Helen was 82. She’d survived both breast cancer and outlived her husband.
One summer day she began bleeding from her colon and was admitted to the hospital. We assumed the worst — another cancer. But after she endured a series of scans and being poked with scopes, we figured out that she had an abnormal jumble of blood vessels called an arteriovenous malformation in the wall of her colon.
The finding surprised us, but the solution was clear: Surgery to remove that part of her colon should stop the bleeding once and for all. The operation went well. But afterward Helen’s lungs filled with fluid from congestive heart failure. Then she caught pneumonia and had to be put on a ventilator in the intensive care unit.
Her medical problems and our treatments had simply stressed her aging organs beyond their capability.
Walking among the California redwoods, drifting blank-brained on a break from college, I got to thinking about shoes. I can’t say why, exactly. Perhaps it was because they were touching my feet.
My own shoes were performing admirably, I must admit. I was trudging on mud and bugs and roots and who knows what without feeling much of anything.
And that, I realized in a flash, was a problem. Not that I had been stepping on gross stuff and snuffing out the lives of little things that, frankly, may not have deserved it. The problem was that I really couldn’t tell.
Life and death and dog poop — it all basically felt the same underfoot.