MARIETTA, GA. -- Starting with the lady who got stuck in the car, last Tuesday proved more challenging than a day at home ought to be.
Miss Bea simply wanted to enter our house and have lunch with the rest of her friends, all members of the Lydia Sunday School Class taught by my mom and all of them over 65. But her legs quit working mid-action as she tried to exit her car and the seat wouldn't move and she couldn't shift her body and there she was, stuck half in and half out of the car.
"We've got a little problem," said Ryan Prewett, 18, mom's quiet, poised house and yard assistant and, this day, parking valet.
Ryan's job was to intercept the arriving ladies before they could park and then to organize their cars. A logical survival plan if you have ever watched 29 people over 65 pull into your driveway with steady, unblinking determination.
In the last few years we've lost two light poles and I don't want to know how many flower beds at gatherings like this. My blood pressure goes up every time there's a lunch.
"Yeah, Ryan?" I was potting plants, preoccupied as he brought up the problem.
"Uh, this lady's stuck in her car, and I don't know what you do in a situation like that."
Well, I didn't, either, but I didn't tell him that. I walked over to the car. For more than 40 years Miss Bea has been a friend of my family, lives in a house my father built and I spent years in, and for a moment I was embarrassed and saddened and, more than anything, frightened by her plight. For want of an inch, this once-energetic lady was trapped. How fragile life becomes.
But our friend wasn't in the mood for pity. "Well, you've either got to bend my legs or find a way to make this seat move," she said with grit; "I'm HUNGRY."
We eventually got the seat back, and I helped the legs move, and Ryan and I watched her move steadily to the house with the help of a classmate.
"Boy, that scares me," Ryan said.
"What?" I didn't want to admit it scared me much more than him.
"Getting where you can't DO. And, uh, Remar, we've got another little problem."
"Yeah?" This day wasn't shaping up too well.
"Uh, I stuck the wrong key in the ignition of that car you wanted me to turn around, and I can't get it out." The car of the one lady who wouldn't find that funny at all, of course.
"How'd you do that?"
"Well, I KNOW it was the ignition key. It's just broken or something."
I looked at the key. It was the right key, just put in the slot the wrong way. How the realization aged me. Ryan wasn't born when cars had one-way-only keys.
For 30 minutes as stately cars lurched into the drive and a friendly Ryan rushed to park them, I yanked on that key with the determination a veterinarian would exercise extracting a mastodon's tusk. And do you know what unlodged it? A rusty pair of pliers found in the bottom of a forgotten tool kit, my father's. He died nine years ago last Saturday, and I could not help but think how he would have laughed at this day.
That afternoon, thoughts of mortality nipping at my heels, I jumped on my bike and headed toward the two great roller-coaster hills that have become my training ground for my Russian bike expedition this fall. I've become quite proud of my ability to zip up these hills, and this day I was even more conscious of my pleasant fitness level. Age, the great incapacitator, wasn't catching up with me.
At the top of the hill, 18-year-old Ryan Prewett tooled up by me on his bike.
"Howdy, Dude," he said. Since I like to think young, I liked the compliment Ryan's salutation seemed to deliver.
"So, you want to knock off a hill or two?" I said ever so casually. "You know, I'm training for my Russia trip." You need at least to warn a guy in a situation like that.
"Yeah, let's go," he said. He swooped down the first great hill a little too fast for me, it seemed. Why did the speed scare me? It didn't used to. But when we hit the first hill, I was right there beside him, very casual, and started to chat as we biked.
For the first 30 feet. Then my heart picked up mightily from the effort great hills bring. I looked away for an instant in mid-sentence to focus my energies and then looked back to the left -- no one there -- then up the hill. Ryan was half-way to the top, and by the time I was a third of the way up, he was at the top, dawdling around, as we say down here.
Finding my own steady, unblinking determination, I continued to pedal, not noticing at all the effortless air of the king of the mountain.
"Well ... "
I did not want to breathe between these words, but: "Well ... do ... you ... bike ... a ... a ... lot?" Whew.
"Oh, not much; there aren't any real hills around here, you know."
That night I nursed my wounds with a gin-and-tonic and laughed with Mom about the lady-stuck-in-a-car incident without once mentioning the two-guys-biking incident.
"I've always admired Mary Swain, because she never gave in," Mom said, speaking of another friend, the teacher who taught me to love words in high school 32 years ago and a lady I can't remember seeing even for an instant without her crutches. I used to worry about Mary back then (a birth defect took away most of her lower-body movement), but don't now. She recently returned from a tour of the Grand Canyon.
"I don't see how she does it," I said.
Mom looked surprised at my comment. Even with her steel hip and the heart problem and the leukemia and the 80 years, she found the question unfathomable.
"Honey," she said, "what else can we do but go on?"
And that, of course, is what forward-living is all about. Wherever we are in the relentless cycle of age, whatever our physical condition, we have to fight the time bandit's attempt to rope us in, shrink the corral bit by bit. Though perspectives and individual challenges vary, it doesn't really matter if you're 18, 49 or 80 -- the important thing is that you have to fight or you lose.
All this makes me want to do something energetic this Independence Day.
How about you?