Walking up the sidewalk, I reach for the latch of the gate. In front of the house sits a rusted Ford, dust on the windows indicating it hasn't moved in some time. A low, barely audible squeak is released from the hinges, rusted after all these years of exposure to the weather, and I close the gate behind me. I plod along the walk, taking care to watch my step on the broken and uneven sidewalk, with grass and weeds growing up through the cracks. A flower bed runs along each side, the azaleas and mums fighting a losing battle with the crabgrass, for the owner of the house no longer tends to the flowers beyond an occasional watering from the garden hose.
I step up to the front porch, collect my thoughts, and inhale deeply. The spring time air is filled with the scent of blooming flowers: Bougainvillea, Peony, and Magnolia. There's the bark of a dog, several houses down, and the laughter of children who play in the park, with the cries of "No Fair!", an obvious objection to the violation of an undefined rule to the game. Someone starts a lawn mower. And there's this screen door, beyond which lay my duty.
I ring the doorbell, for I know the occupant wouldn't hear a knock. Soon enough, the door opens, I see the evolution on her face -- inquisitive, then quizzical, then recognition. She smiles, opens the door, and invites me in.
The back porch... it's always to the back porch. Walking through the living room, I notice (again) the pictures: A stately young man in his military uniform, medals pinned neatly to his chest. A lovely woman, rosy cheeks, bouffant hair, and a floor-length dress. The man and the woman together. The man and woman together, holding a new baby. A picture from Hawaii. More pictures of the baby. The frames have dust, for the same reason the flower bed has weeds: She just can't tend to it anymore.
I help her to her seat, head back to the kitchen and put together a couple glasses of iced tea. Personally, I can't stand the stuff, but it wouldn't do to ask for something else, nor would it do to offend the generosity of my host. The fridge is filled with leftovers in their Tupperware containers, for the meals she still cooks are for two. We chat about mundane things: weather, college football (she was on the cheer squad back in her college days), and other assorted news. Her voice, frail and dry, still manges to command respect.
Until the conversation turns to family. For then, it becomes just that much softer, and the astute listener would notice the tremble in her voice. The tremble of loss.
Mrs. Walker, the wife of Mr. Walker, lives alone, now. Her son, the cherub baby in the pictures adorning the living room walls, died in combat years ago. He was an only child, and the sense of grief she feels was overwhelming. Time, as it so often does, helped tend to that grief, and she had come to terms with it. "He was a good boy, and he gave his life for others. That was his duty. If that's the Lord's plan, I can accept it." I nod, not sure what to say. Every time I visit, she tells me the same thing.
Every time. I visit every couple months or so, for I have a sense of duty to her. A couple years ago, her husband had a massive heart attack. I was there, helping to try and save him. Nasty fight, really: We had him back, then we'd lose him.
Then we'd have him, then we'd lose him.
Back and forth: We got him, We lost him.
It's working, it's not working.
Gonna save him, gonna lose him.
In the midst of it all, she managed to quietly state "He's all I've got left."
Twenty minutes later, he was pronounced dead. Later, I spoke to the newly widowed Mrs. Walker, and told her I'd come by from time to time, see how she was doing, and visit.
So here I am, fulfilling my promise every other month or so. That these visits are stark reminders of my failure is not lost upon me. Penance, I suppose you could call it.
Me, I just call it duty.
So here we sit, drinking our tea, not saying much. Sometimes, I manage to tuck a $20 bill in her pocketbook when she's not looking. Not much, but perhaps it'll help her get through.
Soon, I take my leave. A short farewell, a handshake, and a promise to come by again soon.
Then that long walk down the sidewalk, past the weeds, through the squeaky gate, and around the corner to my car.
From the front door to the gate.... that's the longest walk in my life.