1 09 2011

I didn’t see her tonight, walking alone down the street with that odd shuffling gait. Every evening for months now, we would see her out our front window as we sat down at the dinner table. And not just at dinner time, either. I’d see her all over the neighborhood in the morning as well as in the blast furnace afternoons. Her hat and hiking boots gave her an athletic look that contrasted with her jerky, somewhat off balance steps. And she always seemed to be talking to herself. We called her the Walking Lady.

I met her last night. I had been walking with my new friend Sarah, and we were a mile or two away from home when we saw her walking toward us. Sarah’s face lit up. “That’s my old friend, Elise!” Sarah introduced us and her story unfolded.

Elise and Sarah had been best friends for years, sharing their lives as their children grew up. They would go on long hikes and adventures together. Those days were long gone. Elise was suffering, from what, nobody knew. Although she could still speak in coherent sentences, it took great effort to get the words out. She “babbled” constantly and uncontrollably, monosyllables that sounded almost like repetitive baby talk. Her arms shook with a palsy-like movement, and indeed all her muscles seemed to be tensing and relaxing constantly, causing the strange gait. Sleep offered no relief, as her muscle movement wouldn’t even stop long enough for her to rest. Only a heavy dose of sleeping pills allowed her to get a little sleep. Even worse, she couldn’t concentrate enough to understand television shows, to read, or even to pray. And she wanted to pray, to beg God to take away this affliction, or at least help the doctors to understand what was going on.

Driving was out of the question. So was cooking, as well as most household chores. Her husband retired early from his job to stay home with her. She felt trapped in her own home, a hermit of her own choosing. Walking the neighborhood was her only escape. “I don’t walk for fun or exercise,” she said. “I walk to survive. It’s the only thing left that I can do.” Yet she even felt bad walking. “Weird,” she said. She knew what people thought of her. That weird lady.

She had been to countless doctors. They scanned her brain, her heart, her whole body. They did blood tests. They tried psychiatric drugs and therapy. Nothing helped. In just over a year, she had gone from an active lifestyle to this, a prisoner in her own body, fully aware of her disability and how she appeared, with no hope of any end to her suffering.

We walked a little way with Elise, until it became obvious that she could go no farther. Sarah called Elise’s husband to come get her, a necessary action but one that caused Elise even more pain. “Paul never gets a break from me,” she sobbed. Even in the midst of her misery, she worried about others.

I dislike the cliché, “thoughts and prayers,” but today she was constantly, heavily, in my thoughts and prayers. I didn’t see her tonight, walking alone down the street with that odd shuffling gait. I didn’t see her tonight, but she is no longer “That Walking Lady.” She is Elise.