Written during the fall of 2012…
I’m not supposed to walk for exercise, but my dog is old, has been a good companion, and I find it hard to deny him one of his greatest pleasures in life. In full honesty, walking might be hard on my hips but its sweet relief for the rest of me. My mind clears, my soul sings, and the weight of the world lifts from my shoulders when I’m alone or with someone I love on a trail. So, we walk sometimes.
This particular autumn day, I pick a path I’ve taken thousands of times as a kid. With the creek dry, I plan to cut through a small ravine and then head back to the cabin. However, the crunching of leaves beneath our feet stops abruptly when a steep bank falls where a gentle slope once existed.
Tornado looks down at the rocks below, glances up at me, and starts back to the cabin. We’ve walked long enough that retracing our steps is reasonable, but instead, I call Nado to me.
Time changes things. Creek banks wash away and form different routes. Things that once thrived exist no more. Change is part of life, and many experiences have re-enforced that lesson over the years. The course change shouldn’t be startling, but it is.
There’s a bridge not far from my childhood home, but the absence of this crossing will make it hard to get there once water is flowing through the creek again. I feel an odd sense of urgency to get to the bridge today.
It’s as though I left something there years ago, forgot about it, and now desperately need it again.
The logical part of me wants to put it off until another day when my hips ache less and Nado isn’t panting this much. After all, it hasn’t rained in months, and the stream is dust-dry for the first time in my 43-years of life. Ignoring logic, something turns my feet toward the creek bed.
Nado and I find a spot that allows a safe descent. The banks on each side guide us while the roar of the highway gauges distance.
Once there, I look around and feel disappointed. My old puppy climbs the bank and lies down in the shade of rugged steel. Guilt that I’ve dragged us so much further on a whim of forgotten treasure drips into my emotions. My hips ache, and Nado is obviously tired and hot.
Even during one of the worst droughts the area has known, the cold cement feels rough and damp beneath my hand. There is no water in the creek bed running beneath the steel frame, but memories flood the area as musty air kicked up by my sneakers fills my nostrils.
After a quick search for snakes and bee nests, I sit down with Nado and lean against the pillar, tilt my head up with a sigh, and run my fingers through his fur as a surprise catches me off guard: My brothers and my name stand scrawled in each of our distinctive writing styles.
One afternoon when I was still young enough to print my name, we’d stood in the spot where Tornado and I are today, and we’d written our names underneath the bridge. My brothers might already have had theirs there, and they were just letting me add mine. I don’t remember for sure, but I remember hurrying so the infamous boogie-man who lived under the bridge wouldn’t get me as I added my name to the list.
We were low-tech kids and had used nothing more than a limestone rock as our stylus. It should have washed away with the two floods that had come in the years since. Instead, our names stood—engraved not in stone but with stone.
Regret and guilt evaporate as what I’d lost but again need comes into view.
You see, for at least the last year, everything has felt out of kilter.
I’d always imagined I’d have children, and although I’m capable, other factors led to the choice not to. That decision haunts me and weighs heavily. Despite loving my career, a parasite infection left me unable to do enough of the physical work required to earn a living with it. I don’t know enough about the career I’ve been studying for to know if it fits me. Wishy-washy would never have been used to describe me before, but I second, third, and fourth guess myself these days.
The pressure to create income is intense. A couple of online business ventures haven’t been what I hoped for or returned sufficient revenue for the time invested. They’re great products, but I lack the energy to promote them. My husband is ill with an uncertain prognosis. His company recently downsized his position, and now we have no income.
So many things drastically contrast to the expectations and dreams I have.
I’m trying to gracefully handle all the changes and figure out who I want to be now that the things I’d planned on no longer exist, but most days I fall short. I’ve lost my certainty, and it feels like I’ve lost what once defined me. In fact, if I had to pick one word to describe me, “lost” would come to mind.
In the time leading up to today’s walk, I’d spent five years caring fulltime for a special needs child, two years sliding downhill as the parasites took hold, two years fighting for my life and learning to treat the recently discovered autoimmune disease I’d had since I was a toddler, and then three years caring in one format or another for ill family members while trying to heal, repair, and redefine myself.
Whatever the word is that describes the state a few levels beyond exhausted, it falls short of being adequate as I sit under this unintended time capsule and lean against its cool pillar.
Things I’d thought would last at least through my lifetime were gone while fragile marks in chalk still stand. I wonder if, in a twist of irony, the engraved name on my brother’s tombstone will fade before his written name disappears.
I imagine that we can guess what will last and what will fade, but we’ll be wrong just as often as we’ll be right.
I’ve been seeking certainty and asking questions that have no right answers. It is nice of my friends to tell me that I deserve a better life, but plenty of people don’t get what they deserve—good and bad.
If names written in chalk that we expected to be long gone can last through two floods and over 35 years, who can say how my life will turn out, regardless of how things are going now?
My brothers and I were leaving our mark when we wrote our names. We wrote with the enthusiasm of youth and the passion of hopes and dreams not yet tried. Without meaning to, this old bridge captured a snapshot of our potential. As I sit here looking at our names, they remind me of who I am.
Seeing my and my siblings’ names still written on the supports of this bridge over 35-years after putting them there shocks life and soul into me.
The chaos, fatigue, and challenges lose their hold of the tainted filter they imposed, and the distortion about who I am fades.
Just like the younger version of me, I am someone with the rest of her future still in front of her. I have just as much reason to be hopeful now as I did then; just as much chance to experience wonder and miracles as to experience loss and heartache. I know with certainty where life took my younger self. If she knew back then what I do now, she might have enjoyed the journey less or been afraid of what was to come.
Then again, my younger self would have told me that I don’t know anything for sure and shouldn’t tell her what she can and can’t do. My younger self was full of passion and determination.
Certainty might be extensively over-rated.
Having found some treasure, Nado and I limp back to the cabin. He sleeps the rest of the day while I start asking questions that have answers.
The next day it unexpectedly rains enough that I’d not have been able to make the trek to the bridge again during my time at the cabin without getting wet and muddy. Risking a fall and the damage a sudden slip could do to either hip or my knee would have been enough to stop me.
I found the following Alan Cohen quote about a year later, and it once again reminded me of the sensation I felt when my feet instinctually led me to the bridge.
An old friend had been on my mind both times. By example, he taught me the importance of loving others the way Mr. Cohen describes. And with equal importance, he taught me to love myself that way, too.
It could be my imagination, but I like to think that knowing love like that led me to a bridge—not to cross it but to be reminded that our past and present don’t determine our potential or our future.