As Sarah noted on Sunday, I stepped off into the mountains last Friday, disappearing into the wilderness on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina. It’s no surprise to any of you that have read my posts for these past two years that backpacking, in isolation, is the most transcendent experience that I personally can have. No matter how my wanderings unfold, they always mean something to me.
However, I haven’t really experienced anything new in the three plus years since Megan was first admitted to the hospital. I’ve went to familiar places. Places that I could ramble into, disappear for a few days, and feel the comfort and safety of a home away from home. Places that I had been to so many times that I could navigate every trail blindfolded and say “Hello, again” to every tree.
Way back in September of 2012, Megan, Shelby and I took our first backpacking trip together. Shelby was only 5 years old, and Megan was almost two years past her lung transplant. I meticulously planned the trip, choosing the Blackbird Knob trail in the Dolly Sods Wilderness, in West Virginia. I was already intimately familiar with it, knowing the various campsites, creek crossings, and hills along the way, but neither of the two of them had ever been.
I chose it because of the safety factor. I knew that we could ramble in about a mile before we came to a creek that I wasn’t comfortable having them cross. Just downstream from that point, there was a beautiful backcountry campsite where we could spend the weekend. I limited them, purposefully, so that I didn’t have to worry about Shelby trying to rock-hop across a fairly sizable creek, slipping, and being washed downstream. Nor would I have to be concerned with Megan, who was still getting her feet under her on dry, flat ground in her recovery, experiencing the same.
This past weekend, Sarah, Shelby and I took our first backpacking trip together. Shelby is now 10 years old, and Megan has been gone almost three years. I barely planned the trip, deciding on Monday that we should leave on Friday for the Blackbird Knob trail in the Dolly Sods Wilderness. I’m still familiar with it and all of the campsites, creek crossings, and hills. While Shelby had been briefly acquainted with it, Sarah had never been.
I recently heard an interview with Pema Chodron, a well-known Buddhist nun and author of the book When Things Fall Apart. This woman is chock-full of wisdom. And she got my mind turning about something this morning. In the interview, she talks about a graduation speech she gave recently, telling those brave young folks about to embark into the world, that the most important thing is to learn how to stumble well. To pay closer attention to our pain when we are stumbling through it, and allow ourselves to be fully in our losses and our pains so that we can learn what lessons they hold.
As I’m thinking about this idea, of stumbling well, I realize that the walk with grief is really one of stumbling greatly. Because, after all, losing your partner leaves you in a treacherous landscape, am right? Imagine for a moment what your grief landscape looks like. To me, it’s a mountain range. A vast place of ups and downs, with jagged edges and surprises at every turn. For you it may be a desert, or a barren, underwater world. These images of the landscape of grief can hold a lot of value for us.
Grief is not a minor thing in life. It’s not just tripping you up. It’s not just potholes and speed bumps along the road. Losing your partner is not stumbling and hitting the ground in front of you. It’s stumbling and suddenly there IS no ground to fall on anymore. It is falling off a cliff in slow motion… into a whole other landscape that you were not prepared to travel...
Suddenly, everything feels dangerous to you.
The American Chestnut is a large, stately, useful tree. At one time, over a quarter of the eastern American woods were populated by this tree. The wood is rot resistant, the nuts are delicious, and even the oils in its bark has medicinal properties.
Nobody wanted to see the Chestnut go away, and it didn’t want to die off. Over eons it evolved into the strong, prolific queen of the forest. It provided shade, shelter, and nourishment for the rest of the woods, and it provided it’s resources for the native Americans and settlers in the areas in which it grew.
But it got a raw deal.Read more
So I bought a table.
It was only forty dollars, and it’s a little round glass patio table. Shelby and I spent an hour or so unpackaging it, laying the parts out, and assembling it. I know this sounds completely mundane, even boring, but bear with me. This table symbolizes something.
It’s not sentimental, really. It wasn’t something that Megan always wanted, or an item that had been passed down to her from a grandparent or family member. It truthfully is “just a table”, sitting on the deck at my house.
However, it’s a table that Megan will never sit at. It’s on a deck that she never got to relax on. She didn’t get to help Shelby put it together, and watch her do most of the work. Megan had absolutely zero bearing on the decision to buy this particular table. It’s not hers, and it never will be, and that’s why it is important.
There exists in Cuyahoga Valley National Park a small waterfall called “Blue Hen Falls”. For thousands of years, this ripple of water has been flowing over a sandstone ledge in 3 ribbons, proceeding on its course towards the Cuyahoga River.
Spring Creek, it’s namesake being a natural seep about 1000 yards upstream, isn’t a spectacularly big watercourse. It’s no deeper than a few inches, and the falls are only 15 feet tall or so. There are no grand dams, shipping canals, or ports. It has been unaltered by man, and in my opinion, no improvement can be made upon it. It is beautiful and perfect just the way it is, and it feels as if it’s my place whenever I am there.
I shared this special place with Sarah last weekend. There were other people hovering around, visiting the falls, walking their dogs, or just taking in the views, but still it felt as if it was my place to share with Sarah. There are other, more imposing waterfalls in the park. There are a multitude of other streams, both large and small, taking different courses, flowing differently, and sometimes being altered by the progress of civilization through the years, but this small creek, no more than a trickle in comparison to many of the others, is still my favorite.
Before Megan, before Shelby, before dating and marriage and sickness and death, there was my car. I bought my Mustang in 2000, when I was only 20 years old, during my service in the US Marine Corps.
It was my first passion. I drove that car to the beach every weekend with my buddies. I drove it 14 hours one-way from North Carolina, once a month to visit my family and friends in Ohio. I spent at least a few hours every week washing, polishing, and waxing it. When I left the Marine Corps, and met Megan, it ferried us to dates. We would spend time at the drag strip with it. It took us on our honeymoon. I tore down and rebuilt the entire thing over a winter after we were married. We went to car shows, parades, and cruise-ins, where we made some of our closest friends. There were so many good things that the car brought into our lives.
Outside of Megan, I was always focusing on that car.