I spent a few hours this morning hiking in the woods. It wasn’t planned. I was running an errand, delivering something that Jamey had forgotten, driving 40 minutes from home and happy to do it as the morning was beautiful and I didn’t have plans and I wanted to listen to a long podcast. I don’t mind long drives alone some days. But after I’d delivered the forgotten item, I realized that I was only 3 miles from the hiking trails of Percy Warner Park here in Nashville, on the west side, amidst gold and red woods. So I diverted.
It was 30 degrees when I woke this morning at 7am. By 10am it was only a bit warmer. I was grateful that I’d grabbed the down vest and sneakers. I could have been warmer, another layer, a hat, real hiking shoes, but I was fine and it has been a long time, over a year, since I’ve done any hiking through woods. I have a fantasy of being that kind of mother with a structured carrier on my back, Huck bundled up, me hiking a few times a week. But that hasn’t happened.
The frost had burned off the green grass when I got to the trailhead. The mist was still lingering low on the fallen leaves. The air was brisk, a good kind of chill as I began the walk on the white trail, a 2.5 mile loop. My friend Mary, who introduced me to this park, told me that the trails here are for the poets, thinkers. The ones who like to walk with silence. You encounter dedicated benches along the paths claimed by plaquards, enscribed with names, birth and death years, a few things about the hiker: “James loved trees, music and golf.” The few details that will define stranger to stranger. I think of the men and women in the Dimensia Unit of the nursing home I took Huck to yesterday for Trick Or Treating. Outside the doors of each room was a shadow box, filled with things that told the resident’s story. One man displayed his army medals, his boy scout badge, a photograph of him on a green John Deere tractor in front of a barn probably in the late 70s. His black and white wedding photo. I do not know the people whose names adorn these benches along the white trail, but it would be nice to know a trail so well to want my name to live there after I’m gone. To have made friends with the trees and the dirt and the roots and the air. To have a trail that feels like home.
Today is November 1st. One month ago, I was sitting next to my father’s hospital bed, holding his hand. I’d been up the entire night when he sat up at about 4am and said, “I’ve got to…I’ve got to….”
“What Dad? What do you have to do?” I whispered.
“I’ve got to go down the trail…”
I squeezed his hand. I knew what trail. He’d had a dream about 10 years ago, the night before his identical twin brother died of a massive heart attack. The dream was that his brother and mother were walking down a trail and Dad was following them. Will, his twin, turned and said, “No, Dan. You can’t come with us. You can’t come on the trail.”
I said to my Dad, “You can go down the trail Dad, it’s ok.”
“I’ve got to go,” he said and looked at me with open eyes for the last time. Then he lay his head back down on the pillow and closed his eyes.
“I’m done,” he said.
A moment. A beat. I held my breath.
Tears rolled down my face. He was still here, still breathing, but I knew that the end was close. In my entire life, I’ve never heard my father say “I quit.” If there’s one thing my Dad is NOT, it’s a quitter. Stubborn and determined. Competitive and relentless. Passionate and principled. Dad does not quit.
He died later that day, that evening, with me and my sister at his bedside. My mother had gone out for a short errand. We encouraged her to leave the house. Everyone said, “Get out of the house. Maybe he is waiting for that to let go.” We had all left the house, the room, from time to time. But this was the first time Mom went out alone. I sat next to the bed, as I had for 5 days, listening to the hum and the click of the oxygen tank. The hospice nurse had been in that morning to let us know that Dad was in “Active Dying” and what signs to look out for as the moment of death neared. She said it may take 24 – 48 hours. We all groaned. We would give everything for more time. But not this kind of time. We wanted Dad to let go. To not suffer. He was suffering, that was clear. And this was not quality of life. It was time for our father to go. He was done.
In the seconds before he died, as we knew something had changed and that his heart was slowing to a crawl, I was sitting on the bed by his legs, holding his hand. Mom was still out on errands and we couldn’t reach her. My sister was at his head, her palm on his forehead. Maybe it was supposed to be like this, we said. She was almost leaping up and down, “Go Dad Go! Go see Uncle Will! Go see Nana! Go Dad Go”. I was sobbing, whispering, “It’s ok, Dad. Let go. I love you so much. Let go.”
And then, he took one gasping wide-eyed breath, that was so sharp and sudden that at first I wondered if he’d been shot or his heart burst. But his light blue eyes were wide as if he saw something familiar and then, for a brief second, they fixed into a soft kindness, an openness, a willingness that I knew it was less pain than joy, or something close to acceptance. Lighter than pain. More like an awakening. He gasped, lay his head back down and within seconds, his pulse stopped. His carotid artery pulsed fiercely for a beat or two and then just stopped. Lee lay her cheek on his forehead. I just stared at his pale face on the pale pillow on the pale sheets above his pale t shirt under the pale blanket, hoping to witness the exact moment when the soul leaves the body. I wanted to really see it as an event, a thing, to know it. Scientifically. Anatomically. Spiritually. To believe it. But I saw nothing of the mystical sort. I didn’t see anything in particular that felt like a human being crossing from one side of the river to the other. Truly, I don’t know what I wanted to see, but I was hoping for something awe-inspiring, the real meaning of the word awesome. I wanted the clouds to part and a light to beam and trumpets to blare. Or at least to just feel a shiver or a breeze. Instead, it was simply quiet, normal. The noises the oxygen tank made had stopped but the clock still ticked as if to remind me that time just kept going. But as I watched, his face just seemed to lose muscle. His cheeks seemed to sink and his mouth opened just a tiny bit. His eyes sank a bit behind the lids. The lids parted a bit, so that from my angle, his eyes seemed open with nothing behind them. A light had gone out. I said to my sister, “He’s gone. He’s gone.”
This morning as I walked, I had a thought that this was no coincidence, me having the morning free, Jamey giving me an excuse to be out this way, this near to these hiking trails. I’d had a thought about 2 weeks ago that I should get here. Someone said to me that grief is best moved through outside in nature. Was it something I read or something someone said? I can’t remember. The last month has been a blur. All I know was that I was dressed warmly enough to be able to take advantage of the impulse to walk the woods on a chilly morning and there I was. Walking in the woods on a chilly morning a month after my father died.
As I began, I casually thought of the years of hiking with my Dad. In the woods as a kid, leaf collecting. In the woods behind our cabin. In the woods behind their large log home, hiking up the acres of trails my father had marked with paint on trees to link to the ones of the State Park adjacent to their wooded property. The memory was light and pleasant. I felt like I was skating above something deeper. I kept walking and remembering.
The smell of a campfire from many Girl Scout summer camps. The smell of the fire from a charcoal grill outside our pop up camper in Glacier National Park. The crunch of our feet following my Dad through the Montana trails. The words “conifer” and “deciduous.” The difference between pine and mahogany. The weight of the rocks in my hand from the creek behind their log house. The stone fireplace you could stand in. The fireplace of their home now that goes on with a remote control.
Not even five minutes into the hike, I started to cry. Then bawl. I let the tears flow, my nose run. I didn’t care. A dam had been opened. I thought of my Dad in his dark blue wool jacket, his pigskin hat. I could see his smile. I could hear his laugh. I could see him on this path with me, in younger years when he could walk for miles without effort. And so, I conjured him and I let him stay with me. I started to talk to him. His image was so clear, so present. The small gap between his two front teeth, slightly yellowed from coffee and age. The way his blue eyes crinkled when he laughed and smiled. The way he walked with a slow authority, no reason to rush. He would look up at the sky through the yellow and green leaves and smile and not share the secret of whatever made him do so. I put my hands on the bark of the trees and look up. I’d look down at the fallen leaves and began picking them up, collecting them: a maple, an oak, an elm.
And then, there it was. The black gum tree. A straight tall trunk shooting up to the sky. Blackened skin, mottled into deeply grooved squares that look almost coffee-stained, fire-stained. I lay my hand on the side of one and work my fingers into the ridges. I say to it, “Black Gum Tree. I know you are this.” And I am talking to my father but I am talking to the tree and I am talking to God and I am crying. I say to my father/tree/god, “what am I supposed to do now? How am I supposed to know what it is I’m supposed to do” and this question was vast, wasn’t about this hike, wasn’t about grief, was more about what is next. I am 51. I have a child. I know that has changed me and I want to lean into family now because life is brief and time is moving fast. And I know, too, that as much as music moves me and it was music that first gave me God, the business of maintaining music as my source of income is not exciting to me anymore. It’s not even that fulfilling. The making of it and sharing it will never not be something I love. But I have been grooving the same path for 20 years and do I want to keep following the same road (and groove too much and it becomes a rut and I believe it is now a rut)? Maybe I was asking the forest to show me the next path. Where to put my feet.
“Dad, what do I need to do right now that you would tell me to do?” I cried.
I looked ahead. And there was the white square trail marker painted on the side of a tree. I laughed and said outloud:
“Follow the trail. Just follow the trail,” in my voice that was my father’s voice that was truth.
My father died one month ago today. One of the last things he said to me was “I’ve got to go down the trail.” This morning, almost by accident, I found myself following a trail, and rather than fighting grief, or being swallowed by it, or pretending like it shouldn’t be with me, that “I’ve got this” syndrome I’m really good at, I decided to try something new today. I invited grief.
And this morning, Grief walked by my side as I followed the trail.