Two Feet Behind
- Wednesday, November 17, 2004
You wouldn't expect to see him here. The workout facility at a university campus just doesn't seem to be his place. Among taut young bodies and brightly-colored tank tops, he blends in about as well as an elephant would.
He wears khaki pants and worn dress shoes. His green button-down shirt covers a forty-year-old belly that could be categorized somewhere between trim and bulging. He carries no gym bag, and he doesn't have a change of clothes tucked away in a locker somewhere. But he doesn't come here for his own workout. He comes for hers.
She, the man's wife, is younger than he is and her body is thin-the kind of thin that happens when muscles deteriorate. Her movements aren't fluid like those of most women her age, and her spine curves so much that her head droops. Her arms remain bent at the elbows and her feet seem weighted, anchored to the floor. They rise only when she jerks her legs forward.
That's why he comes along.
When the two of them enter the gym, their routine is to walk straight to a line of treadmills along the far wall. Amidst the hustle and bustle of twenty-somethings running laps and lifting weights, this husband and wife duo makes their way slowly and deliberately. As they walk, he keeps one hand at the small of her back and holds out his other hand so she can grasp it.
They get to a treadmill, and the man steadies his wife as she steps onto its belt. Then he himself gets on, about an arm's length behind her. He plants one worn dress shoe on either side of the treadmill belt and, with a hand at his wife's waist, he reaches forward and starts the machine. Keeping his feet carefully straddling the moving belt, he watches carefully as his wife puts one foot in front of the other. If she makes a misstep he is quick to steady her.
They go on like this for twenty minutes-him standing behind her while she works to pick up her feet to the treadmill's rhythm. A small task for most people, walking alone is grueling for this woman. Her husband keeps quiet.
When their time on the machine is up, the man helps his wife step down to the floor. He turns off the treadmill and she works to wipe sweat from her brow. She is exhausted from twenty minutes of walking, and her head droops a little more than before.
The couple makes eye contact for a moment and then the woman nods slightly at her husband. Once more, he places a hand at the small of her back. She clasps his other hand, and they maneuver through the weight machines together. They exit the building, only to come back the next day and do the same thing all over again.
You should see the way the university students respond to this couple's time in the gym. The whole place gets quieter when the two of them walk in. Guys stare openly and then nod in approval. Girls steal glances from a distance, smiling to themselves. Some people nudge their friends to look. Some get a little choked up.
As time passes, these students leave the gym and go on with the rest of their lives. They take classes and learn important facts. They study and complete exams and graduate with a degree. But for many of these students, the most profound lesson they learn at the university is not credited to their diploma. Instead, it's learned in their spare time and taught from a treadmill. The teacher lacks a PhD, but he is an expert in the most important subject of all. He models real love to his students, showing them the significance of being there-two feet behind-as a loved one plods along.
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