteristics of a falling tree -- a small one, but rigid and straight, all of the way down. As I got closer, I saw an old man, half in the roadway, his cane pinned under him. He was motionless.
I stopped the car and put on the hazard lights. I crouched next to him.
"Are you okay, sir?"
"I think I hit my head." He was bleeding from the forehead. "I guess I can't even walk anymore."
I helped this old man to sit up and rest for a minute, then I put my hands under his arms and used my legs to help him stand. (It is astounding how heavy a little old man can be.)
Before long, I had him holding onto a street sign for support. I got a rag out of my glove box and gave it to him to hold up to his bleeding head. "Do you have a car?" he asked. "Can you take me home?"
I spent a minute searching in the fallen leaves for his pipe and then I helped him into the car. He told me what street he lived on and I turned around.
"Do you live close?" he asked.
"Yes, I do -- down by the drugstore."
"I don't know the neighborhood. I'm in exile. Sort of in exile, since my wife died. I'm from New York. I live with my daughter now. I guess I can't even walk anymore."
We turned onto a side street into a very old neighborhood -- one in which Walt Whitman had lived during the summers; his house still stands there -- and he directed me to an old, blue Victorian mansion with a great tower, complete with a weather vane that scratches the clouds. Today, it is an apartment building -- much to my disappointment.
I knocked, at his direction, on one of the many doors and a young man -- maybe twenty -- answered. I explained that his grandfather had fallen and that he was in my car. "I'll get my mom," the kid said, with heavy lids and an empty grin, as if I were delivering a pizza.
She came out and we helped her father up the stairs. (She and I did. The perfectly healthy, sloth-like grandson contributed by carrying his grandfather's pipe, and that only after his mother told him to.)
The old fellow sincerely thanked me over his shoulder as he was being shuffled in by his daughter. "I guess I can't even walk anymore," I heard him say to her, right before the screen door slammed.
I hadn't gotten his name. I really wish I had, for some reason. It keeps coming back to me that I should have asked. I feel like, somehow, he deserves to have his name known. I don't want him to just be an old man I am writing about. I want him to be Martin or Stephen or Mr. Lewis or...himself. It's not fair for someone to live that long and to have raised a family and to have had a career in New York and to just be remembered as "that old man who fell." A life's journey shouldn't culminate in a moment like that in anyone else's eyes.
Maybe, one day, I will go back and see if he needs someone to go for a walk with. I could tell him that there is no shame; that he should be proud of himself for getting out there and trying to keep himself strong...that I respect his defiance against decline and I respect his pipe and his cane and his brown suede jacket, the chill and leathery scent of which I will remember, from lifting him, for the rest of my life. That I respect that he was concerned about returning my rag until I told him not to worry about it...
I pulled out of the driveway, looking up at the weather vane against the stainless steel sky of winter.
As one might expect, the emotions flooded in; all-too-recent memories of my dad; thoughts of the cruelty of fate or of whatever it is that likes to make us suffer and slip as much as possible at the end of our lives -- that tries to bring us as low as possible before it releases us into the Great Beyond.
Apparently, my memory had been jogged, earlier, by having flipped past a horrible rendition of Purcell's "Dido's Lament" (here's a good version) on the radio just before I had seen the old fellow fall. But the lines came back to me and it occurred to me that they are perhaps the most profound final wish ever captured in lyric: "Remember me, remember me, but, ah! forget my fate. Remember me, but, ah! forget my fate."
I'm sure it is what I'll want, at the end. Remember me, not the echo of who I was right before the sound of me was stolen forever. Hear me, in your mind, as the sound of a single hand clap in a cathedral; don't remember me as the lingering tail of its echo.