There she is again.
I see her every single time I go out into the woods.
Every single time.
She is impossible to miss. The halo of frizzy grey hair, like a thunderhead laden with static electricity floating around her gaunt face, the impossibly thin body, small as a malnourished child, the shuffling gait, her left foot dragging behind her right as if it were operating in a separate gravitational field.
I watch for her expectantly; I can’t relax into my bike or my sneakers until we cross paths. When I see her, I always nod and say, “Good morning.” She says nothing, has no discernible facial expression, but I’ve long since concluded it’s not personal. She is just focused on the task at hand.
For years, I had no idea how long she walked, just that she was out there every day. I knew it was a long way, because I saw her at so many different points on the bike path, and I knew where she turned around at her mid point, because once I’d seen her do that too.
But until I happened to pass her in my car while I was out grocery shopping, just entering the nature reserve on her daily walk at least 10 miles from where I normally found her, I hadn’t realized she covered at least 20 miles a day and likely more, since it looked like she had walked from her house to the woods too, and who knows how far that was.
How long might it take to walk 20 miles plus if you were unable to lift your feet from the ground? If your body was in the grip of some massive paralysis, your left hand frozen permanently into a claw, your left arm unable to swing or provide any momentum? How would you find the courage to do this once, much less every single day, alone, for year upon year upon year, in all weather, in every season?
When I first saw her, I am embarrassed to say, I felt sorry for her. What indelible pain she must be in, I thought, how tragic.
I don’t feel sorry for her now. Why would I? You can’t feel sorry for a hero.
She is one of those rare people who looks life square in the eyeball and says, “Too bad. I’m doing it anyway.”
Without break, without faltering, without monetary reward, without recognition, some unbreakable thing in her spirit refuses to be stilled or silenced.
Once, at least eight, maybe 10 years ago, I passed her as usual on the trail and a man was riding his bike beside her. I knew the man from the trail too—he was out there all the time like us. He rode his bike at the same improbably slow pace that she walked so he could chat with her for a few moments without making her stop. He looked like a circus clown as he balanced and weaved skillfully in his efforts to stay upright at that speed.
Just before I nodded and said “Good morning,” to them both, I heard him call her “Raquel.”
Raquel—-the name bounced down my vertebrae like a stone skipped in water.
For some reason I had never wondered about her name, though I had speculated on everything else about her. I felt like I had stolen a piece of her without her permission, as if knowing her name made us intimates, but she was unaware that our relationship had changed.
Since then, when we pass one another, I greet her the same way, but I always silently add her name.
Good job, Raquel. Keep it up, Raquel. You’re kicking ass, Raquel.
I hope maybe she can see the words written on my face, along with the words “Thank you,” as she shuffles by.
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Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Jubair Iqbal/Pixoto