We're Sure It Won't but Know It Must

March 05, 1995|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- Pad. Pad. Pad.

I have heard the soft feline footsteps behind me before, but they were fainter then. These past few weeks and months they've seemed to draw closer, sometimes sounding close enough to make me look over my shoulder. But when I pause and stare

back along the way I have come, I know all along that I'll see nothing.

It might be that a shadow will move in an unfamiliar way, suggesting the presence of a great sinuous form just beyond the limits of vision, and my pulse rate will shoot up for a minute or

two. But then I'll see that it's only a bush or a garbage can or something equally commonplace, and I'll go on.

If the footsteps resume I try hard not to imagine what could be making them, because to do so seems impossibly childish, like a fear of the dark. Surely their cause is nothing tangible, but even if it were, what is there to dread? We don't have tigers in these parts. A bobcat would be too small and too man-shy.

Occasionally, against my will, I imagine a great smoke-colored creature something like a mountain lion, with cold yellow eyes. But that's absurd. Besides, the footsteps don't even sound threatening. They're just -- there.

It's possible, I suppose, that the footsteps are a delusion of age. The years catch up to people, I've been reminded again and again these last few weeks, and can play mean tricks on them.

A woman I worked with for many years in a newspaper office, and who lives nearby, isn't well at all. I stop in from time to time to take out her trash and do other little chores for her. Recently the state, at her physician's suggestion, came and took away her driver's license.

She'll soon have to move into a retirement home; fortunately, she has found one which will also accept her cat. Meanwhile, as she has no family, I'm helping her sell her car, her extra furniture and her house, and tie up some of the loose ends of her life. It's not a happy time for either of us, but these are things that have to be done.

Pad. Pad. Pad.

A gentleman I've known for even longer is having similar problems. Not long ago he went out for a drive to the drugstore and ended up a hundred miles away in another state, lost and confused. He too won't be driving any more, and will have to move. Luckily, he has family members who can rally around, but as I remember him so well as a man in his prime, it's doubly distressing to see him so helpless.

Pad. Pad. Pad.

The other day a letter fell out of my files from a friend of my own generation whom I hadn't seen in several years. On impulse, I called up the law office where he used to practice. Call him at home, they said. When I did so he told me that he has diabetes, has lost a leg, and has had to give up the practice of law. While he sounded brave and almost cheerful, I was staggered.

Pad. Pad. Pad.

Presumably time moves always at the same pace, but cases like these three make me think it must be accelerating. How can it be that people who were so recently young, or in their vigorous middle years, could be so suddenly overcome by time, and changed almost beyond recognition by invalidism or senescence?

Although some current political rhetoric suggests otherwise, the society in which we live tends to be remarkably good to those of its members who have grown old and infirm. This is reflected by government policies at many levels, but even more so by private and personal contributions of care. The willingness to help is profound.

A variety of incentives encourages this, not excluding our own individual sense of mortality. For surely most of us, when called upon to help those who have been overcome by the ravages of time, do so not entirely unselfishly. It's human, and not inappropriate, to think that there but for the grace of God . . . and to hope that when our own time comes, as we're sure it won't but know it must, others will come forward to be kind and helpful to us too.

We can run from time, for a while, but we can't hide. Its pursuit is as inexorable as Francis Thompson's Hound of Heaven. ''I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;/ I fled Him, down the arches of the years;/ I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways/ Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears/ I hid from Him. . . .''

One small compensation is that, whatever form the great stalker takes, we don't always sense it following us. Usually we're oblivious. Only occasionally do events in our lives remind us to look over our shoulders, or strain our ears against the silence. There -- what was that?

Pad. Pad. Pad.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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