It all started when I was in second grade. One of the things I wanted most in the whole world was to play in the orchestra. At that time, a student could go to the music teacher and let him know that you wanted to take lessons. He would arrange for an “audition” to determine if you had potential and then select the appropriate instrument. So a few weeks after the start of school I went to see Mr. D at recess. He told me to come back the next day at lunch time.
I was excited and nervous and could not sleep that night. I reported to the music room promptly at noon. Mr. D asked me to sing a bit of America the Beautiful. After just a few bars he told me to stop.
“You have a lovely voice, Carole,” he said. “I have the perfect instrument for you.”
Of course, I did not understand that the “perfect instrument” was what was available at the time!
Mr. D disappeared into the back of the music room closet and came out holding something I had never seen before. It was an enormous violin! I could barely speak.
“What is it?” I asked.
“This is a cello,” he replied. “It makes the most wonderful sound and you will love it.”
“But it is much too big for me,” I said as tears began welling up in my eyes. (I was a tiny girl, the second shortest in class and slender). “How will I play it?”
He sat down on a nearby chair, wrapped his legs around the base of the instrument and leaned the top part against his chest. I was horrified! He drew the bow across the middle, placed his fingers on the long neck, and began to play. Ok, it sounded nice, but it was still impossible.
“How will I get it back and forth to school?”
“Talk to your parents,” he said. “I am sure they will find a way.”
At the end of the day my boyfriend Richard met me to walk me home and carry my books. This was our daily routine. We were great friends. We talked about everything, laughed a lot, and were even comfortable being silent. He noticed right away that something was wrong. I motioned him to follow me back to the music room where the hulking object lay on its side in its case.
“Wow,” he said. “It sure is big!”
“What am I going to do?” I asked sadly. He sat down next to me, frowning in concentration.
After a few minutes Richard stood up and said, “I have an idea. I’m going home and will be right back.”
And he was, towing a little red wagon behind him. He gently placed the cello inside along with our books. And so Richard, the cello and I walked back and forth to school every day. When the weather was bad, his mother picked us up, carefully loaded it into the station wagon, and drove me home.
I took my music lessons, fell in love with my surprising instrument, and made the orchestra in third grade. Richard and his family moved at the end of that year. I learned to use a shopping cart for transport, practiced willingly, and cemented my relationship with all things musical that has lasted my entire life.
It was not until many years later that I realized what a wonderful friend Richard was, and that he was the first person to recognize my need for someone to walk with me.
By the time I reached seventh grade, I was able to carry the cello, although the junior high school was a longer walk and I had to make frequent stops. But a new problem presented itself.
The orchestra rehearsed after school several days a week, and it was frequently dark when we finished. A young girl carrying a large instrument along dark streets was not a good idea. Once again I was fortunate to have someone to walk with me.
This time it was actually four people to walk with me: two trumpet players, a drummer and another cellist. The five of us became close friends; 3 boys and 2 girls bound together by the love of music.
The friendship lasted all through High School and even into college. We talked about everything on those long walks home; our disappointments over auditions for solos that were not successful, the difficulty of certain pieces of music, our family relationships, dating disasters — our hopes, disappointments and dreams.
By the time I reached college there was no longer a necessity for someone to walk with me. There was however, still the pleasure in strolling around campus with a friend and orchestra rehearsals, but studies, part-time jobs and a long commute did not allow for those lovely, intimate walks.
Decades of working curtailed the talking and walking even further. So many other things to do and so little time. But there were moments when the list of to do’s permitted an escape, and then the treasured leisurely saunter with good conversation and a friend took place. It did not matter if it was in the park admiring the beauty of nature or in the busy city, as long as we were together, sharing our lives.
And then, suddenly and unexpectedly, I was retired. A mixed blessing, to be sure. But there was once again time for my favorite pastime. I made the most of it! I took long solitary walks in the woods or along the riverbank, places where my friends generally did not like to go (mosquitos and other bugs were unwelcome company). I even joined a hiking club! Best of all the intimate strolls were renewed and their frequency increased. I learned more about my companions during those hours then I had in all the years before and the nature of our friendships deepened and widened.
It all stopped 10 months ago.
Such a simple thing really. I joined the ranks of people with mobility issues; walk slower, for shorter distances or in some cases not at all, and with a cane. Friends who are mobile continue as before with others of similar ability. I am left behind to catch up or meet up elsewhere or simply left out.
It’s not that they are mean or self-centered. For them it is simply one of those facts of life that seem to require adjustments as we age.
“Carole can’t do the walking anymore.” For me, it is sad, lonely and disorienting. I have lost one of the things in life that made me truly happy and the nature of some friendships have changed as well.
I never mentioned it nor did they. It just was. Until a remarkable thing happened.
My friend G decided to talk about it. G lives in Florida so I do not see her often. She is an active, health conscious woman who loves to walk recreationally and also uses it as part of her daily exercise routine. She hates to miss a day. She also reads my articles and lets me know what she thinks; sometimes agreeing, sometimes not. On this occasion she called to let me know what she thought about my last blog post, “I Wish I Was The Way I Was,” where I described the difficulty I was having accepting my newly diagnosed spinal disease.
“It made me so sad,” she said. “You know, it’s hard for me too. I feel terrible leaving you behind and I miss your company when we can’t walk together. I don’t know what to do. If I go ahead, I feel guilty. And if I stay behind with you, I miss my exercise and the pleasure of walking quickly and going wherever I please.”
I was stunned!
In my self-centered haze it never occurred to me that she might be affected by my new physical challenge. And I was amazed that she was courageous and caring enough to bring it up for discussion. And discuss we did, for well over an hour. Everything was on the table, no holds barred, as we talked about the consequences of various actions and the emotions that accompanied them. It was difficult and sometimes uncomfortable, but done gently enough to keep the conversation going.
I wish I could say that at the end of the hour we had solved our dilemma. We did not. But we had something so much better. A true understanding of what we were feeling and a willingness to compromise as much as possible. I would let her know when I was feeling left out and really wanted her company. And she would let me know when she really wanted to go on ahead. And we would always find ways to catch up and share. It would not come between us.
I learned something that day, and I have thought about it a lot since then. The walking and talking is important, of course. But in some way it’s much more than that. It really is a blueprint for how I hope to live my life going forward. There are going to be many changes in the coming years, physical and emotional. The challenge is to be brave enough to talk about them with the people I care about, willing to listen when they need to do the same, and to do it honestly and without judgment.
So to those who share my life now, and those I have yet to meet, I extend the invitation — Walk With Me.