All short stories Copyright © 1997 Ruth C. Webb. All rights reserved.
To Walk or Not To
"Your poor dead father wouldnít want you to be lazy. He wanted you to walk so much he spent many of his vacation days in India searching for doctors to help you." Marie Monroe, Dickís mother, begins her daily harangue.
Dick cries, "Wait a minute Mom, how can I spend five hours a day walking with my walker and keep my job as personnel manager for McDonaldís in Nutley, New Jersey? Perhaps some day I will be in charge of the McDonaldís Restaurant in Nutley."
"That is an impossible dream!" exclaims Marie.
"No it isnít, Mom! There are lots of guys who came home from Vietnam who canít walk. They now live and work in wheelchairs."
Marie cries, "But most of them will never walk. You have a chance to walk again. If you donít learn to walk, what will happen to youóand to me? When I die, what will you do without me to care for you? The time is coming when I wonít be here anymore, and I want you to be independent so no one will put you in an institution. Dick, I must go shopping now. Iíll be back in an hour and help you practice walking. I already put your long braces on so you can walk right way when I come back."
The door bangs shut and Dick mutters in exasperation, "My mother, what a nag! She does not realize that I lie awake at night with my legs trembling and throbbing in pain. Iím always tired and sometimes Iím so exhausted that I canít move my arms to lift my heavy walker. I am tired after taking ten steps and can hardly breathe or swallow my saliva. The tremors in my legs are so bad I canít stand for more than 10 minutes. I am worried that the muscles in my legs will develop more weakness."
Dick continues to ruminate out loud, "The nerves controlling my bladder are so injured by polio, I can no longer voluntarily urinate and I have to wear a leg bag. That is a nuisance! Sometimes my stomach aches so much I canít eat regular foods. I also have trouble breathing because the muscles expanding and contracting my lungs are affected. For a long time I had to use a ventilator to breathe in bed. A year ago I had respiratory therapy for six months and it really helped me breathe more easily. However, because it costs fifty dollars a day, I had to give it up. Now, any exertion like walking causes me great pain. I try not to complain so Mother doesnít know how much I hurt."
"Sure, I want to walk, but I canít stand her constant badgering. I remember what it is like to be able to go where and when I want. I was seventeen years old when I caught polio. After Mom and I came back from India, I spent a year at the rehab institute in Warm Springs, Georgia, but I never learned to walk without braces. Even now, I have to wear heavy braces that I canít put on myself. If I wear them all day, they rub my ankles raw. Yet Mother continues to harass me. She complains that I donít practice walking enough and her harassment is no encouragement. Iím so tired of her constant scolding! If only she would understand that I must earn a living, and cannot devote all my time to learn to walk."
He thinks, ĎI feel so worthless because I canít walk and so helpless that Mother has to help me put on my braces and my shoes, that I canít sleep at night. I wake every midnight and think about it. Then some nights my chest gets so tight, I canít breathe. Then I wish I could die!í
Finally Dick shouts, "Iíll show Mom! Iíll get up on my braces and walk to the door and wait for her to come."
He grabs his walker and backs his chair up to the wall. After locking his braces, and putting the walker in front of him, he uses his strong arms to raise himself on his feet. With great effort, he starts to walk out of his study and down a narrow hall to the front door. He slowly puts one foot ahead of the other. After the first two steps, Dick feels proud of himself. He thinks, ĎI am walking alone, without Mother!í He says hopefully, "Perhaps she is right; I can learn to walk like other people do."
As he reaches the door, his legs get tense and refuse to move. He leans too far forward and over balances himself so that he falls flat on his chest and forearms. Dick tries to raise himself by pushing at the floor with both his arms. His fingers scratch the rough carpet and bleed tiny red specks on the blue pattern. After thirty minutes of trying, he gives up and lies with one ear on the floor.
Exhausted and smarting from the rug burns on his fingers, Dick lies on the floor and thinks, ĎWhen Mom comes back, I hope sheís satisfied that I tried to walk." Her insistence is so irritating! Dick continues to ruminate, "Her constant refrain is ĎDick, I donít know what Iím going to do if you donít walk. What will become of you? You will be a cripple all your life and I will have to take care of you. What will happen to you when I die? You may have to go to an institution.í I donít know how to quiet her fears. I too am afraid of what may happen to me."
An hour passes. Dickís mind continues to whirl. Self-pity flashes and he says aloud, "What if I never walk? Can I spend my life in a wheelchair, and still have a career? I suppose lots of guys do it, but it seems a terrible way to live."
Dick gets so tired trying to imagine what life would be like if he decides to give up trying to walk that he falls asleep. He wakes when he hears steps on the porch. Harry, a childhood friend, opens the door and sees Dick lying on the floor,
"Say old pal, how did you get down there?"
Dick answers, "My mother nagged me so much this morning, I decided to show her I could walk without her. My legs became so tense that I fell. Help me up, please."
Harry helps Dick get into his wheelchair. Then he says, "So, your mother is after you again! What did she say this time to make you angry?"
Dick rehearses how his mother pestered him that morning by urging him to practice walking. Iím so tired of her pressuring me! I sure want to walk to be independent and be a normal person, but pushing my heavy walker takes so much effort and so much of the day. I know I canít keep my job and practice walking. Harry, you are a psychologist, what should I do?"
Harry reflects his friendís confusion and says, "You feel two waysóyou really want to walk, but you realize that you cannot work and spend much time in walking practice. The decision is really up to you. You can continue to practice to gain the uncertain goal of walking normally, or you can face the reality that your legs will never behave normally. If you make this decision, I know you can adapt to your wheelchair and become a successful manager."
Just then, his mother enters with a big shopping bag, and says, "Harry, I hope you are encouraging Dick to continue his walking exercises."
She goes over to Dick and asks, "Are you ready to walk? Letís show Harry what you can do."
Dick groans, "I did walk, Mom. And I fell down. If Harry hadnít come I would still be on the floor. I think Iím going to give up walking because I canít work at my job and exercise five hours a day."
Marie exclaims, "Oh no, Dick. You canít give up trying to walk. We have worked so long! Your whole future depends on whether you walk!"
Dick answers, "My whole future depends on my keeping my job! I canít do both, Mom."
She begins to cry, "What will happen to you? How can I take care of you?"
Harry interrupts, "Listen, you are both right! Marie, you want your son to regain his physical independence so he can live a normal life and not end up in an institution. You believe that he will achieve this goal if he learns to walk."
"Dick, you also want to be independent. You now have a promising career in spite of using a wheelchair. Your job demands total concentration for eight hours a day. Marie is urging you to practice walking for long periods every day. You canít spend that much time in walking exercises and have the energy to manage McDonaldís. You have to determine which goal is more important at this time."
Harry turns to Marie, "Marie, this decision is Dickís. Let him choose which goal to pursue."
He turns to Dick, "What are you going to do? You are at a crossroad, and only you can decide what way to go."
Silence falls on the room.
Dick is bewildered and does not answer for a long time. Then he says, "Mom, you are right. I donít want to give up and never walk. I will keep on practicing for an hour three times a week regardless of whether I eventually walk or not. On the other hand, I have to earn my living now. I just bought a new car and I have to pay for it, and I want to help you with the house insurance."
Harry interposes, "Are you saying that your job is your priority at present, and walking is a secondary goal?"
"Yes," says Dick, looking at his mother anxiously. "What do you think, Mom?"
"No, no, no!" declares Marie in an ascending voice. "If you stop trying, you will never walk."
"But I have learned to live in the wheelchair, and Iím earning a living. I canít walk and keep a job right now. It takes so much time to walk and the braces are so heavy to wear all day. My job seems more important than trying to do something that I may never accomplish. Please understand, Mom."
"Dear boy," cries Marie, "I promised your dying father I would do everything possible to make you walk."
Harry summarizes Dickís decision, "Marie, Dick is facing reality in compromising between trying to walk and earning a living. He is at a crossroad; one way leads to the uncertain goal of walking alone, and the other way points to a successful career."
There is again a long silence, then Marie goes over to Dick and hugs him, "Darling, I hate to see you give up daily walking practice, but now I can see that your career is much more important."
Dick grabs her hand and says, "Yes, Mom, Iím glad we both realize that the choice is really mine!"
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