The sounds are quiet, and sad, and I do my best not to pay them attention. The dragging. The soft impacts. The lengthening silences in between. As if those long, smooth muscles are waiting for the command to wind its way through a ragged and fragmented labyrinth of neurons before sparking, lifting, moving in what was once a symphony of coordinated flex and contraction. As if he, himself, is waiting for a suggestion of what to do next.
It is so difficult, prepaing to take that next step.
His feet are bare, as they often are these days. His toes splayed, swollen, bent at unnatural angles. The nails growing long and yellowing. They seem almost claws, and a part of me wonders at the idea that they might grasp these wooden floors like a squirrel holding tightly to bark as it moves, steadily, surely, skyward up along the trunk of a tree. As though there might be some kind of tactile comfort gained through the pressure of these worn floorboards against the unfeeling pads of flesh, the thick welts of callous, the calcified growth of nails like bone. One foot points forward, in keeping with the vague sense of direction his effort suggests. The other skews off in an odd tangent, as if redirecting him toward some unnamable destination offering the promise of lasting comfort and peace.
They are unsynced, in the service of competing agendas. He is caught in between, pulled by hints and suggestions of where to go but no concrete idea of how to ambulate from here to there, to wherever they may lead. He is six feet from the bed. Two feet from the door. Four more to the bathroom. The space before him stretches on forever.
I refocus, and busy myself with the task at hand. Crouched low, against the edge of the sagging bookshelf, beneath the steady downward press of the dormer as it stretches from ceiling to floor. Running my fingers along the spines of each book, testing them for strength and relevance, the track of my touch visible through the years of dust and pollen that have settled across them as the seasons have passed, one to the next, blending together into a fugue of time that no longer holds meaning for the hands that held them last.
Relevance is a fleeting thing, and as I count and measure and judge them, one by one, I use that as my guide — the edge of occam's razor, the defining quality of yes or no. Relevance forms the question, and, as always, the simplest answer is the correct one.
I lift a book from its cradle of dust, and for the first time in a half-dozen years its cover sees light. The color is still a rich, lustrous burgundy. A diner's guide to San Francisco. 2005.
Without effort, my mind runs the math: a half-dozen years after our move from California back to New England. Midway between then and now. A time when the recollection of our long strolls together through North Beach and along the Embarcadero probably still held strong. When his sense memory of the dry heat of Napa, of that heady aroma of oak and wine swirling in glass, of the endless acres of grapevine and the dry hills beyond, was enough to entice him toward the idea of another trip west. Without us, but still worthwhile. A plan worth making.
And quickly, quietly, I place the book in the cardboard box.
My mother's voice offers encouragement from the far side of the bedroom. "Your right foot," she says. She says his name, to make it clear to whom she is speaking. "Lift your right foot." Obediently, his right leg lifts a few inches and then steps forward half a length, and then his left follows suit. His knees quaver slightly, from the effort of keeping him aloft. His hands grip the edge of his aluminum walker tightly, a drowning figure grasping the edge of a life ring. A child clutching the hand of a trusted parent. A man vanishing by inches, holding tight to the only certainty he knows.
A Time Out Guide to London. 2004. Companion guides to Paris and Nice. The streets, the restaurants, the chance to see what had changed in the years since they'd last visited.
Into the box.
A walking guide to Prague. 2005. A place they'd never visited, but one they'd heard me describe in detail — the collision of past and present, the energy of Wenceclas Square, the statues of Karlos Most, the grand scale of Prague Castle... three days I'd spent in 1991 still percolating in his mind almost fifteen years later. That restless curiosity. That hunger to explore.
I chew my lip, gently place the book in the cardboard box, and then wipe the dust and pollen from its spine onto my leg. The mark it leaves will not last.
One by one. Chicago. Montréal. Rome. New York. The French countryside. Guides and travelogues and plans and possibilities. So many places he'd wanted to see. They'd wanted to visit. Such ambitions.
2005. A million years ago. The year our twins were born. A time I hardly remember myself, months fading into a blur of screaming infants and endless nights and trying to find moments for our son and life reduced to survival mode and our focus so completely internalized and I never even considered what they might have put aside, at that moment, to make room for us in their lives and how before they even realized that time was...
Hawai'i. Fodor's. The palm trees and soft sand beaches and lush green mountains and electric blue waters on the cover still visible, beneath the thin skin that had settled and grown across it in the long years since the book was placed on the shelf.
They'd wanted to see Hawai'i.
I rest the book in the box.
He stands half a dozen feet away from me. Half a dozen feet from the bed where he spends most of his long, quiet days. His eyes squeezed so tightly together, I cannot tell if they are open. His hairless, freckled forehead damp with sweat. His concentration absolute, in its presence or absence.
He is somewhere in between. Waiting to take the next step.
I brush the dust from my fingertips, and clear my throat. "Lift your feet," I say to my father. "Lift your feet."