It was February in the long, uncertain year of the pandemic. An overcast sky glowered above a foot of fresh snow in an upstate New York town. In the early morning a ninety-year-old woman stood on her front porch, wearing a puffy, blaze orange coat. Her name was Rita.
She was a little hunched over as she stepped carefully onto the sidewalk in front of her house. The morning light threw shadows that touched her shoulders as she started walking toward town. She moved slowly, setting one foot down solidly before lifting the other foot. Her mittened hands held metal walking poles. Recently she’d begun to treat her balance as a fair-weather friend.
Her wispy white hair was tucked under a black and white patterned hat that matched her mittens. In the relative quiet, Rita could hear the snow squeaking now and again when her boot hit it exactly right. She looked straight ahead as much as she could. Still, the sidewalk, only partly shoveled, required her attention. She peered at it through glasses whose lenses had darkened. She appreciated how the darkness cut the glint off the snow. Less helpfully, the glasses also fogged up because of the cloth mask over her nose and mouth. This made her stop to tilt her glasses upward until the moisture evaporated.
She’d anticipated the problem during breakfast. She didn’t need the COVID mask when she was alone on the sidewalk, and it certainly wouldn’t help her breathing. However, if she saw someone coming, she’d have to remove her mittens to pull up the mask. Then she’d have to adjust the ties over her ears without dislodging her glasses and hearing aids. By then the other pedestrian would be a block beyond her. So before she had left her kitchen, Rita secured the mask across her face. She’d deal with the foggy glasses as best she could.
While she moved forward, Rita ran her own mental commentary, like a sports announcer reporting on an ultra-slow game: “The player in the orange coat edges forward, safely setting down her right foot. No one else is anywhere near her . . . ” On YouTube she’d heard sports-starved men announcing the antics of their pets in just the same way.
Meanwhile she noticed deer tracks that emerged from the woods, crossed a corn field, and ended at the road. “You take your chances every time you cross that road, don’t you?” she thought. Beyond that, she couldn’t see whether there were tracks or not. Had the deer been alone? During her many years of driving, Rita had learned to look for the second deer. “This morning you were traveling by yourself,” she said, more or less to the deer. “Just like me.”
Minutes later she noticed a hawk on a telephone pole. “You’re back a little early from Canada, aren’t you?” she thought. The hawk didn’t deign to notice her. With its head slightly cocked, it was intent only on whichever tiny creature might twitch below its perch. “Goodbye, friend,” she thought as she stepped past the telephone pole. “May you find breakfast.” Still, she spared a thought for the poor vole or rabbit that might become that breakfast. That was the world, wasn’t it?
Rita continued moving, placing one careful step after another, until she came to the wide intersection. Its corners held gas stations and stores. Traffic was always busy and complicated here. “Pay attention, old woman,” she reminded herself. To get safely across the four lanes, she needed to step off the curb as soon as the “Walk” light flashed. Then she had to move quickly without slipping on any of the inevitable ice. She had rehearsed this in her mind late last night.
Her granddaughter Clara had called about 7 in the evening. Clara was apologetic. Six-year-old Sammy had just thrown up. Clara couldn’t leave him in the morning to drive Rita to town, especially since there was an outside chance of COVID. It wouldn’t be safe for her grandmother to ride in a car with anyone else. So Clara asked Rita to reschedule her appointment.
Disappointed, Rita had reassured her distraught granddaughter that she shouldn’t worry. Rita simply neglected to mention that she’d be going to that appointment under her own steam. She was not cancelling anything.
Now, as she neared the traffic lights, Rita took a couple deep breaths to calm herself. She pushed the crossing button, waited for “Walk,” and used her poles to step onto the road. She had looked first for any turning cars. They were one reason she’d chosen this absurdly bright coat. It would take a blind driver to miss her in day-glo orange.
The sports announcer in her head said, “She steps into the intersection, braving the morning traffic. Look at the skillful use of those poles. She’s three-quarters of the way across . . .”
“Steady, girl,” Rita told herself. “Haste makes paste—or it will if I trip and that semi runs over me.” At the other side, she paused. Her heart was beating quickly. Her breath was ever so slightly raggedy. Again she took a deep breath. Deep breaths had saved her many times, delaying an unwise comment or stalling a stupid action—but not always. Not often enough, in fact.
When she felt ready again, she looked a few blocks ahead to the hill. “One thing at a time, Rita. You haven’t reached that particular problem quite yet.” She refocused her eyes to her foreground, which was a flat patch of sidewalk. It had been scraped clean of snow and ice.
“Thanks to the person who shoveled this walk. You did me a kindness today.” She imagined her gratitude as a yellow balloon, floating upward. Without much considering it, she hoped the universe would relay her thanks toward the shoveler, in some indirect but useful way.
While she was preoccupied with this whimsy, a middle-aged man walked briskly out of a driveway that was shielded by bushes. Rita had to catch herself with her poles. That wouldn’t have been enough, except the man, looking stricken, also touched her elbow for two critical seconds.
For nearly a year Rita and this man had become accustomed to personal distances of six feet. To touch a stranger, even an elderly stranger in full winter gear, seemed nearly obscene. After their moment of shock, the man stepped back and apologized.
Rita said, “Don’t worry. You startled me, but if you hadn’t caught my elbow, I might have landed flat in that snowbank.” The man nodded, wished her good morning, and strode on. If he was smiling under his Buffalo Bills mask, she’d never know it.
Rita reached into her deepest pocket and pulled out a water bottle. Those morning pills always dried out her mouth. She took a couple sips before recapping the bottle and letting it sink safely into the pocket. Next she bared her left wrist just enough to check her watch. She was roughly on schedule, as long as she got herself moving again. She had covered the first mile, give or take, she estimated. She resumed her walk.
This brought Rita to the foot of the small hill. The hill had caused her some anxiety as she lay awake in the early morning. “Even if it’s slippery, I am not turning back,” she told herself firmly. “I haven’t come this far for nothing.” She pulled the rubbery, flat covers off the ends of the poles. Now the poles had ice-piercing tips. She hoped she could manage not to stab herself if she slipped.
On the hill sat a local wine shop, and some employee was dutifully strewing salt on the sidewalk. “That makes life easier,” Rita said to the woman, who waved. “Thank you.”
The blocks were shorter now that she’d passed the farm fields and the town’s outlying businesses. She was walking in front of modest houses and yards from the 1970s and 80s. She wished she could look more carefully at the porches and details. It had been years since she’d strolled here. Perhaps on a summer evening in the indefinite future, Clara or Sammy would walk here with her.
At the corner Rita looked at a street sign and decided she must have reached her second mile. One more to go. She straightened up while she waited for traffic, and she found herself smiling. She was no pushover at ninety.
“Don’t be prideful, you old fool,” she thought. “The truth is you’re getting tired.” That right knee hadn’t started complaining, though she could tell it was working up to it. “You can wait, Mr. Knee. Try not to shame us both, will you? You used to hike up Adirondack mountains. I’ll ice you later, I promise.” Once she’d negotiated with a husband and children, but these days she bargained with her body parts.
As Rita neared the campus and thus her appointment, she eyed a bench on the sidewalk. She could brush away the remnants of snow easily enough. It would be a relief to rest there for five or ten minutes. If she sat down, though, would she get back up for the last three blocks? She remembered how stiff she felt whenever she stood up from a car seat.
The sports announcer argued against taking a rest, and in the end, she just didn’t trust herself. She wished the bench would look less inviting as she continued past it. She noticed that her pace had slowed.
“Still walking. Not bad,” she thought. “Not great, either, but I’m going to make it.”
A few minutes later Rita approached the brick college building with the “Clinic Entrance” sign. She opened the glass doors, tracking some snow with her, and followed the arrows taped to the walls. She removed her hat and mittens before adjusting her mask.
A woman in a “Health Department” vest greeted her and directed her down a hallway. “Good. More walking,” Rita thought wryly, unzipping her coat.
Everyone in line, except for two police officers, looked 65 or older. A few were leaning on canes or someone’s arm. That was some comfort since Mr. Knee had begun grumbling. She said nothing, but the sports announcer in her head pattered on: “Our contestant made the trip in nearly record time, but right now she’s stalled in a very long line . . .”
In about ten minutes, after standing on various blue feet on the floor, she dug out her appointment card and ID. She hadn’t expected to feel nervous, but she saw her hand shaking a little. Soon she was in front of one of the check-in tables, trying not to touch anything. A white-haired man with a name tag looked at her cards.
“Mrs. Taylor, are you parked in the back lot? I don’t want your car to be towed.”
She said, “There’s no car. I walked. It took my granddaughter and me a solid week of computer work to schedule this appointment. When my ride fell through, I just couldn’t give it up.”
He looked again at the address on Rita’s ID and raised an eyebrow. “You must have walked two or three miles.”
From where she stood she could see the medical stations, the ones with the vaccine that had to be stored in seriously cold conditions. Somewhere beyond that, not yet in sight, was a birthday party with Clara and Sammy.