–The measure of one’s greatness is one’s goodness.–
Sitting on the porch lacing my boots for a walk on Rabbit Lane, I heard the distant bellowing of a distressed calf. Something in the bray was not quite right, sounded a little off. I had heard lost calves calling for their mothers before. I had heard desperately hungry calves complaining before. I had heard lonely wiener calves bellowing for their removed mothers before. This calf call sounded strange; perhaps, I thought, not even a calf at all. I turned my head to pinpoint the source of the noise. It came from behind Austin’s house, where there should be no cows and, in fact, were no cows. An ignorant urgency sent me running through the intervening field to Austin’s back door. There lay Austin, helpless, in abject distress, fallen across the threshold of his back door and unable to arise, the screen door pressing upon his legs. He shouted and bellowed with his deep and distressed bass voice. I wrapped my arms around his prodigious barrel chest and heaved as gently yet as forcefully as I could to raise the big man from the ground. Clutching each other, we limped back through the door, up three stairs, and into his kitchen, where he sank heavily into a wooden chair with lathed spindles next to a round formica table.
“Thank you,” he said through heavy breathing. “I don’t know . . . what I would have . . . done.”
His right elbow and the knuckles of his left hand were abraded and bleeding. I offered to wash and bandage his wounds.
“In the bathroom medicine cabinet . . . the top drawer,” he directed.
We chatted a little as I wiped the scrapes clean and applied red merthiolate to the scrapes and antibiotic ointment to the bandages. Mostly he said nothing and I said nothing as I doctored him.
The round-chested man, a hard-working old farmer, had once been strong enough to hand-sheer sheep and throw cattle, to carry 30-foot sprinkler pipe like toothpicks and toss hay bails like pillows. He had sat 12 hours a day for decades upon the tractor’s uncushioned iron seat. He had led congregations and unions and had been esteemed by his peers. Now he could only lie on the ground and shout like a sick calf and sit at the kitchen table while another generation hovered over him.
“I just went to the mailbox to get the mail,” he explained.
I did not tell him, as others had, that he should not shuffle to the mailbox, that he should not go to the detached garage to feed the cats, that he should not pick up stray items from the lawn. I did not tell him, as others had, that he should let posterity do his chores. But it didn’t matter. In his 90s, having now lain helpless and bellowing in the doorway on the hard concrete, he sensed that perhaps his time had passed, that his strength was spent, that instead of ruling the farm and raising the family and controlling life, he might no longer be of any worldly use. He could only be looked after.
A year later the great old man died. At the request of his posterity, I sat in the spindle chair at the formica table in the empty old house during Austin’s funeral to guard against those who have no respect for the dead, or for the living, or for the property of another. No one skulked by as I sat in the dead man’s house, remembering the odd bellowing and his round barrel chest and his dignified silence as he allowed himself to be patched up and then left alone, saying, “I’m fine.”
In fact, even during his last year Austin was full of life. In my mid-life, I am full of life. So are you. I am the clicheic “child within.” I am still the three-year-old I was, and will always be. I am still the infant newly transitioned from a sea of soft warmth to a world, often harsh, of light and darkness, of truth and lies, of pleasure and pain. I am the 12-year-old, the teenager, the husband, the father, the lover, the old man. Contained within my body and my mind and my spirit are all the prior selves of all the prior years, of each day of those years, of each hour of those days, of each of the infinite moments of my past, into which cascade my futures. We rest only briefly in the present.