My walks lately are emotional affairs, vacillating between sublime wonder and heart-pressing sorrow in a matter of a few steps. I can’t help but feel pleasure in the unassuming beauty of the river, but the memories of earlier seasons, so easily evoked in a quiet mind, lay over it the blue tint of loss and grief. Especially as the days warm, I feel myself fighting against the passage of time, even as I smile at the new life it brings.
On the sunny days of this late, cold, wet spring the shores of the river glimmer in green, and elusive vernal ponds formed near its banks appear like secret oases beneath the trees. When I come upon them, I follow the deer paths to their edge and try to find frogs and turtles. Today I instead startled a mallard with her prodigious brood of ten ducklings, who skimmed across the water with astounding speed when they saw me step out of the woods. They’re clearly unrelated to the Frederick ducks of Baker Pond, who, despite the signs saying otherwise, see humans as a potential source of bread crumbs and other such duck junk food. I tried to take a picture of them, but, between the limitations of my camera phone and their determination to get away from me as quickly as possible, I got nothing but a photo of the pond.
I left them in peace, pursuing the main trail to the river, only to fluster a white-tailed deer, who paused mid-stride when she saw me walking up the path. I paused, then, too, to allow her to cross ahead of me, but she decided that this behavior was much too threatening on my part, and retreated back into the trees. Shrugging, I stepped off of the path in the opposite direction, following a switchback down toward the river, where a pair of Canada geese, after one look at me, launched into the water with agitated bickering and began paddling in indecisive circles.
Guessing that there was a nest nearby, I left the waterside and returned to the high trail. It was only a few minutes before I came upon another bird, whose large head and bright red crest immediately identified him as a pileated woodpecker. He was on the ground, throwing large chunks of dead wood off a log so soft with rot it hardly required pecking. It took him some time to notice me, but, even once he did, he only flew a few feet to another pile of wood, calling out a laughing song that always makes me feel as if I’m in a jungle. This time, as a pair of barred owls began hooting in the distance, the feeling was even stronger. But the peter-peter-peters of a tufted titmouse managed to keep me firmly in my mid-Atlantic reality.
Beyond this there was a part of the path that I hadn’t traveled since walking there with my father, last December, on one of the last days when such a walk was possible for him. It is a part of the path just beside my neighborhood with the easiest access to the Monocacy from the assisted living facility where my father lived the last 2 months of his life. While we were there, bundled against a gray day, I pointed out to him where Israel Creek flowed into the river and showed him the rocks where the boys liked to play, and we wondered a little about the birds we saw and the geology of this part of Maryland. He couldn’t always say what he meant, but he was himself, and I understood. It wasn’t long before we turned around, afraid that he wasn’t warm enough or strong enough to go much farther. I still imagined that we would come back again in the spring, when it was more pleasant and there would be more to see.
This morning, I feared walking on that path again. Not so much because I was afraid of what I might feel or remember but because I was afraid of treading over yet another place where my last memory was with him, alive. I suppose some part of me believed — or wanted to believe — that he could somehow remain alive right there forever, as long as I never wrote another memory over it.
But I walked on. It is spring. And I told him we would come back in the spring.
The curious thing is that just when I reached the part of the path where I had stopped to speak with my dad, the part of the path that would seem the hardest to pass, I ended up so distracted that I didn’t think of it at all until it was already behind me. Because, of all the curious things, out of the corner of my eye, partially obscured by a pile of tree limbs and twigs, I saw two white forms shuffling about. At first I thought they might be small dogs, and then maybe young pigs, but as I got a better look I realized that they were two full-grown opossums, out in the morning sun. They’re not terribly quick things, so they thought a little before rambling off back down the hill into the woods, away from me. I was honestly tickled because I hadn’t seen a live adult possum in the wild since a family vacation years ago. And I had never seen one in daylight. And here were two! My father would have loved it.
Lately, as I sort through the photos in my laptop’s library, I find more of my son’s work than my own. Now outfitted with a much better camera, he takes dozens of photos every time we go planespotting (which is nearly every weekend these days), bouncing between Dulles, BWI, and Reagan National airports. I read or ruminate or listen as he and his friend discuss the finer points of every aircraft that passes over us. As time has progressed, I’ve been gratified to hear their arguments expand to include the merits of different camera settings or even the benefits of varying points of view and composition. It feels as if they’re learning something about more than aviation. Maybe that’s why I was especially pleased to find that my son has broadened his subjects to include the birds that he sees while his eyes are to the sky, particularly the gulls that hang out near Reagan National Airport. What was even better was noticing how alike his compositions are, despite the disparity between steel and feathers.
A slight lift with a view head-on:
Entering the lens:
Preparing for landing:
Among my own few photos, I found evidence that something else is in the air: spring.
My father died last week. It still feels too recent to write anything coherently, but every now and then a panic seizes hold of me — a deep, sickening fear — that the time when he was with me is passing away too quickly, that I am losing something vital that will be impossible to retrieve if I wait too long. So I try. I sit here putting words on a screen, and I feel as if I’m wearing blinders. I see but narrowly, unable to understand what is not directly before me.
Days before my father’s hospitalization this fall, when he was still walking, albeit warily, and his dementia had not yet so confused his speech, he and I visited the Catoctin Furnace, where pig iron was discovered and then, beginning in 1776, produced by the first governor of Maryland, Thomas Johnson. We followed the trail that leads into the woods beside the reconstructed furnace, past the ruins of the old manor house, where sparrows hopped between asters and pokeweed in the autumn sun, onto a rocky, narrow path framed by heaps of ancient slag, over the treacherously open Bowstring Arch Bridge, which overlooked a pair of dogs gamboling after sticks a woman tossed into Little Hunting Creek. I stopped my father on the bridge to take a picture of him, something I rarely did. I had no idea this would be the last hike I would ever take with him. I had no idea. But it was a beautiful day. And he smiled.
It was this day I remembered when, the night before his funeral, I tried to think of something to say at his service. My brother and sisters had all finished their pieces, each beautiful in their uniqueness and approach, but my head was too filled, too noisy, too confused by images of my father’s last days. It was not until I lie in bed, not sleeping, nursing my numbness, that the woods came to me: the leaf-littered path, and the water, and my father beside me, as he had been so many times before.
So, I do still exist…mostly sitting in a hospital room or frantically seeing to my chores at home, but, still, I’m here. I’m getting dinner on the table. Success! My boys are passing all of their classes. Yay me! The dogs are walked. Woohoo!
A few weekends ago, before my father fell ill, I took my son and two of his plane-spotting friends to Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. We spent some time in the terminal but soon departed for the Washington Sailing Marina, which offered a more scenic view of the airport and a better perspective of the planes landing there. (Most spotters prefer Gravelly Point, another small park, but that would be much too unoriginal for these teenagers). The boys spent hours out on the windy docks that reached into the Potomac River, taking photographs and arguing the merits of one aircraft versus another, while I chose to watch birds and wonder over the river that receives the Monocacy’s waters. As another urban river, the Potomac, too, had its share of trash, but it also had its share of waterfowl, like a small raft of mallard ducks and a very determined egret.
Despite the non-potable water and floating trash, the view was undeniably diverting, from the taxiing planes at the airport on one end of the horizon, to the Washington Monument on the other.
It’s not easy to write these days. I find I’m distracted all of the time, bullied by guilt and driven only to do things that must be done. I feel flat; finding the sort of inspiration I need in a hospital room is a bit of a challenge, after all. But I’m here.
And this is my little bit of trash on the Monocacy.
Last week my boys and I tagged along when a professional conference took my husband out to Denver, Colorado. We persuaded him to ditch the meeting a few times, once to tour an old mine in Breckenridge and another to see the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, but one day we were completely on our own and, after visiting the United States Mint in Denver, had a few afternoon hours to fill. When a waitress heard me debating some alternatives with my boys (and I, as usual, realizing that they would agree on nothing in the city), she registered my rising panic with the keen eye of a veteran mother, disappeared into a back room, and returned with a pen and a hotel map.
“Okay,” she said, as she slapped the paper on the table. “Do you have a car?”
Yes, in fact, I did. The rental place had given us a behemoth that I was barely able to park. I was so reluctant to use the thing, I almost denied it, but sense (or lack thereof, I’m not quite sure) demanded the truth and so I nodded my head.
“Well, then,” she uncapped the pen and began drawing lines out of Denver, rattling off names and places familiar from earlier internet searches, like Dinosaur Ridge and Red Rocks, but finally she paused and said, “But do you want to know my favorite place?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Does it have rocks and cliffs?” my oldest asked.
“The bowling alley?” my youngest suggested.
“Here,” the waitress circled a light green splotch with her blue pen. “Roxborough State Park.”
While I would like to say that we all immediately agreed and loaded into the rental tank with snacks, backpacks, and sunblock, in fact we dithered and debated all the way back to the hotel room, into the lobby, and finally down to the parking garage, where, with a broken sack and a few bottles of water, I simply declared (or, more accurately, commanded, with a strong edge of irritation), “We’re going to the state park!”
Driving out of Denver proved a long slog through traffic, which didn’t help the tempers of my backseat drivers, who resorted to calling each other names that should have shocked me until we finally got a glimpse beyond the foothills and into the Rocky Mountains, the white-capped massiveness of which finally rendered them speechless…for a few seconds. Despite the disappointment of seeing new development almost to the very entrance of Roxborough State Park and some initial confusion about how to pay our entry fee, I was in a hopeful mood when I finally parked near the visitor center. Both boys threatened to bail before we’d begun hiking — the youngest because they had no live animals in the visitor center itself, and the oldest because he didn’t immediately see any high cliffs with lots of rocks — but when I started, they followed, and as our trail began to climb, their complaints weakened.
In fact, when I caught back up to them after stopping to take some pictures of wildflowers, they were actually beginning to seem interested and perhaps even a little bit in awe. At a crossroads in the trail, they chose to follow Carpenter Peak, and the vistas opened wide.
As I continued to stop to take photos of wildflowers, the oldest pulled ahead, while the youngest usually dallied to give me company.
I appreciated it, not least because there was a sign at the beginning of the trail warning us to be aware of mountain lions. Both of the boys tried to amuse me by imagining them in ridiculous places. I reassured them by letting them know that we were unlikely to see them coming. Then I took more pictures.
Perhaps it was just the altitude, but the boys and I returned to our mastodon of a car in an almost giddy state that even a reprimand for rock-throwing (he really can’t seem to help it) couldn’t entirely destroy. It lasted through the seat-kicking, insult-throwing car ride home, into the I-can’t-find-anything-to-eat-on-this-huge-menu dinner, and even into the cover-stealing night. I think I can even feel it a little now.
Even as I type, I can hear the the high-pitched croak of a mother starling scolding my old cat for daring to creep out onto our deck. At 17, our Ashley-cat has lost interest in hunting, and, up until about the age of 15, she never ventured out of doors (or out of our closet, for that matter) anyway. She is a strictly indoor cat by choice, and, considering her longevity, it’s hard to argue that this hasn’t been a good decision on her part. While I can’t blame the starling for vociferously protecting her babies (which are, yet again, in our chimney vent), she’s wasting energy that she could be using to fetch her children food, which they seem to need about every 5 minutes judging by the desperate racket in my living room wall.
Even if Ashley-cat had been inclined to go outdoors, we would have kept her inside. The many cats that we kept when I was growing up had full roaming privileges, going out or in as they pleased, with multiple door-openers at their service. One cat in particular, a big, blond boy with a kingly mien, preferred the outdoors and seemed to feel that he belonged to the whole neighborhood rather than simply to us. (For reasons unknown to me, as I was not yet born when he came into our home, we called him Tiffany, which made me endlessly confused about all the girls named Tiffany…I knew three of them and was convinced that all of their parents had made a mistake.) His roaming ended when he was hit by a car on the busy street in front of our house.
Upset, I did what every distraught 10-year-old girl does and wrote a letter to the editor in my local paper. In the letter (which I signed with my name and age), I chided careless drivers and requested that, if they must hit cats in the road, they stop, take the cat out of the road, and inform a local homeowner. This was all very naive, of course, and I soon received several nasty letters in the mail informing me that I was an irresponsible pet owner who was to blame for my cat’s death because I had let him outside. This enlightening experience led me to two big resolutions (in addition to self-loathing): first, I would never write a letter to the editor again, and, second, when I had my own cats, I would keep them inside.
Earlier this year, I finally broke the first resolution in order to write a letter to the editor in support of a polystyrene ban in the state of Maryland. (Kind of a no-brainer for this blogger). No one really trolls by snail-mail anymore, but I did make a point not to read any online comments. The second resolution I became even more affirmed in when I read a book by my teenage idol, Margaret Atwood, in which she warned against the dangers of allowing cats out to hunt and kill songbirds and other native wildlife. Nonetheless, I have confess, I ultimately broke it with my older cat, Olaf, who was an escape artist and knew how to take advantage of the carelessness of two young boys and the distraction of their mother. I still miss that cat, but it was his thyroid and kidneys that compelled us to let him go, not the wheel of a car, and, despite his greatness as a mouser, he never caught anything with feathers.
I used to worry about Ashley-cat’s fearfulness. She was surrendered to the Animal Humane Society in Golden Valley, Minnesota twice before the age of four months, when my husband and I adopted her shortly after our wedding and move out to the midwest. To seem as small as possible, she tucked herself into the back of her cage at the shelter and, at home, spent most of her time under beds, behind couches and, finally, in closets. Even now, when she ventures out, it is to stay on the deck, a man-made surface within view of the door. If I start to shut it, she comes running with wild eyes and slips back inside. She is truly a house-cat. And she plans on never, ever, ever even knowing that there’s a river nearby.
Poor Barbie. Dismembered, beheaded, and thrown away by the Monocacy River. I passed by her for days before I finally stopped to pick her up. It’s not that I didn’t notice her or even think about her; I just kept hoping for a better conclusion.
It’s been a rough summer here along the Monocacy. First I realized that I had to move my father into a new living situation from York to Frederick by the middle of August ( see In Knots). Then my husband slipped down one of the river’s taller banks and tore his quadriceps tendon, which required surgery and a long recovery at home that isn’t over yet (see The Monocacy Rocks for the general site of the accident, and be forewarned!). And, finally, school was out. The less said about that, the better.
Poor me. But at least I’m not Barbie. I do have my head, and I’m back on my blog. That’s a much better conclusion.
It’s ridiculously trite to say that life is complicated, so let’s leave it unsaid and admit that it’s true all at once. For a stay-at-home-mom (which is what I’ll call myself today), summers are not restful, particularly when camps and the like are impossible for her children. I feel like nothing less than a one-woman show, doling out food, entertainment, and enriching activities to two boys who want nothing more than to fight with each other…constantly. This year, to make matters more difficult, I need to help my father, who is in the early stages of dementia, move from a 4-bedroom house in Pennsylvania to a 2-bedroom apartment in Maryland by the end of August. For a man with hundreds of antiques, ranging from wooden spoons and bowls, to early American furniture, to a vast collection of Noritake china, the prospect of such a move is terrifying, and I find myself in the new position of being the comforter rather than the comforted, even though I myself am almost sick with apprehension, grief and guilt. So, yes, I am tied up in knots this summer.
But I also know that one day I’ll look back on this summer with not a little bit of nostalgia. Some of my most painful moments are my most vividly remembered. These times of transition are unique: held dear as the last precious moments of an earlier life and yet thrilling as the first few steps of a new one. My boys won’t be boys much longer, and my father’s mind will never be better than it is now. As much as I want to rush to September, I must not run blindly and breathlessly through these last few days of June and the entire months of July and August.