Thursday, April 19, 2012

Another reason to walk.

These are flowers from my great Aunt's garden. She loved her yard, and she loved her home.  I lived in her house for a year after she decided to go into assisted living. Not long after she moved she decided that it was a mistake, that she missed her home and she wanted to go back. As a family we had all come to the conclusion that assisted living was better for her; at home she'd be completely alone, unable to drive, with the possibility of hurting herself on steep narrow staircases. And so we gently avoided mentioning home to her. We dodged her suggestions of visiting it and we attempted to sidestep her complaints about her new life.
When I came back from the Appalachian Trail she had just suffered a fall and was sick. Her face was bruised and her nose swollen, but she was in good spirits. We had not seen each other in 6 months. I was shaken enough by her appearance that I cried. At this time it slowly it became very evident that she was never going to live on her own again. Her mind was changing and both mentally and physically she was becoming weaker.
She was so incredibly proud of the things I did. She told everyone she knew in that housing complex about my adventures. Every time I visited, she wanted to show me off. Once she cornered the director in his office and had him sit and chat with us about what I had accomplished. I am ashamed to admit that there were many times I thought about visiting her but postponed it with excuses. I liked seeing her, but it was tedious and mildly embarrassing being shown off to everyone.
 I didn't see her all that often this summer, fall, and winter; when my mother and aunt began emailing me health updates I knew that she was sick and that her mind was failing in more obvious ways, but it never occurred to me that when I next saw her, she'd be gone. My aunt who had always been so proud of me looked me in the eyes and failed to even recognize me, as we stood in a hallway gazing at women who drifted like unmoored ships in wheelchairs. I struggled to hide my tears and eventually gave up, standing behind her wiping at my eyes. I felt guilt at not spending more time with her sooner and an overwhelming sadness at the people around her who were shells of their former selves, some of them complete vegetables, unable to move, unable to feed themselves, staring blankly at nothing. These are people who unknowingly embody the antithesis of how I feel when I hike. I'm crying again as I type all this. It's trite but true: life is short and precious... so do what you love while you can.

I went back and visited my aunt again before I left and she was much better than the last time I saw her, even responding with her usual dry sense of humor at my prompting when I told her I was about to hike again. 'That's nuts!" she said. I'm so glad she was just having an off day on my previous visit, but it hurts to know that she will be irreversibly different in six months when I come home. I wish I didn't have to anticipate that. But I know that I do.


  1. I keep meaning to say this but...this is a beautiful post. Hope you're walking strong out there.