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I don’t use the word feeble very frequently, and my guess is that few of us do. If we use the word at all, we’re likely to be humorous in a derogatory fashion, as in “that was a feeble attempt at a joke.” Like the word handicapped, it’s a word whose disuse is attributable to a fungus that stealthily grew up around it and eventually choked it. 

But people can be feeble, even if we won’t or don’t describe them as such. Generally, when feeble people are on stage before us, there’s nothing funny about it. 

The couple in the waiting room seemed feeble, this old couple, the husband far more than his wife. She seemed feeble too, but weary fits her better: he was feeble, which has much to do with why she seemed weary.  My guess is it was a stroke, at least the way he carried his left arm–high up over his chest, crooked yet limp–suggesting muscles frozen in place. She had to help him with his jacket. Outside it was wickedly cold.  

“Help him” is an inadequate description. Getting him into his thick winter jacket was not easy, that stiff left arm being no help at all. She had to draw the back of the jacket like a curtain over his shoulders to get it around him, and then there were gloves, and scarf, and hat. She dressed him as if she were his child, and I’d like to be able to say that her great love for him shown warm as the morning sun, but I can’t say it did. Dedication?–yes. Concern?–of course. But she seemed weary.

It was only nine a.m., and the waiting room outside the doctor’s office was filled with people who were just about the same age, including my father-in-law. We’d all come to the office for the same treatment, injections into the eyes to hold off the decimation created by a species of macular degeneration that can at least be held at bay, even though it can’t be cured.

The feeble old man with the bad arm and shoulder wore a thick cotton patch over one eye, the one that likely had been treated, that fat patch held there by a rude cross of tape. All the while his wife dressed him for winter, he showed no smile, no frown.  He seemed in a daze, his face flaccid, his thin hair a maelstrom to which he was, at best, oblivious. She did all the work, his helpmeet. 

Recently, we buried our 95-year-old mother. Yesterday, I was there in the office with my 94-year-old father-in-law. My wife and I have spent a lot of time in retirement homes, seen a host of feeble people.  But yesterday morning, something in the moment, the two of them taking forever to get dressed for the cold, made me realize how incredibly much work it is for some old people–and in all likelihood I’ll be one of them sometime–simply to step out of their apartments, sub-zero or not. Going to a doctor for shots may well have been, for them, the event of the week. 

They left through a door that mercifully opened for them, she holding his arm tenaciously. 

It was theater, after a fashion, orchestrated movement acted out on a waiting room stage, a one-act play with multiple interpretations for those who observed, but, in our world, a drama that’s staged a million times a day, always poorly attended.

And then they returned. She led him back through the automatic door, his arm still in her hand, his face just as flaccid and stoic as it had been when they departed. She nudged him to her right, found a convenient chair, set him down clumsily until he rested, that cotton patch still there over his left eye, his mouth gaping.

She went to a nurse for a phone book. 

Another nurse called my father-in-law’s name. It was his turn for a shot, our turn for tests.

I have no idea why they returned, but I’m guessing, even now, a day later, that she got him out into the car, got in behind the wheel herself, pulled the key from the purse, stuck it into the ignition, turned it hard, and nothing happened. 

There was nothing she could do but get him back inside and call somebody.

A half hour later, when Dad had his own eye-patch and we walked back into the waiting room to retrieve our coats, they were gone, the feeble old man and his weary, longsuffering wife.  She had to be 90 herself.

When my mother-in-law died after a record-setting term of office in hospice care, I would have nominated her hospice nurse for sainthood. Her care for our mother was God-like, upper-case.  

This morning I remember that nurse because of a one-act play I attended yesterday, something staged in a waiting room, where an old woman tended her feeble husband so admirably and diligently that I wanted to wish them nothing less than a loving whirlwind and a beautiful fiery chariot home. 

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


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