Johnny was the sort of man who, if he could have, would have worn his boots twenty-four hours a day, certainly to bed, and probably even in the shower. But he couldn't. His feet were never very good. He had corns and planters warts and was constantly going to the podiatrist to have one or another shaved down or cut off. It got to the point where his boots and then even lace-up shoes hurt to wear them. This was the main reason why Johnny and Eric stopped dancing. It also prevented him from being able to judge rodeo properly, since a judge has to be able to run around the arena quickly. He just couldn't.
It wasn't just the corns and warts. His legs had begun to waste, and by the last year, he began to have trouble getting around at all. Johnny was a man of determination, and he hated having to rely on anyone for anything. His solution was to dig out a pair of beat-up black sandals that must have come from before they'd ever met. How he'd hauled those old things around without losing them, Eric never knew.
He began to wear his sandals instead of his boots. These he could just slip on, and for some wonderful reason, they didn't hurt the corns. By the time they'd moved into the farm, though, his ankles had begun to swell. No one seemed to know why. His boots were out permanently. It was all he could do to slip the sandal straps over his heels.
In September the filly kicked him in the right knee, and he developed a hematoma, and consequently cellulitis throughout his leg and groin. He parked himself in the emergency room and subsequently was hospitalized for a week with IV antibiotics. Once he got out of the hospital, he was reduced to crutches. Later, he graduated to the use of a cane. He used that cane until his last day.
Johnny's condition never stopped him. Every morning, he would pick his cane up from where it rested by the bed and draw his sandals to him, one at a time. Then he would carefully draw them onto his feet with the cane tip. If Eric tried to help, he'd shoo him away. Slowly he would make his way down the stairs and on with the day's business. He'd then proceed out to the barn and feed sheds, seeing that the horses and the dogs and -- until he finally had to give them away -- the ducks were fed and watered and properly cared for.
Eric remembered vividly the events of Tuesday, January 26. The inexplicable pain inside his chest that had developed the night before had not gone away. At the doctor's direction, they'd tried Valium as a palliative, thinking this was another case of the muscle spasms that had bothered Johnny for several years. The Valium, however, had only caused him to become incoherent and incontinent throughout the night. In the morning, the doctor said to come in right away. Johnny struggled to get his sandals on. He still wouldn't let Eric help. He was determined to maintain mastery where he could.
The doctor diagnosed him at the office with pneumonia and had him hospitalized immediately. Eric took him to the hospital just as he was- sandals, sweat pants and all. It'll be okay, Eric kept thinking. He's had pneumonia before. We can work it out.
As it turned out, the problems were massive, far beyond the complications of pneumonia and a collapsed lung. Johnny stayed in the hospital for a week and was brought home in an ambulance to hospice home care. They brought his sandals and personal effects home with him in a bag.
Throughout those three weeks at home, Johnny focused on mastery of his condition, and then, of his body, and then, finally, of his journey. He never once complained. He remained demanding of everyone who nursed him - Tona, Don and Eric. Despite the rapid wasting of his body and increasing loss of muscle control, he insisted on their helping to get him out of bed every day. The effort was such that for some time after his death, Eric continued to have back pains from the strain of lifting.
Slowly, painfully, he would walk as far as he could with the walker, at first by himself, then with help, then with Eric standing behind him in the walker just to hold him up as his legs would collapse out from under him. We're dancing, Eric would think. He would move the walker inch by inch forward with himself and Johnny inside it, as they moved their feet forward, step by step, pace by pace. By then, there was no more use of cane or sandals.
When he could no longer get out of bed, Johnny at least would move to the edge, more and more slowly every day until there was no movement left but a ghost, a shadow, a suggestion in the tremor of the hand of the motions needed to move on out of bed and back into the world. Then even that little motion ended forever.
There was a tremendous silence, a waiting, a holding of breath in the dimly lit room where Johnny had lain when Eric saw it again. He thought, Johnny's begun to walk in another world. Eric looked around the sick bed and saw the sandals tucked away under it. His heart sank. He thought how painful it must be for Johnny to walk barefooted, wherever he was walking. But then he realized that Johnny would be wearing his boots again, his beloved boots.
Eric put the sandals away with the boots and a few other items in the memory box. The sandals spoke of Johnny's fierce independence. He was, foremost, a true Tennessee man of grit and determination, of economy of means, of disdain of wasted motions, of a will always to move forward, wherever the road took him.
Eric loved Johnny's sandals.