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Step by Step: An Old Man and His Wisdom

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The house across the street will be for sale soon. The garage sale was last weekend, and the Salvation Army truck came by Monday morning to collect what didn't sell.

My encounters with the doctor who lived in the house were limited to a few weeks last spring. I walked our dog in the late afternoon, and the doctor was out walking with his aide.

"Each day," he said to me the first time we talked, "I go a bit farther." He smiled, moved his walker a few inches and slid each foot forward.

The doctor had made it from his driveway to the sidewalk in front of his house. He wore a neck brace, a robe and pajamas. Although in his late 80s, he had a smile like an 8-year-old boy.

"I'll make it to the end of the street in no time," he said.

"I believe it," I said.

Another afternoon I saw the doctor on the sidewalk a few houses down from his house.

"You're getting closer to the end," I admired.

"I am," he said proudly, and then he tilted his head slightly and looked up at a plum tree.

"Did you see the plum tree blossoms?" the doctor asked. "They're beautiful," he said. "Simply beautiful." Tiny pink petals covered the sidewalk around us, and I was reminded of Japan where they picnic in the shade of flowering trees to savor beautiful moments.

"We go to the same church," I said as I walked with the doctor. "The minister asked that we say a prayer for you." He smiled.

"I'd like to go on Sunday," the doctor said. "Will you take me?"

I wondered if the old man was trying to make a break for it. The only way he'd been leaving the neighborhood recently was by ambulance, and that seemed to be happening more often.

"I'll come by at 7:30," I said.

Sunday morning, the aide, the doctor and I moved slowly to my car. The aide put the wheelchair in the trunk, helped get the doctor in the car, and offered to come with us.

"I'm fine," the doctor said. "I'm fine."

I got in the car on my side, secured the doctor's seat belt and my own, and then I asked if he was ready.

"Ready!" the doctor said looking forward as if we were off on a grand adventure.

I started the car. "How does it feel to be going down our street in a car instead of an ambulance?" I asked.

"Wonderful," he said. "Absolutely wonderful."

On the way out of town, he looked out the window and admired the hills, and then he said, "I have hospitalitis."

"What's that?" I asked.

"It means I've been in the hospital too much."

The doctor talked about church. "I met a lot of good people there," he said. "It grounded me." I told him that when we were new to town, I found church was a good place to meet people. He agreed. I told him I always like a good sermon.

When we first set off, the distance to church seemed too far to take a frail man. After we were driving, the distance felt too short.

Inside, I wheeled the doctor to the front pew. We shared a hymnal and sang the songs together. When the service was over, many people came up and said hello to the doctor, and he squeezed each hand.

Getting him in the car was challenging. The doctor winced when I moved him into the seat, and he closed his eyes and took a few breaths. "I've learned to accept pain," he said.

I sat in the driver's side and waited for his pain to lessen. In front of us, two young children, ages maybe 4 and 2, followed their parents towards the entrance.

The doctor started to chuckle as he watched the young boy teetering along a sidewalk curb. The girl twirled and hummed.

"I love children," the doctor said. "They're curious. They haven't lost it yet."

The boy examined a rock, and the girl picked up something on the sidewalk.

"Look at them," he laughed. "Look at them. Children are full of potential," the doctor said, and then he spoke with urgency. "We need to remember that, keep that alive, our curiosity, that potential within ourselves."

I thought of the doctor pushing his walker, moving one step at a time down our street and stopping to admire plum blossoms.

"I love children," he said, and I could see that he really did.

"What kind of doctor are you?" I asked.

"A pediatrician," he said.

We started to drive home, and I asked him how it was to be back in church.

"I loved it," he said.

"What did you think of the sermon?" I asked.

"I couldn't hear it."

Back at his house, the doctor was noticeably tired. His face was white and his pain was back, but when I leaned in to hug him goodbye, he kissed my cheek.

"See you on the street," he said. "I'll make it to the end soon, step by step."

"Yes," I said, "step by step."

Not long after that, hospice cars and family cars lined the street outside the doctor's home. I heard from a neighbor that the doctor died in his sleep. The news that he died peacefully didn't surprise me. With his ability to be kind and joyful despite pain, I figured he had already arrived wherever it was he was wanting to go.

Step by step I saw the doctor walk, with curiosity, determination, love in his heart, and an ability to soak in people and beautiful moments.

The night after the Salvation Army truck left, I walked by the doctor's house. To the tree outside his bedroom window I said, "Tell the doctor thank you for his last sermon."

As I walked away, I turned back and added, "And congratulations on making it to the end of the street."


Kathleen Buckstaff is the author of The Tiffany Box: A Memoir, a USA Best Book Awards Finalist. The Tiffany Box is full of love, humor, heartache, and insight. A gathering of e-mails and letters to her closest friends comprise Kathleen Buckstaff's candid, funny, and recognizably true chronicle of a generation "in-between": nurturing its young while nursing its aged, and coming to terms with the bitter realities that temper life's sweet rewards.

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