Archive | May, 2013

The inseparable nature of sorrow and joy

20 May

When I first arrived in at my new place in Asheville mid April, I met a new friend – an articulate, sociable, industrious, healthy and accomplished retiree in the community where I live. A few weeks ago, I happened into a conversation with this person and learned that, like me, he too had lost a family member recently.

I shared how my 81-year-old mother and I had worked very hard together to make her impending death the best transition that it could possibly be, both of us knowing full well that the outcome we were moving toward was, indeed, her death – which knowledge only barely, I think, prepared us both for the final separation.

Joel and IQMy new friend then shared how he received a call on May 21, 2011, informing him that his only son, a vibrant, successful and extremely athletic 38-year-old, had been tragically killed in an accident.

My friend also shared a tenderly compiled scrapbook chronicling his son’s life from early childhood through his teens and on into adulthood. The numerous pictures spoke volumes: the curly-headed boy smiling with his family, the dreadlocked teen playing with his sisters, the mature athlete excelling in extreme sports, the affectionate uncle hanging out with both hisjoel and ella nieces (shown here), the professional young man traveling the world, playing golf with his dad in Ireland… This person was obviously a larger-than-life character, someone who embraced living fully with each and every day he was on earth.

Amid the tastefully intimate collection of photos, mementos, magazine articles, obituaries and memorial program was a Father’s Day card given by the son a few years ago. A section of its hand-written personal message struck a chord because I recognized some of the same sentiments I had written to my own parents when they were alive:

“Colorado, California, Oregon, Washington – I got to see them all, but not without your enthusiasm and support. A lot of fathers of my friends don’t talk to their children or don’t have much of a relationship with them. It’s very sad and every time I meet someone on the road who is out of touch with their parents, I feel so fortunate. I have a father who is curious and active in participating in my life. I want you to know how much confidence that gives me and how lucky I feel.”

As I wiped away the tears, I hoped this card with its precious message could somehow comfort the grieving father, who surely knows that the connection he shared with his son – transcending so many of the material world’s distances, distractions, trials and trivialities – made both their lives richer and fuller.

Joel and dad, Anniston AL 2009

This experience came to me at an amazingly relevant time because just the night before, I had come to an important decision to embark on a journey that will undoubtedly reconnect me with my own parents.

As children, we tend not to listen to our parents. It’s one of the universal ways we learn to think for ourselves. But when our parents are gone, we wish we could know all the things they were trying to tell us, and we wish we could hear their voices speaking to us again, if only just one more time.

Over the months since my mother’s death, I have made countless decisions about which things to keep, and which to sell or give to special family friends. Now that I’ve sold the family home and moved to a new state, the suitcases, boxes and tubs have dwindled to one particular group of clear plastic containers that I have carried with me for many years – within them, thousands of pieces of paper. And it has slowly dawned on me that what I’ve dismissed as a packrat obsession with all things written is now actually the key to hearing my parents’ voices once again: I have kept every single card and letter either one of them ever sent to me.

So, on July 24, 2013, the one-year anniversary of my mother’s death, I plan to begin to re-read the letters written to me by my parents throughout my life. And, as you can probably guess, I will write the story of what I learn.

We can never know the full extent of suffering of those around us. Nor can we comprehend the depth of another’s joy.

Joel- photo of self- snowMy new friend Steve’s son, Joel, died in an avalanche two years ago while fully immersed in the outdoors sport that he loved the most, backcountry skiing. In a memorial to Joel, Steve shared part of a familiar quote from Kahlil Gibran, which had been shared with him by a sensitive 18-year-old hotel clerk where the family was staying to attend Joel’s funeral. I think it contains great comfort for those who are grieving – which, when we have lost a parent or a child, I believe we do to some degree for the rest of our lives.

“Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. And how else can it be? The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven? And is not the lute that soothes your spirit the very wood that was hollowed with knives? When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight. Some of you say, ‘Joy is greater than sorrow,’ and others say, ‘Nay, sorrow is the greater.’ But I say unto you, they are inseparable.”

Joel on top of mountain

In honor and remembrance of Joel, an indomitable spirit.

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Hike #8: Laurel River Trail

18 May

A week ago, I found myself alone in my new town on Mother’s Day weekend, and decided to do a solo hike to a place I’d been before, the Laurel River Trail.

IMG_9851When I left Asheville around noon, it was starting to rain, but I decided to think positively and by the time I’d passed the turn for Marshall and reached the gravel parking lot near the intersection of Hwy 25/70 and Hwy 208 in Madison County, I’d made it out from under the clouds.

Not long after you set off from the parking lot, a string of out-of-commission train cars can be seen resting peacefully through the trees on your left. Converted from an old railroad, this trail follows the tumultuous Laurel River as it reaches the larger French Broad River, for which many things are named in Western North Carolina, including my favorite chocolate lounge.

What’s most energizing about this trail is one’s proximity to the ever invigorating river. Not only the sights, but the accompanying constant rushing sound of water gushing through the rocks, keeps one feeling perky and quite alive!

When I visited here two years ago, I saw highly skilled and experienced kayakers making their way through the awe-inspiring rapids, which are ranked at Class III-IV at normal water levels. But on this day, if I’d seen a paddler, I would have considered them “loco,” as the water level was very high from recent rain and the current extremely swift through the boulder-strewn passes.

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I usually keep my camera in my pack until something comes along to prompt me to get it out. Last Saturday that something was a cute young garter snake, which I watched glide off into the woods and into a hiding spot from which she peered out at me curiously for quite a while. I thought how many times we are probably watched as hikers by a silent and camouflaged resident that we’d never be able to spot unless we happened to see them retire to their hideout.

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The Laurel River trail is ideal for families or groups in which someone is moving slower, as it’s fairly level and there is little elevation gain. However, low areas can retain mud and in many places your path is covered with thick roots, and in others laced with embedded rocks. Footing can be tricky in these sections.

IMG_9864After about two miles in, the sky began to turn dark and I took this as a warning sign to turn around. About a mile from the trailhead, the rain did come – and I was prepared with my trusty Patagonia rain jacket, in which I stayed dry and warm. I kept a slow pace in the slick mud, made my way out while watching the water beside me slowly rising, and headed for the French Broad Chocolate Lounge.

Distance traveled: 4 miles

Difficulty: easy with some mud, root and rock obstacles

Flora of note: rhododendron, mountain Laurel, pine, maple, oak

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