We went to the race track in 2006. It had been a few years since Jeff had been to a race. When he expressed the desire to go, I said, “Yes.” I worried about how we’d get around. Jeff refused to take his wheelchair. “Nah. You’ll see,” he said. “It’ll be fine.” We brought his cane along, but he was sure he wouldn’t need it, so he left it in the car.
Jeff’s standard outfit was fashion-backward, hot as hell (in a sweltering, not sexy way), but necessary. Cargo shorts, because pockets. A well-soft, well-worn Dale Earnhardt Sr. or Dale Earnhardt Jr. t-shirt for comfort, and loyalty. Suspenders to counter-act his heavy pockets. One of many, many ball-caps to keep the heat off and absorb forehead sweat. Suspenders; because without them, Jeff would tell you, “I’d lose my shorts!”
He used to laugh at the kids with the saggy pants below their butts, saying, “I’ve spent my entire life trying to keep my pants up!” None of them ever back-talked to Jeff. The tone of his voice made it obvious he was having fun, and they’d just joke along with him.
From the bottom up, like an oddly layered beige clothing trifle: Light brown man-sandals (think Birks), flesh-colored no-show compression socks, which obviously, were showing. From the ankle up, two ace-bandages (four in all) covered each of his tree-trunk legs to his knees, holding gauze against his ulcers. They somewhat helped keep swelling reduced, but not as well as the lederhosen-like compression hose he constantly wore at home.
One of the wraps came undone as we walked through the merchandise trailer corridors. As soon as we found a seat, we replaced the gauze and rewound the fabric. It wasn’t easy for either of us. It’s hard to ignore the side-mouth talkers, the stares and the looks of disgust. It wasn’t pleasant to watch Jeff remove the goopy bandages and patches. It wasn’t pleasant for me to replace them, either. In those moments, Jeff hated being at the track in his condition, and sadly commented, “I guess I’m pretty gross, huh?”
The experience was hard for him. It simultaneously brought back great memories and evoked longing – of other times that were shared with family and friends, of other times when everything (especially walking) was easier, of other times it was effortlessly more fun. For Jeff, this pilgrimage came with a hefty dose of reality. It was the marker that made him see himself in a way he hadn’t before. Staring defeatedly at the ground, he mumbled, “I guess we should just go home.” Jeff’s heart was breaking, and that shattered mine.
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