My husband and I had been married 19 years before I saw his feet.
Dennis never went to the pool. On the very rare occasions we visited the beach — two, to be exact — he wore sneakers. He preferred to shower alone. And yes, I know what you’re thinking. He wore socks then, too.
I did not complain. We’re all allowed secrets, and there are worse ones than the shape and condition of one’s feet. I once saw a black-and-white photo of him as a child. The picture was faded and old, but his feet looked normal. He had five toes on the left and five on the right. They were not webbed.
After a while, it became a game, a test. Five years passed, then 10. How long can a couple be married and one spouse not see the other’s feet? At 15 years, I decided I never wanted to see them. That would be my secret.
In the spring of 2015, after we had been married 18 years, I glimpsed the side of his right big toe, as elusive and breathtaking a sight as if I had spotted an ivory-billed woodpecker in the wild. Dennis was in the hospital and in the process of removing his black crew socks and putting on his yellow footies — the color that indicated to medical staff that he was a fall risk.
I have wide, strong, homely feet, the feet of my father. I do not paint my toenails; that would only draw attention to their unattractiveness. I do not gussy them up with pedicures. Feet are tools. And like tools, they should used for the correct job, kept clean and properly stored.
When I was young, my family and I lived down a long gravel driveway that led to a gravel road. In April, my bare feet would be tender, and I would gimp to the mailbox. But by summer’s end, the soles would be thick and tough from playing basketball barefoot on concrete, from stepping on a bee in the lush clover, from softball games when the hot clay would burn through your cleats. By August, I could run barefoot down the driveway, down the road, kicking up dust. At night, I would wash my feet and tuck them inside fresh, cool sheets, where they were kept clean and properly stored.
It occurred to me midway through my marriage that in the normal course of living, I must have seen tens of thousands of bare feet. One pair stood out: In the summer of 1980, my friend Natalie and I were sitting in the hallway of our high school waiting for driver’s ed class to begin. She had removed her shoes to unveil her feet, tan and unblemished, as if milk chocolate had been poured into a mold. Her toes sloped like descending musical scale. Not a callus, not a bunion, not a corn. A perfect set of feet.
Fifteen years later, I found myself in a karaoke bar in my hometown in Indiana. The room was dark except for a spotlight pointed to the dance floor, where among the performers was a man with no legs and obviously no feet. He sang Lynyrd Skynrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.”
Then a group of women gathered to sing Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Break the Chain.” I could not see their faces, but in the spotlight I spied a familiar set of feet. After the song was over, I hurried to a back booth. “Natalie! It’s Lisa! It’s been a long time. I recognized you by your feet!” She smiled and nodded, which I understood to mean that she was anxious for me to leave.
This spring, Pat, our hospice nurse, was at our home for her biweekly visit. She wanted to check Dennis’s feet and ankles for swelling, which would signal his kidneys were not efficiently processing waste. She also monitored for ulcerations, which can occur either from constant pressure on the skin or from a gradual breakdown of the body.
I stood at the head of the hospital bed. Pat pulled off the left sock, then the right. For the first time, I saw all of my husband’s feet. The nails had grown long during his illness — Stage 4 prostate cancer that had metastasized to his bones. But otherwise, an unremarkable, perfectly good pair of feet.
Before I met him, Dennis’s feet had been to Vietnam and Italy and Fort Meade, Maryland, where, as a member of the last draft class — Lottery No. 33 — he worked in Air Force intelligence as a codebreaker and an analyst.
These were the feet, Size 10, that had balanced on the basalt columns of Giant’s Causeway, in Northern Ireland, on our honeymoon, 19 years and 11 months ago. They had tracked with me through Santa Ana canyon, no more than a slot, really, in Big Bend National Park. They had traipsed along the Skyline Trail on Cape Breton Island, where we scanned the sea for whales.
It is April 14 and Dennis is dying. He is in his last days or even hours. This evening as I rubbed his feet with coconut oil and aloe vera, I noticed they were cool to the touch. In the past, he did not like me to touch his feet. Tonight, he did not mind.