When I drove for the Red Cross it was my job to pick people up at their homes and drive them to their doctors’ appointments or to restaurants or grocery stores. Convalescent groups were more difficult than individuals because you had to load and buckle down so many wheelchairs. The process was time-consuming, and the voice on the two-way radio kept insisting you hurry. I lived in fear of a wheelchair breaking loose and careening across the van, but nothing like that ever happened. The drama happened on a September day when I was sent to a convalescent home to pick up a client and drive him to his specialist. As I walked down the long main hall to look for him, I noticed that patients were parked in wheelchairs outside their rooms.I speculated it was an attempt to keep them social, though most of them did not look so inclined; more likely the practice of parking the patients outside their rooms facilitated the cleaning of rooms. In the air there was the inevitable smell of dander and urine overlaid with cleanser. I was anxious to locate my client and get us both out of there when I saw a woman whose image burned through my retina and tattooed itself on my memory’s eye. She was dressed like so many others in a faded flowered housecoat. Her silver hair was askew, all wild and separate filigrees. Her mouth was open, and sounds that approximated singing rasped from her throat. She was moving front to back, as if the wheelchair were a rocking chair, caressing a life-sized, pink-fleshed, naked plastic babydoll — its arms stretched up toward her face, its legs about to kick free. It would be easy to say she was senile. It would be harder to know the many ways she was stripped — the way bleach strips color from clothing — of friends, of family members, of mementos, of home. Sometimes you see or hear something significant, but it takes years to interpret its significance; this image offered me its meaning instantly.
Children are not for everyone. I know people who are sorry they spent time in childhood and are loathe to revisit it, even in the form of another person. I have friends who prefer the rich and complex world of adults, who pause briefly from the heights of big peopleness to pat the heads of the small creatures milling about at their kneecaps. And I know people who experience baby fever like spring fever, an annual sickness that passes in three days. Whom we love or whom we choose to love is part of what shapes us, organizes our lives in terms of priorities. I recognized, the instant I saw that aged woman rocking that doll, there was a world I could be cast out of that was essential and vital for me, and there was another world I could be condemned to that was truly a ghetto.
What have we done with our lives that makes them fly by so fast? Fly by like hedges and houses, stop signs and streetlights, Kmarts and Wal-Marts? We are like delicate, short-lived hummingbirds who beat their wings so swiftly they are invisible — but to what nectar? Eastern philosophers, therapists, and country-western singers exhort us to slow down, to catch the scent, savor the food, fondle the rose. And we try. But we are future-living creatures with miles to go before we sleep. A child insists we slow down, see the world. What’s that? Why? A child makes us move at his or her own short-legged pace.
“Oh, that’s very nice,” you say. Tell that to the woman who is loading her crying newborn into the car seat, wondering if he’s wet or hungry or both, while the two-year-old, already ensconced in his chair, pursues a trapped fly with his pacifier, meaning to smash it. The woman is weary to the bone, milk is beginning to leak from her breasts, her frozen chicken pies are beginning to thaw, and she still has to stop at the vegetable stand and the cleaners. In her head she is counting the money she just spent, subtracting it from the sum she does not have. I have been that woman. The one who had no time to bounce the chubby baby, the one who worried constantly about money, the one who counted the days till kindergarten. Sometimes, what the left hand takes away, the right hand offers: I have been offered another chance, another incarnation.
Which brings me to my embarrassing faux pas in the middle of the conversation, the hackneyed emotion solidified in amber, the reason behind this discursive opening. I want to talk about the deep pleasure of being a grandparent.
Kenko, a Japanese author from the 11th Century, says, “We cannot live forever in this world; why should we wait for ugliness to overtake us? The longer man lives, the more shame he endures. To die, at the latest, before one reaches 40, is the least unattractive. Once a man passes that age, he desires (with no sense of shame over his appearance) to mingle in the company of others. In his sunset years he dotes on his grandchildren and prays for long life so that he may see them prosper…a lamentable state of affairs.” And so it is. To be a grandparent is to be besotted. To lurk around the fringes of conversation trying to find a pretext to insert grandchild stories, to finally update yourself technologically only to augment the photo opportunities. Perhaps Kenko is right, not about the dying early, but about the doting. The shame of it all. Perhaps telling stories about your grandchild is like recounting a long, enigmatic dream. Or as my old poetry professor used to say when he read a particularly self-indulgent poem: “I read this poem and say, who cares?” Yet I persist. I swear to you, time spent with a child is philosophical, meditative, slows time to the speed of honey in its languid descent from the silver spoon to the steaming cup.