That Mr. Shaw keeps a lifted head and a contemptuous face before the colossal panorama of empires and civilizations, this does not in itself convince one that he sees things as they are. I should be most effectively convinced that he did if I found him staring with religious astonishment at his own feet. “What are those two beautiful and industrious beings,” I can imagine him murmuring to himself, “whom I see everywhere, serving me I know not why? What fairy godmother bade them come trotting out of elfland when I was born? What god of the borderland, what barbaric god of legs, must I propitiate with fire and wine, lest they run away with me?”
–G.K. Chesterton, “Mr. Bernard Shaw,” Heretics.
I thought about this quote several times last week, which I spent helping take care of my paternal grandparents in little ol’ Thomasville, North Carolina. My grandma is still (much to her chagrin) recovering from a triple-whammy of triple bypass surgery, a heart attack, and stents, and she came down with pneumonia while I was there (much to her disgust). Grandpa has late-onset Parkinson’s (he’s been diagnosed for…gosh, three years now? maybe a couple more?), and his symptoms are the classic ones: constantly running nose, tremors/shakes, and overall motor difficulty.
This is the second time I’ve been up to see them this summer (the first time was right after the heart attack, so maybe I should just stop going), and in some ways it was harder (Grandma’s antibiotics made her nauseous) and in some ways easier (my cousin came by for a few days with her toddler, and that brightened their days). Grandma is generally the one who needs the most attention; Grandpa, if left to his own devices, will go about his own routine, making breakfast, doing small chores like the dishes, reading books alternately on his Kindle or the computer, taking a nap. Neither of them can drive anymore, and Grandma can’t help Grandpa into bed anymore, which is why the family’s been taking turns staying with them. But aside from the occasional lapse of memory, their minds are still sharp (as is Grandma’s tongue–I knew she was feeling better once she started bossing Grandpa again). They’ve been married sixty years, and Grandpa still stoops to kiss Grandma on the top of the head; and they still apologize and forgive each other after a squabble (most of which these days are caused by each worrying about the other and shouting at them, because they are ridiculous and adorable).
Grandpa is a tall man–at least six feet, even now–and though he doesn’t have the girth I remember trying to stretch my arms across as a kid he’s still, by virtue of his height, a big man. And he’s still ambulatory, but he has to–think. His feet shuffle if left to their own devices; he has to make a conscious effort to take actual strides, and he certainly can’t walk backwards without risking a fall. And he forgets this, and Grandma or someone shouts at him, and of course he’s deaf as a post even with his hearing aids and furthermore when someone interrupts him he stops dead because he can either focus on moving or focus on listening and talking. Once or twice I forgot myself and asked him a question as he was getting in the car, or he started trying to tell me something while walking across the room, and we’d have to stop ourselves and focus on the motor task at hand, because it literally takes all his concentration. He has to be reminded to set his feet apart before trying to stand up from a chair, and though he can sit down on the edge of the bed alone and eventually get his feet into bed it is much faster for someone to swing them up for him.
Once I witnessed him getting out of bed, or at least starting to. Suffice to say that even with me stepping in, it was terrifying. And yet he does it three or four times a night, and then he eventually gets himself back into bed, and it–
I don’t mean to paint a picture of my grandpa as helpless, because he’s certainly not that. As I told him, it’s a good thing he’s an engineer because he’s used to coming up with creative solutions to complex problems (he used to help calculate the trajectories needed to reach the moon). He copes. He manages. And he’s an engineer, so he has his routines. There are some days, like the one I left him on, when even despite the medicine you can feel his hand twitching in yours, but he keeps on reading (the Kindle has been a huge blessing in that regard, because he can take the large-print with him wherever he goes) and telling terrible puns and infuriating Grandma by taking people to her least favorite restaurant behind her back. Since I married a soldier, he’s been telling stories of his few short years in the Army (“They asked me what I wanted out of the Army, and I said–me!”), and my husband even more. He’s a sweetheart, a sentimental giant of a man, who is absolutely devoted to Grandma, who does all his strength exercises and his walking exercises so that he can keep taking care of her as much as he can.
He’s incredibly smart and funny and knowledgeable, and he has to focus every ounce of that on telling his feet to move.
and so I watched him and thought of Chesterton and the beautiful industrious beings now made gods themselves, demanding total worship and unending sacrifice; about how quietly and inexorably the miracle turns on itself; about how one day I might find myself in the same shoes, if not with smaller feet; about how today, for me, for no reason and yet all reasons, I still walk; the religious astonishment endures.
The truth is “Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall be gloriously surprised.” The man who expects nothing sees redder roses than common men can see, and greener grass, and a more startling sun. Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall possess the cities and the mountains; blessed is the meek, for he shall inherit the earth.