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Published: 2011/10/13
by Brian Robbins

Featured Column: Courage and Grace at the End of the Walkway

There’s music to come, folks; I’ll get there in a minute or two.

“The moving walkway is coming to an end. Please watch your step.”

I was sitting at Gate A7 at Indianapolis International Airport, headed home to Maine after a site visit to a yellow perch farm for a Fish Farming News feature. (The words are not always about the tunes.)

“The moving walkway is coming to an end. Please watch your step.”

I was early, I guess – the first one through security when they opened up that end of the terminal a little after 4:00 AM. I’d rather be early than late, though – especially when it comes to catching airplanes.

“The moving walkway is coming to an end. Please watch your step.”

My seat was close to one of those moving sidewalks – a conveyor belt for humans, you could say. At first, I was oblivious to the recorded announcement that would play each time the thing was about to spit someone out onto the tiled floor of the terminal, but once I actually paid attention to it, it was hard to ignore.

“The moving walkway is coming to an end. Please watch your step.”

The more I listened to the warning, the more it hit home with me. It was slightly ominous-sounding; there was a note of care there, as well; and, in its way, the message sounded prophetic, wise, and kind.

“The moving walkway is coming to an end. Please watch your step.”

My Aunt Ethel and Uncle James (my father’s brother) have lived over on Green Head in Stonington, ME all my life – and a long time before that, as well. This year would be their 74th wedding anniversary. Think about it: many folks don’t live that long in total, let alone with someone else by their side – but James and Ethel did.

He was a fisherman and she was a fisherman’s wife; they were mother and father to three daughters: my cousins Nancy, Eileen, and Peggy.
Uncle James was almost looking 90 years old right in the eye when he took up his last load of lobster gear in 1999. He’d decided to come ashore because “the Cook is getting old,” he said at the time. That would’ve been Aunt Ethel, six years his junior.

These last few years were hard ones for Aunt Ethel and Uncle James. She broke her hip and, once out of the hospital, went to the nursing home up in Deer Isle up on the other end of the island. Uncle James still drove himself up to see her – usually twice, sometimes three times a day.

Last January Uncle James turned 99 – still sharper than me and any three people I know put together. He’s amazing. The hard thing is, he’s outlived all of his peers. And many of their children, too. You could say he’s lived a good life; he’d tell you that, too. He loved being on the water and he loved Aunt Ethel. They’d lived in a beautiful spot, took the occasional drive to places together, and enjoyed each other’s company for three-quarters of a century.

Aunt Ethel passed away a few weeks ago. It wasn’t a total surprise, but it was hard nonetheless.

Most of all, it was hard on Uncle James.

His health declined quickly in the days after Aunt Ethel’s passing; I made a run from where I live these days to Stonington to see him before I left on the Indianapolis trip, not knowing what the story would be when I got back.

But when I walked into their house on the day of Aunt Ethel’s service the following weekend (the Sunday that Hurricane Irene blew through), there he was: standing at the kitchen counter, greeting me with a wave.

Where does strength like that come from?

Eileen’s son Paul did a fine job with the service; Cousin Nancy spoke; and we all had a tune together. Afterwards I sat on the couch, tucked between Uncle James and my brother Stevie. It felt like being 8 years old again – in a good way.

Driving home, my wife Tigger and I talked some, held hands some, and silently thanked the Great Spirits for letting us be us.

And in the back of my head played a song: “Space City”, written by Mike Cooley of the Drive-By Truckers. Cooley wrote it after his grandmother passed away, trying to understand how his grandfather must have felt to lose his lifelong companion, best friend, and wife.

And still be here.

“Space City’s one hour up the road from me,” sings Cooley, a reference to neighboring Huntsville, Alabama – home to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. “One hour away from as close to the moon as anybody down here is ever gonna be.

“And somewhere beyond that big white light is where my heart is gone … and somewhere she’s wondering what’s taking me so long.”

I’ve been thinking about Uncle James and Aunt Ethel a lot these last few days; and I’ve been thinking about my mother’s years alone after my father passed away – and how she eventually rejoined him.

“The moving walkway is coming to an end. Please watch your step.”

When I’m approaching the end of the moving walkway, I hope I can step off with half their grace and courage.

Comments

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Scott October 19, 2011, 20:32:02

I know exactly how you feel. I lost my grandmother this summer, and she left us still sharp witted and humorous as she lived despite having cancer. Space City both comforts and reminds me of going through it.

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