As we arrived at the cottage thunderheads rolled over the tree line and out across the vast expanse of Lake Michigan. I rushed down onto the narrow beach. Bright sunlight danced with shadows as the broken edge of the storm swiftly gathered itself into a solid overcast sky that poured down torrents of rain. I am not a great believer in coincidence. On the other hand, I am acutely sensitive to nature’s moods and when they resonate with my own emotions I welcome the symbiosis.
After several months in a nursing home, my mother suddenly took a turn for the worse. She was admitted to the emergency room in Venice, Florida, near where she had lived for the last 23 years. The next day, before I could book a flight, she died.
Death does not respect anyone’s schedule. There is no convenient time to learn that one’s mother has died. As it happened, after I learned of her death I found myself in a rental cabin on Lake Michigan, staring at the horizon every day for a week. When death chooses to occupy your mind the horizon – that paradoxically finite edge of infinity – can be a hard line on which to rest your gaze. Or it can be a comforting one.
Death can appear immediate and unequivocal or one singular moment in an endless cycle of regenerative life; it can feel excruciating and irremediable, or it can bring peace and enduring comfort.
What follows is a meditation inspired not by a contemplation of that horizon, but by a walk near a river, through a forest and a prairie meadow. These are all among the features that can be found in the urban wilderness of Maywood Environmental Park, in Sheboygan, WI.
In memoriam, Polly (Daniel) Kempes, 1925 – 2012
I awake before dawn, suddenly alert in unfamiliar darkness, as if to keep an appointment I hadn’t made, but one I can no longer postpone. During the night it had rained – a hard thunderous downpour.
Last week’s newspapers still lie in the smug, neatly bundled heap where I had put them with such good intentions. Before I heard the news.
Alone, I go to the river. A hoary mist rises out of unfathomably black water. The riverbank bristles with grasses and sedge tousled by the night storm, heavily laden with morning dew, but perfumed with the fresh, damp sweetness of wild indigo, jewel-weed, wild cucumber.
From an unseen place in the misty shadows a great blue heron appears, silent and majestic, like the spirit of night. Its dark, angular form rises awkwardly, then sails with effortless solemnity into the brightening east.
I did not choose to love the river any more than I choose to breathe each breath. My love of nature was perhaps her greatest gift to me at that moment of youth upon which all else turns. She loved me and she let me go; she gave me freedom to wander, to linger at the river, to hear to the morning song of lark and sparrow – to learn to love in turn what is wild and free.
A doe looks up from the riverbank to stare at me, hesitant, expectant; then steps, unhurried but resolute, into the deeper darkness of the wood. Her three dappled fawns I had failed to see follow, softly stepping in line as if tethered together.
I disturb a brood of wild turkeys on the path. The young ones scatter at my approach, melting into the underbrush, while two hens strut protectively behind. Then they too disappear.
In the gradually lessening gloom a muskrat stirs from the security of overhanging grass, glides across the smooth surface of the water until it becomes indistinguishable from the river itself.
Those who are so inclined may see these fleeting encounters with wild creatures as omens, but they are not apparitions; they manifest our desire to heal the world and ourselves.
The wide, accommodating path I’ve been walking ends abruptly, with no sign or warning. The carcass of a crow rests on the verge, inert but peaceful, its feathers black and glistening. Its cold blue eye reflects a glimmer of the dawning sky.
I press on as if I have no choice, plunge into an unknown forest, as if no one has preceded me; a pioneer in a wilderness of tangled, dew-drenched brush, a wilderness of tear-stained, tangled emotions – as if no one else has ever lost a mother.
Rays of rising sun cut through the misty forest like golden swords. I emerge from a thicket into open prairie aflame with goldenrod, bejeweled with dew. The three fawns – untethered now, motherless – stare in fearless astonishment at my presence.
A mother’s love is the one debt that we can never repay. The best we can do is to love the world, to hold it in close embrace, as we hold our own children until the day comes when, like the fawns, they too sally out of the forest on their own into the blazing sun of a dawning day.
Here in a sunlit meadow is how I forgive myself for the thousand little deaths denied each time we said goodbye, each day we lived in our separate cities a thousand miles apart. I come to claim my true inheritance, to reap such joy as she sowed in me, to live with the knowledge that all rivers flow to an unbroken ocean.
The clean, sharp lines of three Sandhill cranes cleave the sky like a single blade. A few lingering storm clouds dissipate, vaporize. The sun rises into a sky so cleansed that my moist eyes ache in wonder at its blueness.
This is how I want to remember her; to reawaken after the storm in the night, to greet the glorious new day, to go on living my purposeful and reckless life, to love the world as I have been loved.