Runners speak of feeling absorbed into the universe, of seeing the story of life in a single weed on the side of the road.
I remember an old story about a Native American dying ritual. I don’t know how much of it is based in fact and how much is Hollywood imagination. Regardless, the story stuck with me. It tells of an old man who thought that his body was failing him. He climbed up on a mountainside and sat down, waiting to die. Three days later he came back down, and only much later did his life finally end.
My grandfather died this week. He didn’t climb any mountains, his body was too sick for that, but I am glad to say that he had his wits about him until the end and that he was able to live out these past few months as much as possible on his own terms. This week my family and I will fly to Colorado to celebrate his life and mourn his death. For our family this is a dramatic passage. You could call it a sea change, or an earth-shaking event, or whichever other metaphor you like; as my mother said, we have lost our patriarch.
When a man dies we might think of building memorials, casting statues, or erecting obelisks with his name inscribed on the side. For most of us it’s more likely to be a stone marker placed by our graves, which is both understated and more fitting. Regardless, the goal is the same. We place stones and monuments to ascribe a sense of permanence to the life that has ended.
I think that we as a people are far too concerned with permanence. Mostly, this is a matter of security. We want our houses to stand forever, so we will always be able to come home. We want our jobs to be untouchable, so we will always be able to support ourselves. We want our relationships to endure indelibly, so we will never be alone. Of course this is illusory. The next hurricane blowing across New Jersey could knock one of my neighbor’s towering white pines onto our roof, most jobs are under constant layoff scrutiny, and I’m writing now because one of the people I loved has just died. We are temporal beings, and life is constantly changing around us. I try hard to accept this daily, and I try hard to maintain versatility and flexibility, which makes the changes less threatening.
Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Whatever you do in life will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.” I think he was speaking of this same impermanence. The insignificance he mentions is a result of the temporary nature of our selves and everything we create, even the statues, stones, and monuments. The things we do or make will fade away in a day or week or month or, at most, a generation or two. Even the pyramids of Giza will one day dissolve in the desert sands.
The question, then: why it is so important to do things? The key is the difference between durability and meaning. Little in life is as meaningful as joy, sorrow, and inspiration, and none of these last beyond the moment. A job well done is a wonderful thing; don’t forget that it will have to be done well again tomorrow. I’m not sure if anything is more important than teaching a child, but every day he will have new things to learn. Meaning, not permanence, is what matters. Water flowing down a river is ever changing, each current different, each current necessary.
If I were a stonemason or a sculptor, I would probably ignore what I’ve just said and try to make a permanent memorial for Granddad anyway, but I’m not. Instead, I am a runner, so I decided to build my memorial by experience on the trail. I chose the Appalachian Trail in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area; Granddad was a park ranger for much of his life, so I thought he would appreciate the location.
The Appalachian Trail runs through the Water Gap from the Totts Gap boundary in Pennsylvania to the I-80 crossing of the Delaware River, then south along the river to the confluence with Dunnfield Creek. I planned to intercept the path there. I wanted to follow the trail through the Worthington Forest to Yards Creek Crossing, and then retrace my steps.
From the bank of the Delaware the trail ascends the Dunnfield drainage to Sunfish pond, climbing a thousand feet in the first three miles and resembling the relentless growth of childhood. It circles the western edge of the lake through a garden of stones, a rocky adolescence where the path is not so much a trail as the idea of a trail, a general sense of direction discernable only by the occasional white blazes on the most prominent outcroppings. There are many possible routes, some false-leading and some true, but all crossed only with determination and effort. After reaching the head of the lake, the route climbs further along a clearer trail to the crest of the Kittatinny ridge, whose name is derived from the Lenape phrase for endless mountain. The trail rolls along the ridgeline for five miles, a firm, steady adulthood, then descends to the Yards Creek valley. The descent is sometimes smooth and even, sometimes sudden and rocky. In the end, it arrives at the stream with finality. There is even a bridge to the other side.
I arrived at the Delaware River at noon. I walked down to the bank and placed my hands in the icy river. I splashed cold water on my face. All of us are born from water, and in Christianity we believe that the water of baptism begins our life with Christ. I wanted the symbolism. I picked up a broken tree branch and wrote in the sand “Oak Park, Illinois, 1920”. Then I turned and ran.
I ran the first three miles as hard as I could, trying to channel the boundless energy of my three-year-old, the boundless energy my grandfather must have had in 1923. I pounded across the bridge over Dunnfield creek and hammered up the rocky incline. I sprinted the first flat section with abandon, flew down the slope to Sunfish pond, and then slowed. There was no reason to risk a sprained ankle or fall in the rock garden, and moreover, I had things I wanted to say.
When my grandfather was a child and young adolescent, the world descended into the great depression. He told me once about his father, who, if I remember correctly, was an engineer in Chicago. My great grandfather was able to keep a job longer than most, but eventually it was lost, just like so many others. My granddad remembered with awful clarity the day that his dad came home and told the family. He didn’t say much about the following years, but I’m sure they were hard. My grandmother told me once about a Christmas during one of those years. The only present her parents could afford was a brand new pencil painted bright red. She treasured it. Having grown up during opulent times, I can’t really imagine what those days must have been for them, but they got through the time with grace. I knelt in the rock garden, took a piece of chalk from my pocket, and wrote on a flat stone “Greater than the depression”.
As my grandfather grew, the world got more violent. Eventually, he became a marine in the Second World War. He always liked to tell about the shooting drill competition that happened before he was deployed. That day his squad had the highest aggregate score, and he had the highest score in the squad. There was one other marine from a different squad who beat him, but he was always proud nonetheless. I ran a few hundred feet over the rocks, knelt again, and wrote “Target practice”. I got back up, started running, and almost immediately passed a pair of hikers. They were talking about skeet shooting, and as I passed one of them said, “target practice”. You can say whatever you like about coincidence, but if you’re wondering whether Granddad was watching me, I think that was the answer.
My granddad was sent to Peleliu Island, one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific theater. He told me many stories of his time there and his experiences of the war, most of which I’ve forgotten. The story I remember most clearly isn’t really about war at all. In early October 1944 there was a typhoon aiming directly for the island. He and one of his buddies were stuck out on the beach. They had two big earthmovers and a giant metal drum, so they trapped the drum between the earthmovers and climbed in to ride out the wind and rain. They had a radio in the drum with them, and for most of the storm they were able to hold a station that was playing the World Series opener between the St. Louis Cardinals and the St. Louis Browns, who later became the Baltimore Orioles. The Browns won that game, 2-1, but I think the radio batteries had run down before the 9th inning, so they didn’t know the result until later. I wrote on a cliff face “typhoons” and “World Series”. Later, after I’d finally gotten through the most technical stretch of the trail, I wrote “Surviving Peleliu”.
When my grandfather got home from the war, he was set to meet my grandmother at the airport. They’d met before the war, and while my granddad was in the Pacific my grandmother sent him a pistol, but after so much time apart they weren’t sure that they would recognize one another. They must have though, because it wasn’t much later that they were married. I wrote “love at first sight”.
My granddad was fond of saying something else about my grandmother. He said that one of the things that made her such an incredible person is that, whenever there was a debate or disagreement, she would always come more that half way to make it work. He would try to come more than half way too, which gave them plenty of common ground in which to live their lives with peace and cohesion. At the crest of the Kittatinny ridge I wrote “More than half way”.
My granddad spent much of his career with the National Park Service as a park ranger. There are hundreds of stories from those days, but as I was running I thought of only two. One happened around a campfire, where a group of dads and their sons were boiling hot dogs in a large pot. One of the kids, Stuart, was walking circles around the fire, and every time he came close to the pot his dad said “Stuart, watch the weenies”; you can imagine his stern dad voice. Stuart didn’t touch the pot though, and eventually his dad got up to do something, walked by the pot, and knocked the dogs into the fire. Stuart piped up immediately. I wrote “Dad, watch the weenies!” The other story: my granddad and his partner were on fire watch duty at a remote station. They’d stay up late at night chatting, then get up on time in the morning, radio the morning report to headquarters, and go straight back to bed. I wrote “don’t worry, fires burn low in the morning anyway”. I also wrote the names of the parks where I knew, or at least thought, that he’d been stationed: Yosemite, Mount Rainier, Yellowstone, the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Another story I thought about occurred much later in Granddad’s life: Our whole family had gathered at my grandparent’s house in Colorado, Aunt Jan and Uncle Ron, Mom and Dad, my sister and I. We were playing volleyball outside in the yard, late in the evening. The teams were by age, with the youngest playing the oldest. We made a deal that we would play until the porch light, which was set on automatic timer, came on. Granddad went inside and turned off the timer, figuring that he’d excuse himself for a bathroom break as soon as the old team was ahead. Then he’d turn on the light and ensure victory. The problem was that the young team never lost the lead. Eventually it got too dark to play and he had to confess. He said he’d been banking on the adage that old age and treachery will defeat youth and vigor every time. As I dropped down the switchbacks to Cold Spring I stopped by a smooth-barked beech tree. I wrote down the adage followed by “except in backyard volleyball!”
The sorrow hit me at the Cold Spring crossing. I’d been thinking about our last visit to Colorado, 9 months after Jacob was born, in July of 2011. Jacob was the first great grandchild, and we wanted to get four-generation photographs. We got those pictures, along with many other groupings, at a studio in Fort Collins, and the prints are beautiful. The one I keep with me, though, is a simple snapshot taken on the back porch of the house. Granddad, dad, and I are seated around the glass table, and Jacob is perched on top. He’s leaning forward, giggling, with the most mischievous grin imaginable on his face. Granddad is leaning back in his chair, drinking it all in. I stopped at Cold Spring, tears on my face, unable to breathe, knowing we’d never get a chance to sit together like that again. I dropped to my knees in the moss and stared at the water. Later, I walked to the other side of the creek. I found the flat top of a sawn stump and wrote “Legacy”.
After a while I recovered, got up, and started running again. Six miles in I came to a high rock outcropping that’s a favorite of New Jersey wilderness photographers. The view is 360 degrees, and it looks back down on Sunfish pond. I remember fishing in the reservoirs with my granddad and Laurie in 1986, catching actual sunfish with worms and grasshoppers on the hook. Grandma filleted those sunfish and fried them with corn meal, and they tasted good. I wrote “fishing with Granddad”. On that same visit my grandmother signed Laurie and I up for horseback lessons. We rode around a field and along a bridle path following the teacher. I was young and afraid to be in charge of such a large animal with just the two thin reins. I wrote “hold on tight”.
After Olivia and I were married we visited my grandparents in Colorado, just the two of us. We talked long into nights, visited the elk in Estes Park, and road bicycles along the local bike paths. Granddad said that he didn’t understand why people ran, because all the runners on the path had such pained expressions on their faces. He said all the cyclists he saw were smiling. I did everything I could to keep a smile on my face as I ran along the ridge, and I looked up at the sky every chance I got. See Granddad? It’s not so bad.
A few days ago my dad told me that his dad was the best dad you could have. I would agree, except I think that my dad is the best. I guess he learned a few things from his old man, and Granddad probably learned them from his father. I wrote “Father and Son”, then, above, “Grandfather” and above that, “Great Grandfather”.
I paused at the top of the descent to Yards Creek. I rested by a downed tree that crossed the trail. My granddad died of congestive heart failure. It seems a tough way to go, your body failing to expel liquid, slowly compressing your lungs and heart until you can’t get enough oxygen. He’d held off the disease for a long time with a portable oxygen tank, which allowed him to maintain mobility and do many of the things he liked. One of those things was spending Wednesday mornings at McDonalds with old friends, talking and telling stories over 25 cent cups of coffee (no reason to splurge on a $2.41 venti at Starbucks!). When the heart failure got worse and they had to up the oxygen, he couldn’t go to the coffee sessions anymore. I’m sure that wasn’t as important as many of the other things, personally and medically, that were happening at the time, but it seemed to me to be as sad as anything.
I’m not sure what I believe about heaven. I doubt it has much to do with clouds or white robes or naked babies with wings; at least I hope it doesn’t. What I hope for my granddad is that his heaven is full of high mountains and green trees, clear rivers and fiery sunsets. I hope it has a McDonalds where he can sit down with old friends and enjoy a cup of coffee that he gets for a quarter. I hope his body is strong and fit, and that the physical pain is gone. I hope that he can breathe deeply and easily, and that the air is sweet. I hope there is a spot there for each of us, because we’ll all be heading that way eventually. I pulled out my chalk, sat by the downed tree, and wrote “Breathe” and “Coffee with friends”.
During the descent to Yards Creek I looked up at the sky, costing me bruises to both feet on the sharp rocks. The sky was clear and blue and timeless, bespeaking neither today nor tomorrow nor yesterday. The descent was not though. It seemed to take only seconds to cover the mile down to the creek. I crossed over the bridge, my planned route complete, but I didn’t want to stop. I didn’t want the symbolism anymore, and I didn’t want to think about dying, so I kept going. I ran up the next hill to a rocky meadow and sat there, looking out toward the ocean, feeling the breeze on my face.
I’m sad that my granddad is gone, and I’m sad that he had to suffer at the end. I’m glad that he had his mind though, and that, even when his body would no longer let him be a strong actor in the world, he could still be a cognizant observer. I’m glad that he got to see the incredible play of Peyton Manning and his Broncos, and I’m glad he got to watch one more World Series. I wish his Cubs could have won one while he was alive, but I’m glad he at least got to watch my Red Sox win theirs. Of course, he was rooting for the Cardinals. With the last stub of my chalk I wrote “I can’t believe you were rooting for the Cardinals!”
On the way back I tried to let my animal instincts do the running, leaving my mind free to wander. I tried to let myself be absorbed into the universe, and I tried to see everything around me with greater clarity. I saw the dried green lichen on the stones and the dried brown grasses among the barberry bushes. When I’d been on the ridge a week earlier the trees had been resplendent with autumn leaves, yellow and red maples, bronze beech, orange oak. Now their branches were empty, long grey fingers reaching for the sky. The moss by the side of the trail seemed browner, and the only insect I saw was one orange wooly worm crawling across a patch of dust. It seemed that even the endless mountain itself was, if not mourning Granddad’s passing, at least taking note of it and marking it with the descent of this summer’s life into winter.
When I got back to Dunnfield Creek it was already getting dark. The few clouds in the sky had light pink linings, and the trees’ shadows had dissipated. I jogged past my truck, through the gap in the fence, and back down to the riverbank. I cooled my hand in the water and washed my face, marking the end of my memorial. I picked up the tree branch, still there, and wrote in the sand “Fort Collins, Colorado, 2013”. Then I threw the branch as far as I could out into the water.
Tomorrow the wind will blow, and soon the rains will come, then the snow. By the spring my memorial will have disappeared from everything but memory and the sinews of my body. It is a temporary, impermanent thing, marking a temporary, impermanent life. It is only momentary, soon forgotten. But for me it as a moment filled with meaning, marking a meaningful life.