By Campbell C. Hoffman
If I look hard enough, I can make out the faint spring green underneath the still mostly gray tones of winter. Winter is slow to release its grip, and though it is now April we are just beginning to feel the reprieve. The trees have called us to them and we are answering, thankful to not be forgotten after a winter that was too long.
We drive up the winding forest road to Hawk Mountain, and the kids begin to recognize the place. This hike begins high in the mountains and the car does most of the climbing, making it a bit easier for those kid-legs while still giving the spacious views. My ears pop. We pull into the parking lot, not surprised to see it full. This is the first warm weekend; you can see the hibernation from winter is over.
Stepping out, I stretch my legs, tired and cramped from the travel. Mark releases the kids from the back seat and they bound out of the car, energetic to explore once again this mountain and these hiking trails.
Louisa died four weeks ago. That fact hasn’t left my mind since. Without warning, her four-and-a-half-month old body stopped breathing. Four weeks ago, I answered the phone on a normal Monday morning, and things have not been normal since. Then I flew miles in the sky, leaving my own children, crying most of the way at the distance between us, to grieve with family, to shake our fists together, and then to open them, releasing life into the winds.
Who is Louisa, you ask. I could map out my relationship here, tell you how she is my cousin Beth’s only daughter, making her my first cousin once removed. I could explain the bloodlines, draw out the family tree. I could justify how my relationship with Beth is special, how she was one of the first people to hold and touch my third born, when hers—Louisa—was still just an idea, a twinkle. I could write about my time living only miles away from Beth in the mountains of Colorado, and the sad facts of life that make it so we now live thousands of miles away. But, really, that doesn’t get at it at all. Here’s what you need to know: Louisa was, and is, part of my tribe. She died, tragically and abruptly, though peacefully, when she was four and a half months old, falling asleep for an early evening nap and never waking up again.
I’m here in the wilderness today with this ache in my heart. I’m desperate to receive some beauty from this wild.
At the trailhead, Grant, six years old and with a knack for details and a steel trap memory, reminds us all where to go. This way first to go to the bathroom; that way next to find the trail. He and Renee, his four-year-old sister, each carry a trail map, numbering out the many options for our adventure. Griffin, now two, has gone from a baby-hiker to a little-kid-hiker in the six months since we were last here. This means that instead of being happy to travel in a carrier on my back, he now wants to walk on his own. And who am I to stop him? For this reason, though, it means that we can’t head down the River of Rocks trail, with all its boulder scrabbling and tough climbs. No, today we’ll have to stick to the more populated Lookout trail, with its places to pop through the tree line onto the crest of the mountain and see out over the valley.
We’ve been hiking for about fifteen minutes, though it feels longer, filled with start and stop frustrations. Griffin is being particularly difficult, veering off trail for no other reason than to be chased back. He hasn’t been looking where he is going and has already nearly run into trees, rocks and other hikers. I’m slowly losing my patience and almost run into a rock. That’s when Grant calls out: “Hey, this is the lookout where we saw the snake last year.” I pick my head up to notice that I have stumbled my way to the next lookout, where Grant and Renee are waiting. Grant is pointing to the spot where last summer we watched a snake sunning on the rocks. He is right. He remembered.
When the permanency of most things in my life is questionable, and the delusions I’ve held about security have been pulled from under me, I’m spun in a way that makes it difficult to know what to trust. Being out on the trail, for me, is often about adventure. It’s about exploring a place, and exploring myself. But, as I’m learning now, standing on this place of remembering, it’s also about finding stability. It’s landing somewhere that is harder than I am, stiller than I am. More secure. It’s about returning, and remembering last year, the snake and the lookout, coming back to it again and finding it there still, almost unchanged.
I try picking Griffin up to help him through the rocks, but he will have none of it. “Me do it!” he says, swatting my hand away. I have no other option than to let him. Grant pulls out his binoculars and we sit for a moment, looking at the valley. It looks so different from the last time we were here. Last time, it was the end of summer and the valley was swollen and heavy, weighed down with thick green swaths of life. This time, the valley is gray, or light purple even. The trees have yet to grow their leaves and up close look spindly and strong, but in the mass of the valley they look haunting and ghostlike. It looks the way I feel inside, and I take comfort in this landscape that mimics mine.
Four and a half months ago, I was a fairly typical mother of three small children. Of course, I adored them, but I was bogged down with the daily frustrations. How hard is it to get your shoes on, anyway? I’d bark out orders, snapping at them when they needed help or couldn’t get it right. Then I’d be annoyed at myself for behaving this way. I had been rushing through the motions, checking things off lists, getting it all done, but I was missing the joy. Now, this act of mothering in the face of death has me feeling slightly ghostlike, too. I am haunted by the guilt for how I’ve mishandled these lives.
The beauty of the lookout and the valley is unmistakable, evident, but seems just beyond our grasp. We are off to a rough start. Grant complains that it is hot. Renee says she is tired. Or hungry. Griffin is like a drunk and rowdy college kid, albeit a very short one. The trail is crowded. The peace I was hoping to find seems out of reach.
We pull off to the side of the trail to regroup. Mark and I muscle Griffin onto my back. I dole out pretzels while Mark passes around the water bottle. Griffin is not happy about his loss of autonomy, but we quickly gain momentum and are soon lost in the rhythm of our steps and hypnotized by our surroundings. Griffin quiets down. We all do.
The terrain becomes rockier, more rugged, and I start paying more attention to my steps. The big rocks that had only punctuated this trail earlier become more consistent and the trail climbs higher, steeper. Our family’s chain of hands breaks as we each need our hands for balance. I reach out to grab a thin tree that leans over the trail and feel the bark worn smooth from countless other hikers doing the same thing. The movement of my hand is so slight, but somehow not insignificant when added to the layer upon layer of life that has happened here. How many other hikers have traveled this path? How many eager parents have watched kids revel in the glory of the mountains and the splendor of the snakes?
The sixth century monk St. Benedict reminded his students that they should live in such a way as to “Keep the reality of death always before [their] eyes.” I think of Louisa as I hike. I think of her family, who in their blinding grief, feel the dark edges of this reality. I think of how my life is small in the ways of the universe, tiny in the eyes of the sun or the shadow of this tree. I glance up and see Grant ahead of me, his strides growing confident and sturdier as we climb. I turn and see Mark behind me with Renee, weary from her fearless exploring, hoisted onto his shoulders. They are all so full of life. The blood pumps through their bodies, the neurons explode, rocket-ship-style, in their brains. Unpredictable, wild, beautiful. Alive, like the trees growing skyward, like the hawks catching the wind, all but a breath.
Louisa’s death has left me with little option than to keep death before my eyes. And I don’t like what I see—jagged scars, a void, abyss, darkness. Even the very act of living is a step into the scary world, a world where babies die and siblings are lost. With this reminder of mortality, my heart hardens at the prospect of loss, a protective shell against the death of my own children.
As I hike this trail, I keep my eyes a few steps ahead, looking for the best place to plant my feet. I search out the easy path. My feet inevitably find the worn spot where hikers before me have smoothed this rock. This solid rock, concrete and unyielding in a way that my psyche and heart may try to imitate, has been worn down, cut into by the years of life it has witnessed. Even this rock is not immune to scarring, or softening. Maybe I have a choice as to how to let Louisa’s life and death into my heart. I have to allow myself to be both scarred and softened, too.
I, too, am marking this place. My footprints wear down the dirt and the rocks, keep the vegetation at bay. I am marking these people—my husband, my kids. I’m leaving traces on everything I touch, on my landscape, on the environment of my life. And it is marking me. Insignificant in the scope of the universe, nonetheless entirely significant in the scope of a single life.
The history of this terrain is deeper and longer than I can imagine, with many, many generations having lived in this land. And among them, mothers who have lost babies. We are not unique in our loss and suffering. These trees have witnessed this grief. At home in my suburban community, it is easy to pretend that we have tamed the wild. I see our gardens, made neatly in square-foot blocks, perhaps arranged by height or color. I see our lawn, sprouting with grasses that are probably not even native to our area. Being in that space, I am lulled into the false notion that I am in control of these wild things. Louisa’s death has given any sense of control I have a blow to the gut. I wonder now if we have pushed away the wild in order to bolster our sense of security, to seek immunity from this loss.
At the top of the mountain we sit with other hikers watching the raptors dancing on the wind. I look out at the crest line of the mountain as it curves off to the left and back up again, almost a mirror image of where we sit. There is a trail that follows that line, eventually connecting to the Appalachian Trail. Our trail feels like a tributary to a greater river of trails, stories coming together in a vast history of adventure. A gust of strong wind blows up at us, a brief respite from the unexpected warmth of the sun. The hawks balance in it, tipping their wings slightly to catch the stream. They remind me of the kids, in their wildness and grace, and I want to know: how can we each tip our wings, to catch the wind and balance magnificently in the gusts?
Together, we sit and watch wordlessly. After a while, I catch Mark’s eye, and nod. He steps back from the ledge and together we usher kids back towards the trees.
We choose a different path back down the mountain, this trail a bit more meandering, less steep. Finishing one descent, I turn a corner and stand in front of the flat face of a giant rock, looming twenty feet into the air. This rock is so unique, unmistakable. I call out to Mark and the kids and tell the story, again, of the time on this very trail, more than a dozen years ago, when Mark and I tried, unsuccessfully, to outrun a torrential thunderstorm. It’s one of our favorite family stories, a tale of being young and in love, but in telling it this time I see that it’s also about innocence The kids have heard this story before but here, at this very rock, the past and the present collide and our story becomes part of our children’s history. This is the stability that I have been seeking. I can come back to this place, retell our adventures, consider the change in landscape and mark the growth in time.
With the final steps of the trail in front of me, I let myself, for a moment, imagine that Beth and I have swapped places—that instead of being the one to answer the phone that morning, I was the one making the call. What if her grief was mine? In any moment there is nothing to say that it won’t be. Without the awareness of the absolute fragility of it all, I risk not receiving this moment for what it is: a gift. Can I see the miracle in peanut butter sandwiches eaten at the crest of the mountain? Sometimes it’s easy to see, when my heart feels like it’s floating above my body, and I’m buoyed by my blessings. Other times, it’s harder to sustain. I am being softened, harsh edges of frustration and impatience filed down by the wild gifts of time and life.
Sweaty and dirty, we make it back to the car. The kids climb in the way-back, kicking off shoes and digging around for water bottles. Soon, the highway hums under our tires, and I turn up the music. We are on our way home.
Campbell C. Hoffman can be found with her carpenter-husband on a trail in Southeast Pennsylvania, encouraging (read: begging) her three kids to keep hiking. When she is not hiking, she is on another adventure not altogether different: motherhood. She writes about it at tumbledweeds.wordpress.com and can be found on Twitter @tumbledweeds.