this (sticky) life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Lifelines - Es­ther Oliver

WHEN I picked up the walk­ing stick from the mid­dle of the road and found no re­lated body parts in sight, I asked a nearby shop­keeper to hold the er­rant stick un­til the right­ful owner could claim it.

The good thing was, it had a name tag and num­ber, the kind they put on your be­long­ings for hos­pi­tal­i­sa­tion so there is a ref­er­ence point for dis­posal if you never check out.

Well, there was no blood on the road, no man­gled traf­fic lights, nor ev­i­dence of per­sonal trauma.

Pick­ing it up seemed like a good idea at the time, as it shouldn’t have been there and I nearly ran it over. It was like a stray puppy — I picked it up and then wished I hadn’t, but by then I was stuck with deal­ing with the stick.

‘‘So why’d you pick it up in the first place?’’ my un­help­ful teenager asked. It was ob­vi­ous: the stick or the owner, or both, were lost and I had a help­ing im­per­a­tive. I left a mes­sage for ‘‘Shirley’’ telling her where I had de­posited her stray stick, and was sur­prised to see next day that I had missed five phone calls from her. Per­haps she needed this stick ur­gently. Fi­nally, Shirley and I spoke, and I learned the value of the walk­ing stick. This was not a mere stick but a care­fully crafted am­bu­la­tory aid spe­cially made, with a ven­er­a­ble his­tory of com­fort and servi­tude.

‘‘Stick’’ was a fam­ily heir­loom, a relic be­queathed to Shirley’s fam­ily by her even older and much loved aunt, who had passed away the year be­fore.

Shirley’s sis­ter had at­tached the name tag to en­sure its safe­keep­ing while in Shirley’s care. It hadn’t worked, ob­vi­ously, but any­way, the lost stick now had be­come the lucky stick found. And the owner just couldn’t thank me enough, and told me its story.

Shirley loved the stick. It seemed tai­lored to her height and the han­dle was worn into a shape of com­fort, set at an an­gle to counter her lack of sta­bil­ity, and, she told me, it was the per­fect weight for a walk­ing stick. No carved bone han­dle or ele­phant tusk dec­o­ra­tion here.

Silly me. I thought a stick was a stick was a stick, much like a snake stick any Aussie dad might have picked up years ago on a walk, to whack to death any snake he came across — any shape or type of stick would do, with the right at­ti­tude and pur­pose. But I was wrong.

And, just as th­ese days we have a dif­fer­ent at­ti­tude to snakes and their right­ful place in our land­scape, from now on I’ll also have a dif­fer­ent re­spect for a walk­ing stick.

And though it may it be many years un­til I need one (I pray to God, Shaman, Univer­sal Mother, preacher teacher and spir­its, please give me 40 years at least with­out one), I’ll know that when the time comes, a stick can be­come like an old friend, al­ways there for you, seem­ingly pretty or­di­nary but in fact im­mensely loved and hard to re­place. Equiv­a­lent to an aged cat or dog or friend, per­haps.

Long live the hip re­place­ment and Nordic walk­ing tech­nique, which can pro­long your agility and your abil­ity to walk sans stick.

But when my time comes, let me have a val­ued stick with a per­sonal his­tory, one that a stranger would res­cue from a pos­si­ble hit-and-run ac­ci­dent with­out a sec­ond thought, and let us stick to­gether in our re­spect for this sim­ple but es­sen­tial an­cient in­ven­tion.

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