Do you believe in signs?
Do you ever feel like the universe is trying to tell you something? Like if you look close enough or listen long enough you would see a sign or hear a message that was meant only for you.
Have you ever told someone about your signs only to have them shake their head and call you crazy?
This is a story about signs.
Cindy pokes her head into the living room, “Do you want to go on a quick Target trip with me?
Feet up, reclining in the recliner, I’m reading Tommy Orange’s heartbreaking novel “There, There” about 12 Native Americans struggling to accept their complex and painful history. I look over at Clark Able in the corner of the room. Clark is leaning against the wall. Like he’s waiting for a bus or a manager. He’s been quiet of weeks, just leaning and waiting. Patiently. Every time I pass Clark Able, I think to myself, “Is this the day?” But it isn’t. Until today.
A few weeks ago, I ordered Clark Able off of Amazon. He cost me $19.99. Clark Able is an adjustable, collapsible, free-standing walking cane made of fine American metal and plastic and earned 4 1/2 out of 5 stars.
Ken from the United States said,”It is well made and easy to walk with.”
Aisha from Canada said, “All in all it was a good buy.”
Kathryn from the United States bought it for her trip to Ireland, you know with the hills and cobblestones and she was “very happy with the purchase.”
A week before Clark Able was wrapped in packing bubbles, folded in a brown box, and dropped on my front step, I endured an embarrassing walk on the beach. Stumbling and stammering. Like my legs had no joints. Like I was drunk. But I wasn’t drunk. I have ataxia. An ataxia and uneven surfaces do not mix well.
Ataxia is a Greek word that means, “without order.”
I named my walking cane Clark Able because of the obvious play on Clark Gable, “The King of Hollywood”. But also after the hardworking writer Clark Kent–Superman’s Earthly alias. And then there’s William Clark, half of the famed Lewis and Clark who courageously traversed from the Mississippi River to California in 1804. And finally, Clark W. Griswold– the lovable, slightly neuritic suburban father who, whether it’s driving his family from Chicago to California or hosting a Christmas vacation, just wants the best for his family. Clark is resilient like a punching bag is resilient. I see a lot of my self in all of those Clarks.
Also, Clark Able’s initials are CA. Which are the initials of Cerebellar Ataxia.
From my recliner I evaluate the situation: Wednesday. July 15th. 10 am. Target will probably not be crowded. I probably wont see anyone I know.
“Sure. I’ll go.
I look at Clark Able in the corner. Waiting. Like Superman, puffing out his chest, waiting for duty to call.
“I’m leaving in 20 minutes,” Cindy says.
I close the book, unrecline, wobble across he living room, up the stairs, open the second drawer in the dresser and find my gray “Life favors the brave.” #writeonfighton t-shirt folded on top, waiting for me.
When I come back downstairs I move to the living room corner and grab Clark Able.
“Are you bringing that?”, Cindy asks.
There are moments in your life when you second guess yourself. When you mull the familiar question, “Is this a good idea?” Buying a house, going to grad school, reaching for a second cheeseburger.
I think about the “that” at the end of Cindy’s question. “That” seemed louder than all the other words. What will “that” make me look like to others? Disabled? Helpless? A victim? A fake?
We make or fail to make so many decisions for fear of how they look to other people. I’m guilty of hiding my disease from others. I’m so afraid to look weak or broken that I would rather live a lie. But this was a Target trip. It was Wednesday morning. Relax.
And that was that.
Cindy, Clark Able, and I arrive at Target. The parking lot was scattered with only a few cars.
As we walked through the parking lot Clark made a click-click-click sound. I liked it. A rhyme to my walk. And when I walked with him, like walking with the cool kid, “The King of Hollywood”, I felt–cool. Like how cool people make you feel when you’re with them. At ease. Like everything is alright.
The three of us enter Target, the through electric doors and into the air-condition. We first turn right but there are printed signs tape on yellow “wet floor signs” that read, “Wrong way.” Literal signs.
Cindy, Clark, and I stop and look at each other.
People wearing masks stare at us as they stand, six feet apart, in the checkout line. It feels like a strange dream. The signs, the masks, the social distancing, the shiny white tile floor, the florescent lights, the fear that aches in all those eyes. One woman wearing a pink mask leans against a mini-refrigerator stocked with different colors of soda and tells another woman she’s waiting to speak to the manager. This is not a dream. This is 2020. This is America. This is Target.
The three of us u-turn and head the other way. At the end of the aisle, coming toward us, is an old man walking like old men walk– slow on wobbly knees. He’s wearing what my grandfather wears in every memory I have of him. A long-sleeve flannel shirt tucked into the blue jeans. A thick brown belt.
He’s wearing a plain-white mask– a sign of present times.
But unlike my grandfather, who almost never wears hats in my memories–he’s wearing a blue cap stitched with a battleship on it that hides, what seems to be, a full head of silver hair. He has blue eyes and thick hands–like my grandfather.
He’s walking with a walking stick– like my grandfather often did.
(These are my grandfather’s walking sticks. They hang, literally, in my house.)
Cindy walks in front of me and talks about what we needed to get. Something about a Chromebook. Something about one of our kids. Something about school in September.
Signs are personal. Like the universe is whispering you, and only you, a secret. And if you choose to listen, the world gets quiet in your ears, and all you can hear is the secret.
The old man and I meet eyes. Our eyes meet our canes. He still has wide shoulders and a thick chest. Maybe an athlete once. He nods at me. As if inviting me into a secret society, an ancient order: “Men with canes.”
I nod back.
The universe approves.
(Here’s Clark Able and I pre-Target trip.)
When the three of us get back into the car, when Cindy cranks the ignition, the DJ transitions from DJ talk to a song– “Broken” by lovelytheband. I listen. The refrain goes:
I like that you’re broken
Broken like me
Maybe that makes me a fool
I like that you’re lonely
Lonely like me
I could be lonely with you
Clark Able sits beside me. My brain spins, “Of all the songs, of all the refrains that could be played at this exact moment in time on this exact radio station…”
If we’re willing to pay attention, I believe the universe, in its own unique language, speaks to us in subtle ways.
I believe in signs.
How could I not? A trinity of signs. As if the radio DJ, the old man with the Navy hat who looked like my grandfather, and my gray “Life favors the brave.” shirt called a meeting and hashed out a plan to nudge me when I needed nudging.
As if the universe was whispering secret advice to me.
As if the universe knew this quick trip to Target on a Wednesday morning was a good time to offer this uncertain soul the certainty signs.
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4. Hearing his children laugh
5. Hugging his wife
(Bonus points for a dinner with his parents and a beer with his friends)