We are walking out of the restaurant into the dark, arctic chill of a Michigan night. My parents, each holding a cane in one hand, join hands to support each other as they step up onto the curb, cross the sidewalk island separating restaurant from parking lot, and then step off onto the lower ground of the lot. He is on his way to the hospital for tests; a recent course of antibiotic treatments has not cleared up the infection in his leg, and there is pain where there should not be, and swelling. There is talk of cellulitis, osteomyelitis, amputation. Terrible things. I will drive my mother home to spend a rare night in the house alone, and he will sleep in a narrow bed in a room with too much light, too much noise, strange smells and air thick with anxiety and imbalance.
Absurdly, as the three of us stand on the curb before stepping down, I remember when I was little and they would swing me down from other curbs in other places, one on each side of me, each holding one of my small hands in theirs. “One, two three, wheeeeeeeeeeee!” they would say as they lifted me up, and out, and down to safety. I was safe, I was their little girl. I wanted, as they lowered themselves gingerly and wobbling, to push time back, thrust myself in the middle and demand that they “wheeee” me to the icy black asphalt. I am not ready for this night, this reality as cold and unyielding as the air rushing under my coat. I am not ready to be outside their protection, to be the protector, to be the one with the steady hand and strong arms. I still need them to be my parents.
Earlier, in the restaurant, my father had given my son custody of his cane until he was out of the hospital. He explained that it had been his uncle’s trench cane in World War I, and that it had at one time had a spike on the bottom to find the wooden planks beneath the mud of the trenches. Maybe it was World War II. What mattered was Sam’s rapt attention, the passing of the story, and the sense that my father was not just making a temporary gift, but believed he might not be coming home. I couldn’t speak after that, holding myself together with the kind of brutal self-talk that is the duct tape fix of open emotional wounds.
They hugged goodbye, and my father gave my mother his wallet for safekeeping, and his keys. He told her he’d call as soon as he was settled in his room at the hospital. He helped her into the front seat of my car, then walked slowly and haltingly, without the help of his cane, to his car. We drove apart from each other and I began to cry, silently, blinking hard so that I could make out the edges of the road and the colors of the lights. I will work hard to make it all fit, the goodness of being, for so long, their beloved child, and the understanding that a change in form does not mean the loss of that goodness. I may weep, and ache and feel a cold wind blow through my center, but I will always have everything that they have given me; a “wheeeeee” of life’s inherent wonder that comes no longer from their hands, but from my soul.