A Lovely Hike
Dave Talaga, Nancy Walfish, Evelyn Burns, Rita McMahon
A Progressive Story
The chilled wind rattled the French doors that separated the master bedroom from the cold flagstones of the unfinished patio. Moonlight peeked through the blinds, casting uniform and garish shadows onto the polished wood floor. The skies outside barely hinted of dawn. Yet the alarm clock on the nightstand rang out with an unwelcome punctuality. Everett pulled the feather quilt over his ears at first, as if that alone would bring him respite and quiet. Of course, it did not. So he reached out with one arm to whack the alarm into silence while his other hand still held the quilt in place over his head. “Another day, come what may,” he said to himself as he blinked the remaining vestiges of sleep from his weary eyes.
With a burst of cat-like agility that belied his age, Everett flung back his bed covers and pulled on his vintage maroon work pants and gray plaid flannel shirt that had fit him snuggly once, but now hung loosely around the shoulders. He put on his cross trainers over his argyle socks, the same stockings he had worn to bed to keep his feet warm, then went out into the kitchen for a glass of unsweetened orange juice. He drank in uncharacteristically dainty sips, standing up as he checked the weather outside the window. No frost, he thought to himself as he contemplated wearing a jacket. But once he finished his juice, he only retrieved a hunter’s orange stocking cap or “beanie” as he liked to call it. No jacket this time.
Then he went back into the bedroom. The pall of night began to lift and an early morning sparrow began calling from one of the arborvitae that grew along the backside of his two-story colonial home. Everett looked over at his wife’s photo on his nightstand, then blew her a kiss before grabbing a daypack that sat nearby. He sighed as he thought of the contents within which he had so specially and meticulously packed the day before. Then with the daypack slung onto his back, he opened the French doors and emerged into the back yard, inhaling deeply the fresh air that abounded here in the countryside.
As he looked back at the home he so lovingly built and lived in for so long, he never thought it would be such an adventure before he saw it again. The French doors seemed to be saying “be safe and enjoy your journey.” The daypack he packed was more than enough for the day he had planned with so much care.
As he walked along looking around him, he began to get the feeling something was different. The woods and the sky seemed to be speaking to him. “We have brought you this way for a very special reason. As you walk along, we want you to think about your life and what it has meant,” the wind seemed to whisper in his ear. At first, he was very startled and maybe even frightened. Nothing like this had ever happened to him. He continued on and realized there would be no turning back.
As he walked on, he began to look back at the life he had created and was grateful. The wife he was with for 30 years and had 3 children with was the love he had hoped for. His children were loving and kind people you would like to know. Things were changing and the life he knew was now over.
What is it that was expected of him and why was this normal day trip taking such a different twist? How long had he been walking? He no longer recognized the woods he had been so familiar with all his life. Up ahead there was this beautiful valley with a carpet of green grass. The sky was turquoise with white clouds flowing as if on a sea.
As he walked into the valley, Everett realized he wasn’t alone. Up ahead, he was greeted by a fellow traveler that was also unfamiliar with this part of the world. Everett greeted the stranger and they decided to travel this unfamiliar road together.
The two men exchanged pleasantries as they leisurely strolled. His fellow traveler turned out to be escaping his monochromatic sub division for a brief time. Everett realized with new awareness the meadow leads to a much loved hiking trail he and his wife frequently used. At a fork in the trail, the two men genially parted.
Everett was quietly relieved as he needed time and solitude to clear his thoughts and ponder the day ahead. The trail now returned to the fairly challenging wooded terrain that overlooks the valley below. A sense of loss and weariness settled upon him as he climbed. It was a struggle to find meaning in his life just now.
He had not prepared for the loss of his wife as they had spent pleasant hours contemplating leisurely activities and interesting travel upon their retirement. It seemed so unfair that the stroke that took her life had not been foreseen even by health professionals. She seemed so healthy. He smiled wanly as he thought she would have shaken her head in bemused acceptance by his usual unmatched clothing.
The trail approached a particularly rewarding view over the valley. This was a view Emily had especially loved. He contemplated the carefully packaged contents of his day pack. Where better to release her ashes? She would surely approve. He settled on an outcropping of rock. Head bowed, he had never felt so alone.
Beyond feeling alone, Everett suddenly felt exhausted. He wondered how much longer he would be able to make this trek into the mountains. He watched the cheerful sun slip behind a cloud, and he began to wonder if the time he had chosen to scatter the ashes of his beloved Emily was right. Next week would be the first anniversary of her death, and it had been a very sad and lonely year of reliving old memories. He had asked his three children, Jack, Susan, and Mike to be present today, but each had declined because of pressing business.
As he laid back to rest for a moment, his eyes had barely closed when his phone rang. “Dad, where are you?'' asked his oldest son Jack, knowing full well that his dad was just ahead of him on the mountain, but not revealing his presence just out of sight in the woods.
“I’m up here on the mountain ready to scatter Emily’s ashes as I told you a month or so ago,” Everett replied. “Now I’m not so sure I’m ready to part with the last remaining tangible symbol of her life. Her cheerful description of becoming one with nature by having her remains become nourishment for the grass and flowers, as she pictured years ago, does not seem as romantic now as it had when she spoke of it then.”
“ Look behind you Dad. Mike, Susan and I decided that our ‘important’ responsibilities could wait for a few days to give you the support you deserve,” said Jack. “We are here.”
Coming out from the cover of the woods, Susan said, ”We all feel ashamed that we took such a cavalier attitude about the painful task you faced scattering the ashes alone, and realized we owe you an apology. All of us need to find closure to Mom’s death, to realize our family has changed, and that we all have to find ways to move forward with new expectations. We are not planning to forget her, but we know we all must open up our lives to other possibilities. You are still a young man. At 64 you have opportunities to explore new interests, develop new skills, travel with Senior groups, visit us, and pass your experience and wisdom on to your grandchildren. Possibly you might relocate to a new place where the climate is warmer so you could play golf all year round. You might remarry and enjoy marital companionship again.”
Mike added, “ ‘Moving on’ does not mean forgetting the people and experiences of an earlier stage of life, but as a part of life history we are all writing every day. It’s all right to look back now and then to remember and to savor times of joy and accomplishment, but we can’t get stuck there. If there’s one fact we’ve all learned in this past year, it is that life can not be guaranteed to be predictable and neatly planned to follow our vision as we imagined it. Life is full of surprises, some are wonderful and some are bitter lessons. We have been learning one of those bitter lessons this past year.”
A rueful smile crossed Everett’s face as he looked at his and Emily’s three offspring. “Well said, kids, you have become wise students of the human condition. Your Mom would be proud of you. I’ll bet she’s smiling right now.”
Jack broke in with a suggestion, “Our planes are booked for Sunday afternoon since we all have to be at work on Monday morning. The weatherman promises perfect weather for Sunday morning, so we can come back here to release Mom’s ashes as she had requested.”
Mike said, “Good idea. Right now I’m starving! Let’s go down now and get some lunch. We will have time to talk and remember during this couple of days we have together before heading back to our work routines on Monday. Let’s be sure to remember how to get back to this place that Mom loved and chose for her final resting place. We may decide to meet here every year to remember her.”