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Walking With Friends – Through Chemo and Beyond

It’s 6:00 AM, pitch dark and cold. I’m in front of my house stretching my stiff limbs. The random clothes I’ve slipped on are lit up by the headlights of an approaching Honda Fit. It coasts to a stop next to me and out hops Kirk wearing jeans and a thick old overcoat.

He pulls on hat and gloves as we take off walking down the street. We don’t say much at first, but as we warm up conversation gradually comes and before long we’re hopscotching between topics as foundational as the weather and grandchildren to things more esoteric -those unanswerable philosophical questions. We carry on walking and talking like this for an hour or so, until we’ve looped back around to my house and part until next time.

Such is the business I started when I came home from a long hospital stay: dawn walks with my friends.

The month at Carilion Roanoke Memorial was a result of my being visited by Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I’ve written much about that particular escapade elsewhere, if you want more. When I was released from the hospital I was weak. Very weak. I could barely walk. There was nothing left of the jaunty stride I may have once possessed. However, the desire to start walking again, to heal, was strong; it came from deep within me. I wanted to move!

Even though I had survived the four weeks in the hospital, yet to come was six months of chemotherapy. Ugg. Most of that would be on an outpatient basis. Yay!

So the start of my dedicated walking program coincided with the onset of my chemo. I not only had the clearance from my oncologist to do it but hearty encouragement from him as well.

At first I walked alone. My perambulations did me good from the get-go, but I soon realized that something was missing: companions. Of course, Marybeth walked with me, but she also had her hands full with other aspects of my care. Anyway, I was longing for communion, for conversation, for company.

So I began enlisting my friends and acquaintances to join me on my daily outings. One at a time. At the crack of dawn. These kind people, most of them not necessarily early birds, readily and graciously agreed to be drafted into the program.

Bipedalism is one of the most elemental of human traits. “Walking has everything to do with what makes us human,” writes Harvard evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman. It’s no wonder that we are so comfortable doing it, it’s no wonder I’m drawn to it.

Like I said, at first I was weak and slow, my steps unsteady – especially up any kind of incline. But my walking partners were patient; they waited for me as I slowed to a crawl up the hills or stopped to catch my breath. Gradually I got stronger, even with the setbacks of certain times during my chemo cycles when I felt like, oh, “death warmed over.”

My favorites of these urban walks – and they are evolving and no two are exactly alike – include rambling through the city market and by other downtown landmarks such as the Hotel Roanoke, the Texas Tavern, the Taubman, Elmwood Park.

Not much gets in the way of these excursions. Depending on the constitution of the particular companion, we might even walk in the pouring cold rain. “That’s what rain coats are for!” reminds my friend Mike. And on those walks especially it’s so nice to return to cozy home.

As I said, these are crack-of-dawn walks; we’re up and out before most normal people. The streets are empty. It’s quiet, which makes for easy conversation even with one of us a bit hard of hearing.

In his book,  A Philosophy of Walking, Frederic Gros explores how steadfast and intentional walking habits have shaped the creative genius of many of our most productive writers and philosophers. Notables from Henry David Thoreau and Nietzsche to Jack Kerouac and Kant, Rousseau and Robert Louis Stevenson, all were avid walkers.

For my part I’ve found my best contemplation, planning, and scheming is borne of walking. It follows too that some of the best of conversation seems to blossom and flow through it too. The talk will run the gamut, the specifics of which being determined by the particular vagaries of each friendship, the overlap of interests.

Sometimes, depending again on the players, we’re more quiet than loquacious and that’s good too; communion does not necessarily require conversation. Special is just the feeling of sharing the morning, watching the sky lighten, feeling the promise of a new day.

During the months of chemotherapy especially, these quotidian outings were every bit as important to my successful treatment and recovery as was the exceptional medical care I received. My healing journey became entwined with these urban wanderings. As I said, the substantial physical benefits were obvious right off, but even more was the boosting of my morale, the restoration and strengthening of my spirit. From that has come a sharper edge on my gratitude for my friends and family and for life itself.

Let me know if you want to take a walk with me sometime. There are always openings in the schedule.

– Johnny Robinson

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