It was a sunny day when I met the wheelchaired man. His wife was a member of the branch in which I served as a missionary, but he never came to church.
He was immobilized by the loss of his legs, the remains of which protruded from the end of his body as unsightly nubs. I do not know how tall he would have been as a regular man, but he sat about a wheelchair and a foot above the ground.
As I entered the doorway of his home, I immediately noticed how narrow the hallway entries were for the man on wheels. The door frames allowed for only an inch of leeway on each side of his tires as he navigated through the labyrinth of a house.
Leading into the center of his home, there was a unique fireplace in the corner of the kitchen where cups and plates were set out on a small wooden table for my companion and me. The fireplace was round and bulging from the wall like a stone oven in an old, Italian bakery. The floors were made of poor, wood planks which rose from their foundation like shark fins from ocean waters, waiting to attack the nearest bare-foot.
He disappeared into the mouth of a dark doorway just as his wife began pouring fizzy water into the glasses at the table. My companion and I sat across from each other and sipped the flavorless bubbles. When he wheeled back into the room, I tried not to stare but was intrigued to know if and when he would speak.
He only gave us silence.
The wife visited with us briefly before handing us empty pails and guiding us into the backyard garden. The man was first through the outside door.
Although there was not much left of him, the legless man was quite mobile. He strained his arms to ride over small mounds of dirt and to pivot through tough spots in the grass. The gray rubber lining of his wheels popped the fallen fruit under the weight of his half-severed body when he swiveled along.
I was sweating as I walked beside the old man. His scalp was exposed to the free air and was dry as the backside of a rhino. He spoke to me as I walked. My ears absorbed his Hungarian words as he wheeled hip–high beside me. Little did I know how impactful his words would be on my life.
Despite my efforts, my brain only kept most of the meaning from his sentences and abandoned the rest to the earth as an untrusty watering can.
The language was difficult for me to understand, especially when real dialect and emotion warped the sounds from the robotic meter of computer interpretations. I could hear his wife speaking in the distance. Her words were indistinct, but I imagined her thinking out loud, apologizing for the tall grass and weeds in her garden.
Cherry trees soon canopied over our heads and enveloped the ground below in the patchy shade. When we approached the base of the nearest tree, the legless man grabbed a hooked metal rod that was propped against the trunk, reached up, latched it to a fruitful branch and pulled it straight down toward his face. Examining the clusters of red berries on the branch, he narrated how to choose the best ones.
No yellow spots, nice red shine, moderately sour taste. He grabbed a few with his arthritic fingers and showed me up close. Almost in the same motion, he ate a cherry and launched the pit into the dirt with a powerful spitting force. He then gestured toward the tree which I knew meant “tessék.”
Pail in hand, I approached a low-hanging branch and began picking and snacking on the ripened little berries. I loved the sting of sour cherry juice on my tongue in the summertime. The delicate skin would burst between my teeth and the sensation would begin. Strangely, the satisfaction of a delicious cherry was always paired with an unmistakable gnawing that I had also eaten a worm. Overthinking made me pause before popping the next cherry into my mouth.
I observed this man as we circled the tree like hungry sharks. I could see the history in his hands when he scavenged the limbs of trees, carefully selecting fruit.
His life was a mystery, and I could not help but wonder what caused the loss of his legs. I theorized that he had been a war hero, a miner, a car crash victim. But all I knew was how serene the garden felt with its keeper rolling about the grounds more humble and aged than before.
When my bucket was almost filled to the brim, I reconvened by his side to fetch an empty pail. I took this opportunity to communicate in my best Hungarian, however nerve–wracking it was.
I managed to say, “What a beautiful garden.”
His response was short and unassuming but encapsulated his entire existence, his whole history of living in one phrase.
“You should have seen it when I had legs,” said the legless man.
I could not imagine life without the use of my legs. They were something I used almost without thinking — until now.
I still remember the day I noticed a throbbing in the balls of my feet and cursed the pain that lived there. I only found relief by massaging the sore spots with lotioned hands before bed.
The bones at the balls of my feet were objecting to long hours of tracting and began to compensate by forming bunions. The knots growing there compelled me to walk lightly like a penguin with the bulk of my weight bearing down on my foot’s edge by my pinky toe. I did not know how to cope with the pain in my feet because not walking wasn’t an option.
My once rounded toes began to flatten in spots where my shoes would cradle them snuggly. My two big toes even seemed to angle themselves away from each other as if they were in permanent discord. As I read about bunion formations, I learned this painful bone protrusion can be caused by excessive walking and wearing shoes that are too small.
After that day, I began noticing bunions on sandaled feet at the train station or at the bus stop. One woman with a cane had the worst case I had ever encountered. Her big toe reached completely over the next two neighboring toes where it seemed to be locked into an ugly state of deformation. Her toenails were long and gray, in desperate need of a file.
She was at least 40 years older than me, but the sight of her feet made me fear for the future of mine. After all, she had done plenty more walking. During the next months, the pain in my feet greatly affected my desire to tract for long hours on the street. Cobble stone roads, 10-story buildings and stairways proved to be a painful chore. But shouldn’t I be grateful? After all, I had knees, feet, and everything in between — but the legless man did not.
I have since asked myself, “What would I miss if I didn’t have legs?” Would I miss the pulse of a daily walk or the freedom to jump and dance? Would I miss the feeling of grass on my feet or sand between my toes? Would I miss the tracting of missionary days or nature walks in June? Would I even miss the pain of bunioned feet which remind me I can feel?
I know in my heart I would miss it all just as the legless man missed tending to his garden with unrestricted vigor and strength. That wheelchaired old man gave me new perspective, a perspective I needed in order to understand what is most important. Oh, how I would love to meet the legless man again in heaven and watch all that he could do with restored legs and his well-seasoned gratitude.