The Redemptive Power of a Stroll on the Beach
“Tracing your footprints in the sand,
Trying to walk like a man, …
But I didn’t think there’d be so many steps
I’d have to learn on my own.
Well I was young and I didn’t know what to do,
When I saw your best steps stolen away from you.
Now I’ll do what I can,
I’ll walk like a man.”
Upon first hearing that Bruce Springsteen song I openly sobbed. Two years prior, my father died at age 60. My mother had preceded him in death three years earlier. “On my own,” I had suffered through a failed marriage and was barely treading water in the guardianship of my younger sister. Walk like a man? I was nearly drowning.
Over the next two decades, those Springsteen lyrics would periodically haunt me. In response to imprudent romantic entanglements, unwise career decisions, or ill-advised investments, I’d lament the absence of my parent’s sage counsel.
Then ALS came a knockin’. Miraculously, my folks showed up in full force. Or, rather the memory of footprints from each did. One of my grandfathers also chimed in with some beyond-the-grave instruction of his own.
For the final eight years of her life, my mom was my best friend. Others have been cast in that role, but none fulfilled it as completely. During our final conversation, my mother stated how thankful she was for her innumerable and improbable blessings, and likewise for whatever lay ahead. Only in hindsight did I come to realize that she was imparting a life lesson, fully cognizant of her imminent death.
My dad was the smartest and most resourceful person I’ve ever known. The most difficult task of my life was informing him that after the sudden onset of some alarming symptoms, he had only three to six months to live. To which he responded with a prolonged, audible exhale, followed by, “Give me a few minutes. Take a walk around the hospital.” Upon my return, I found a totally composed man who said, “We best get to planning.”
My mom’s father was the wisest person of my life. A Lutheran pastor, he was the master of subtly effective confrontation.
Once, during the Great Depression, he happened upon a congregant stuck on a desolate dirt road in rural Oklahoma. His mule-drawn utility carriage had broken down. The man was hysterically irate. As my grandfather assisted in the repair effort, he asked the stranded man a question: “Hank, at this moment do you know the difference between you and that ass?” Hank replied, “No.” My grandpa observed, “Neither do I.”
On the occasion of my confirmation, I received a beautiful Bible from my grandfather. The note accompanying the gift was even more special. It simply read, “Every important answer you will ever seek may be found within these pages.”
In my trek with ALS, that trio of footprints has provided sustenance. They have been a lifeline. They emphasize promoting positivity and eschewing bitterness. But other mental souvenirs from less-obvious nonimmediate family sources have contributed mightily as well.
Former professional basketball great Charles Barkley once provocatively averred, “I am not a role model. I’m not paid to be a role model.” Typically, I find Barkley entertaining and sometimes insightful. However, in that regard, I couldn’t disagree more. Barkley has no veto power over who chooses to emulate him behaviorally, philosophically, or morally. None of us do. Like beauty, role modeling is in the eye of the beholder.
Two friends of mine succumbed to rare diseases in 2017. It was only after disease onset that I took notice of their virtual footprints. Unbeknownst to each, they became role models to me in how they dealt with loss, debility, and a grim future.
I wrote about the inspiration that I drew from one as he coped with the powerful slings and arrows that ALS generates. The other refused to yield unfought ground to pulmonary fibrosis. The day of his death, he completed a round of golf, schlepping around his constant companion, an oxygen tank.
Those two men lived their final years unaware how intently I was watching. Even in greatly diminished physical states, the manner in which their spirits soared above horrific maladies screamed, “Walk this way.” To this day, I try to.
After his father died, Dan Fogelberg wrote a song paying tribute. The chorus was, “I’m just a living legacy to the leader of the band.” Unlike Fogelberg, I am a living legacy to a beautiful tapestry of folks. I draw from that artwork to seek purpose, be cheerful, and remain attentive to others. In short, to exist.
I am ever grateful to all who implore me to “walk like a man.” Perchance, should anyone paying attention benefit, please know it’s a gift handed down from others.
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