Tuesday, August 24, 2010


My mom loves to walk laps at the hospital. After her leukemia diagnosis months ago, a doctor told our family she did not want to see my mom in bed in the middle of the day. She wanted her sitting on the couch or exercising in the hallways. She wanted her to live her life in the hospital as she would out of the hospital.

My mom walked before for the health of it, but she stopped a few years ago. Of course she had an excellent reason to start again, so we walked the figure-eight hematology inpatient ward for half-hour segments. The nurses smiled and waved upward thumbs when we walked past.

"I love to see you walking," some would say.

My mom smiled back or, if she wore a mask, waved both hands in appreciation of the comment. Saying something in response was often impossible since we rolled a chemo pole that sounded like a dying scooter engine. My mom strangely insisted on not pushing her own pole, so walking with her and her pole felt like walking a pet.

"I will take Mom for a walk," I would tell my dad, "as soon as she finishes eating."

She never minded having someone else set the pace for a walk, but she shot furtive glances over her mask when I settled into my Southern strut. My sister delivered the desired pace, so she took the pole when the three of us walked together. I would space out, taking in the floral paintings and latex glove dispensers, only to find that I had fallen behind four paces and must execute an awkward trot to avoid looking like an exercising patient myself. I was the unleashed dog, and they were the humans.

And so it went for three treatments. I liked to ask my mom how far she had walked in the morning and afternoon if I did not see her until the evening. She always knew the distance down to the tenth of a mile because 10 laps were equal to one mile. This was an impressive amount of math for my mom, who was an English teacher 31 years ago. I laughed when I discovered that she counted her miles by counting to five laps twice.

"Why not count to 10 instead?" I asked.

"I like to count to five twice," she said, answering my question in her typical, unsatisfying way.

Last week I found a stopwatch application on my new iPhone. Previous to this realization, my mom could only measure her walking with distance. Now I gave her the opportunity to calibrate her strength: unseemly speed.

Her eyes sparkled with this new dimension. Curious and slightly embarrassed, I walked into the hall with her and my toy. This time we were without my sister and the pole. We made good time on the first lap until we crossed the middle of the figure-eight the second time. She turned the wrong way.

"Oh, shoot," she said. "That's gonna cost us."

First lap: 2:29.3

"That's pretty good," I said without any basis for the statement. "I thought it would be at least three minutes."

My mom said nothing but lengthened her stride. I smiled and hurried to a door to open it for her. We rounded two more corners and came to a second set of closed double doors that required a punch to a handicap button for opening. We waited for the doors to separate, and I sensed my mom's impatience. After another turned corner we found a slow-rolling bed and two nurses who were unaware of our time trial. We walked politely behind the operation until they turned for the lobby. After a few more corners, daylight.

"The straightaway is clear," she said, giggling to herself and loosening her focus on time.

Second lap: 2:33.9

"Really?" she asked. She walked faster. This time I ran ahead to the troublesome double doors so she could walk through without having to wait. She liked that.

Third lap: 2:24.0

Fourth lap: 2:10.1

Fifth lap: 2:03.9

I worried that my mom thought the object of lap times was to make each lap faster than the preceding ones, a possibility that gave us the embarrassing appearance of neurological patients in the wrong ward and the startling reality of certain cardiac arrest. I learned to dread the last turn, which led to a short stretch of hall occupied by two patient families and a clear sight line to the lap marker. She almost jogged to the marker while I abashedly punched the lap button a dozen feet behind her and whispered the time.

"Sixth lap was 2:06.7."

Two of the family members caught on to our game and gave me the eye. I wore a guise of confidence but feared they would report us to the nurse's station.

My mom is in remission, and I'm clocking her laps, I thought. Deal with it. I really hoped the next lap would be slower, but instead we nearly jogged around the ward like doctors responding to a code blue. If we had been attached to a pole, the wheels would have rattled off at the end of the seventh lap. Her hospital gown flowed behind her like she was a model in a wind tunnel.

Seventh lap: 1:58.1

My mom's feet got lazy on the eighth. She stubbed her Crocs into the tile floor a few times and pitched forward with slight gasps of air. Each time she caught herself and continued forward with less, but still embarrassing, speed.

Eighth lap: 2:02.0

Ninth lap: 2:09.1

I really could not take anymore and considered sitting by the lap marker like a high school track coach while she sped around the hall. She attracted attention, but I doubt she knew it. I convinced her to stop just before the mile mark. I knew she could hang her hat on her pace if not her distance.

"You burned up the homestretches," I said when we walked back into her room. "You nearly disappeared around the last corner every time to get a fast lap."

"No," she said, correcting me. "You have to walk fast all the time."

I felt untypically satisfied.


  1. I have a vision of Lynda cutting the corners tight on the wrong side of the hallway, colliding with medical staff, as papers and medical supplies go flying in the air. Keep up the good work Lynda. And keep writing about it JD.
    Uncle D

  2. What a great story about a friend of mine for many years! I agree Dennis: I can see Lynda flying around a corner, running into staff and papers flying everywhere. The image is funny - and Lynda would be helping to cleanup the mess. Thanks Doug for telling me about JD's Blog! Pat Schad