We were twenty-five when my best friend died. We were high school friends turned, it seems, to life time friends.
We lived in a town tucked into the hills of the Pennsylvania mountains. It, like many other small towns, was forgotten by all but a few popular trends, possessing only a few well known store and restaurant chains. There weren’t many choices, not much diversity. I suppose to those from outside this cold rainy town we all seemed more alike than different. I suppose on the outside we were. She and I would go shopping separately but still end up with the same coat (different colors), same shoes, similar haircuts. But it seemed to me that she was always comfortingly ahead. She dragged me (with her tutoring) through high school trigonometry, to study for English tests that I had no need to study for, and into summer swim leagues, her family parties, Christmas cookie making and present wrapping traditions as well as her family kitchen to chat with her mom over tea after nights out with high school friends.
We’d lounge at the pool in her back yard. Talk about boys we liked. Invite them to join us. Make plans for night-time outings with friends. Talk about why people did things they did. Believed we could make sense of the world, so large and full of possibility. Wondered why so many others couldn’t.
I suppose our paths started to diverge when she stayed home and I went away for college. She got sick and I stayed well.
When I first left, we’d call when we could. Tim McGraw songs, stops at Sheetz (the local convenience store) and walks on the track at the local middle school made time fold and we’d fall in sync with the girls we once were. But then laughs from revisiting stories told on road trips, to swim meets or camping trips faded. Picking each other up from summer work for nights out with friends turned into college road trips and holiday stop-ins. The cancer came and, like a cloud of mist, it quickly made it hard to see what was ahead or behind us. I had trouble falling back in step with the path I set out on. She, who still seemed so firm footed, continued up her mountains.
I suppose from the outside we looked very different after college. I had studied and graduated, found jobs but didn’t pursue callings, dated but didn’t marry. I looked trendy and healthy. I was aware that anything could happen in life; but couldn’t move toward a single one. She fought against cancer (twice) and to graduate college. She loved, married, bought a house, had a child, found a calling, lost a sister, and postponed some dreams. Sometimes she looked sick; but sounded mostly unchanged. She held on fearlessly to all of her convictions and just seemed to climb on.
She had her mother and eventually husband call when she couldn’t. When only memories were left, they were tainted by images of hospital rooms, IVs and fear of the enormous possibilities in this wide, wide world.
Eventually, our trails no longer ran together. Every year I grew older and she stayed the same age. There was a time when I was proud of how I handled this loss. I compartmentalized. I continued. I could small talk. I could task master. I could take care of others. I could avoid reminders. I could laugh. I thought I made peace with the fact that she died and I kept living. I was composed; but I was frozen. It took me a long time to realize I’d lost my compass. That path I took to college, it wasn’t the wrong one; but I let fear guide me for a long while. Time went on, years in fact, where I wandered in circles trying to make peace with my surroundings.
One day, I started walking again. I walk on paths now under tall trees in the woods behind my home in Northern Virginia rather than on asphalt under a football scoreboard and next to bleachers. More often than not I listen to music rather than chatting. It’s harder now to fall back in sync with who I was. Some days are easier. Like fall days, with their evenings crisp when I smell the smoke from a barbeque truck at the local farmers market. It’s so easy to be fooled that they are days like the ones from my teenage years where bonfires mark the beginning of fall. The smoke, first subtle, then visible, has the power to push the misty cancer memories away. With the view of the old “us” come the memories of fairs and ethnic festivals that mark the end of mountain summer. So too comes the search for festivals and fairs in my here and now; but the now is not the same.
Now there are new people who join me on my walks. Some go with me occasionally. We walk only a few miles on these paths through the woods to a picnic with our children. More often than that, I simply walk alone to meet friends at play groups.
There are those who are walking the long haul with me. My son and I walk together most days. He, who used to love me carrying and talking at him, now runs in front yelling back at me. Still we walk together; still we cheer each other on. My husband walks with me on many family outings where we agree on the direction to be taken. But there is no longer anyone who came from where I walked from. There is not someone I can set pace by, or pass mile markers with, who so naturally knows the route that we should be taking. It’s up to me now to hold the ground of where I’ve been.
Then there other reminders of my youthful naiveté that seem to sneak up on me and take me back to a time when we were figuring out life together on her pool deck during one long ago summer. Once I stumble into them I feel as if I’ve been chasing milestones I should have known were coming. Events I should have realized she had past.
The moment I finally understood the fear of losing my child was one such moment. Not that harm would come to my child, but the soul shaking pain of how I would feel if I knew I’d soon be gone. There are many experiences and conversations with this friend that I admit to losing in the cloud of cancer changes and in the years of not revisiting memories. But one memory that pokes through is a conversation about loss, which at the time I didn’t understand. Usually we talked about how she was feeling. We’d talk about the smell that Chemo left in her nose, the loss of appetite that lasted long after treatments were over, the loss of hair that made even the strongest woman feel less so and how she felt about her doctors. But one day we didn’t. We focused on fear. I remember the tears, and the words, and my not knowing what to say.
She said she wasn’t worried about her husband. He would be fine. Whether he married again, or not, she wasn’t concerned. But oh how she cried at the idea of her child calling another mother.
I lay in my own bed one night worrying if something might be wrong with me. My child approaching the age of her child at the time of her passing, I felt overwhelmed at the possibility of losing my role as his cheerleader, guide and overseer. Acknowledging that I could no longer be the one who gave his world’s most comforting snuggles or the beneficiary of post tubby time giggles and granting those gifts to another are different things entirely. I imagine the struggle of determining your last direction. If you plead with the world to love him as their own, fill with hate over the cruelty of the loss you know you’ll face, or quietly soak in every smile and giggle as you hold on to little hands for as long as you can feel them freely given.
This is my trail now. Figuring out how to be a devoted mother, loving despite the fear of loss I’ll have to walk through, knowing there is a milestone of letting go I’ll one day have to master. I take comfort in acknowledging that this path is on my road map. I know there are many steps between here and there. Though knowing that those steps are on my route and passing them are different things entirely.
Today, I am present. I walk with my husband and son on wet ground through a foggy haze in Austin’s Isamu Taniguchi Japanese garden. We wind down stone paths into the forest just steps from the highway, but with miles and miles of difference in between. I’m mesmerized by this foreign place with its mysterious shadows. Hidden promises in unexpected places pull me through the fog down an incline into a space where deflected lights, bright flowers, tall trees and still waters urge a comfortable peace.
My son is in his stroller, which he calls “push”. He hasn’t even asked for his truck to entertain himself before rain comes again. While my husband pushes him on, I go scouting shortly ahead to find a roofed bamboo overlook that can provide shelter from the down pour. A plaque on the outside of this tea house I find explains that the garden’s intent is to represent that man exists in harmony in nature. The tea house itself is aptly marked by the Japanese characters for heaven, harmony and man.
I wonder at the truth of this. I look down at the mist hanging on tiers of green gardens slowly descending into what a hushed hiss tells us is the road. My son is fully engrossed in the joy of this plateau. He smiles brightly. He runs around the overlook catching rain drops in his backhoe while yelling “pick up dirt!” My husband and I know enough to admire both him and the view. Pouring rain and running water pull and push us between wanting to explore and wanting to escape all that lies on those hidden paths. My son’s giggle has now grown silent as he grows impatient because we fail to explore this new world, so large and full of possibility. We are half way down the incline. We let ourselves be pulled down by the intrigue of what lies along these trails. We’re rewarded on the next plateau by the view of a wet lily pond, arched bridge and waterfall before the rains prove too heavy and we agree to retreat to the shelter of the car.
One hundred times I think of why it is I should care about this memory. One hundred and one I must remind myself that there are truths I have yet to uncover here, where I struggle to balance exploring and escaping. The secret I supposes is in recognizing that on this journey there is the need and time for both.
It’s a winding path, this journey that we’re on. Full, it seems, of unexpected stops and periodic reflections as well as slopes and hills and foggy days. The speed is not as important, as it seems, is the confidence in the direction taken and the awareness of the scenery. In the awareness of our surroundings, I believe we find that we are never really alone.
Though people leave this world, their marks on it come to us slowly sometimes. Their paths are laid, their parting gifts given, but it can take us years to reach them, let alone unfold them. In a way I suppose I’m still catching up to that old friend of mine. The fact that I am not really alone gives comfort to the of silence walks.