Long hours of my childhood surrendered to words dancing across the pages of Readers Digest Condensed Books sent to my family by Grandma Corley. On any given night, I’d prop my pillow against the headboard and click a flashlight to illuminate pages in the darkness of the silent house. I started devouring these volumes as early as nine or ten. I didn’t quite understand the concept of ‘condensed’ books until eighth grade, when I got to peruse the library shelves without much supervision.
But it didn’t matter. I read novel after novel in the truncated form with as much fascination as the full versions would later accord.
In sixth or seventh grade, i read a book called The Walking Stick. Its main character worked in an art museum. She fascinated me because she had “a walking problem” just as I did. She lived a lonely existence, much as I assumed that I would in my own adulthood. She had a small apartment with her father, and walked each day to her job, to the tap-tap-tap of her walking stick.
Her routine changed when a man befriended her. He paid her the sort of attention that she had yearned to experience. He coaxed her on dates, bought gifts, and — astonishingly — convinced her that she did not need to use a cane. The walking stick remained behind, gathering dust in a corner, while the woman blossomed under the man’s flattering attention.
Then, one day, the truth crashed down on the woman. The man had robbed her beloved museum, using information that she had unwittingly revealed. Valuable paintings disappeared. Although she kept her job, her reputation would never be restored. Of course, the man never loved her. On the morning after his treachery became apparent, she again took her walking stick in hand, and made her slow, painful journey to the job which would never again be the same.
For most of my life, I have not used a gait aid despite the stern recommendations of physical therapists and doctors. However, the worsening of a secondary condition has necessitated that I begin relying on my own walking stick. I mostly have used one that my friend Katrina purchased for me in Colorado. Last year, an artist gave me another one. Though not as perfectly suitable, I kept it on hand for back-up while still struggling to overcome the weakening of my calves which made use of anything nearly mandatory.
A craftsman of my acquaintance got it into his head that he should paint my walking stick. I did not want him to do so. I resisted but could not clearly articulate my hesitance to him. I thought about the woman in The Walking Stick. I recalled her joy at being considered ‘normal’, of having her new lover encourage her to cast aside the dreadful cane that so stigmatized her. I told this painter, Oh, I really do not want my walking stick to be painted. I could not bring myself to share my reasons. I knew he would not understand.
He kept pressing me until I finally surrendered the thing. Last evening, I got it back. The artist left it with a neighbor who brought it to my house. He did a good job, judging purely from the standpoint of the liveliness of the decoration and the vibrancy of the colors. But I cannot imagine carrying this cane. I know how I would feel. Those feelings can be summarized in one word: Conspicuous.
I look at this walking stick and picture the woman in that story taking it to hand. I think she and I share a sense of reluctance to have our walking problems so deftly underscored. I leaned this walking stick against my house next to the one which Katrina gave me. It looks nice there. I take a fair amount of pleasure in knowing that the person who painted it for me had only the purest of intentions. The kindness of this near-stranger will carry me through many a gloomy evening.
It’s the fifteenth day of the one-hundred and fourth month of My Year Without Complaining. Life continues.