The worst possible thing you can do when you're down in the dumps, tweaking, vaporous with victimized self-righteousness, or bored, is to take a walk with dying friends. They will ruin everything for you.
First of all, friends like this may not even think of themselves as dying, although they clearly are, according to recent scans and gentle doctors' reports. But no, they see themselves as fully alive, only with issues. They are living and doing as much as they can, as well as they can, for as long as they can.
They ruin your multi-tasking high, the bath of agitation, rumination, and judgment you wallow in without the decency to come out and just say anything. They bust you by being grateful for the day, while you are obsessed with how thin your lashes have become and how wide your bottom.
My friend Barbara had been already been living with Lou Gehrig's disease for two years on the spring morning of our Muir Woods hike. She had done and tried everything to stem the tide of deterioration, and you would think, upon seeing her with a fancy walker, needing an iPad-based computer voice named Kate to speak for her, that the disease was having its way. And this would be true, except that besides having ALS she had her breathtaking mind, a joyously bottomless thirst for nature, and Susie.
Susie, her girlfriend of 30 years, gave her an unfair advantage over the rest of us. We could all be great, if we had Susie. We could be heroes.
Barbara was the executive director of Breast Cancer Action, the bad girls of breast cancer, a grassroots advocacy group with a distinctly bad attitude towards the pink ribbon approach. Susie was her ballast and I had spoken at a number of galas and fundraisers over the years. They were about the same height, with very short dark hair. They looked like your smartest cousins with the beauty of smart, friendly engagement and good natures.
Barbara’s face was set now, almost as a mask, like something the wind is blowing against hard, and she'd lost a lot of weight, so you could see the shape of her animal, and bones and branches and humanity. Yet she still had a smile that gets you every time, not a flash of high wattage white teeth, but the beauty of low watt, the light that comes in through the bottom branches; sweet, peaceful, wry.
We set off. She was our lead duck, our cycling leader -- the only person on wheels sussing up what lay before us at the trailhead, watching the path carefully because her life depended on it. Susie walked ever so slightly behind. I walked behind in the slipstream.
Even on the path that leads through these woods, you feel the wildness. The trees are so huge that they shut you up. They are like mythical horse flanks and elephant skins—exuding such life and energy that their stillness makes you suspect they’re playing Red Light Green Light.
The three of us had lunch in town two months ago, before the feeding tube, before Kate. Barbara used the walker, but moved at a normal pace. She still ate with a fork, not a feeding tube, and spoke, although so softly that sometimes I had to turn to Susie for translation. Barbara talked about her wellness blog, her need for supplemental nutrition. Breath, nutrition, voice; breath, nutrition, voice. (She posted a list on her blog from time to time, of all the things she can still do, most recently "enjoy the hummingbirds; sleep with my sweetie. Speak out for people with breast cancer.")
Now she is silent: When she wants to talk, she can type words on her iPad that Kate will then speak with efficient warmth. Or she can rest in silence. She knows that even this diminished function and doability will be taken one day at a time. When you are on the knife’s edge -- when nobody knows exactly what is going to happen next, but it will be worse -- you take in today. So here we were, at the trailhead, for a cold day’s walk.
I'm a fast walker, because my dad had long legs, but today a walk with Barbara was like Mother May I. May I take a thousand baby steps? Barbara seemed by her look of concentration to align herself with all the particles here in the looming woods, so she could be as present and equal as possible. She couldn't bother with saying anything unimportant, because she has to type it first. This relieved all of us of making crazy chatter.
This is a musical grove. The redwoods are like organ pipes, playing silent chords. Susie pointed out birds she knows, and moved a few obstacles on our route, as Barbara rolled on. Susie is the ultimate support, a weight-bearing wall. She's not “I am doing wondrous things,” but simply helping both of them be comfortable in the duo of them. She has lots of sly humor, but no gossipy edge, except in a pinch.
I have been to Muir Woods hundreds of times in my life, from my earliest days. This was where my family brought visitors. I got lost here at four, amid the crowds, but it was different fifty years ago. For the parents, a missing child was scary, but you did not assume the child was dead. I was always afraid, lost or not. I got lost so often -- once for over half an hour among 16,000 people at the Grand National Rodeo -- that until I was seven, I had notes pinned to my coats, little cards of introduction, with my name and phone number: If found, please return, as if I was a briefcase. I have gotten lost all of my life, maybe more than most, and been found every time. Even though I believe that the soul is immortal and grace bats last, I'm afraid because Barbara is going to die, and Susie will be all alone.
I love Wendell Berry's lines that "it may be that when we no longer know which way to go we have come to our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings."
I have a lot of faith and a lot of fear a lot of the time.
The day was so cold that for once Muir Woods did not smell of much; heat brings out stronger smells, but today was crisply delicious. We walked along the path, like kids walking as slowly as one humanly can.
We rounded the first curve; vrrrooom, Susie and I spoke of nothing in particular. Barbara pointed to her ear, and we stopped to listen, to the tinkle of the creek, and all the voices of the water. There is the interplay of birdsong and people song and the creeks’ conversations, almost as it has a tongue, saying, “Keep going; we’ll all just keep on going. You can’t stop me or anything else, anyway.” Every sound is by definition a stop, which is how we can hear it.
We were walking in step with Barbara, as she held onto her conveyance, and I felt myself take on all the qualities that Barbara brought to the day, a fraught joy and awareness. There is the frozen music in the giant redwoods, like a didgeridoo. They look like they are wearing skirts of burl and new growth. I asked the two women, "When you flip the skirts up, what do you get?" Barbara pointed to the answer, a tree that had toppled over — roots covered with moss, and what looked like mossy coral, very octopus-like.
Some tree trunks have roots wrapped up and around them, like barber poles. Some trunks are knuckly and muscular in their skirts, with many knees, and some burl seats for anyone who needs to sink down.
The trees look congregational. As we walked beneath the looming green world, pushing out its burls and sprouts, I felt a moment's panic at the thought of Barbara's impending death, and maybe also my own. We are all going to die! That's just so awful. I don't agree to this. How do we live in the face of this? Left foot, right foot, push the walker forward.
When my son was six or seven, and realized he and I were not going to die at the exact same moment, he cried for a while, and then said that if he'd known this, he wouldn't have agreed to be born.
Barbara turns at that exact moment and looks at me gently. We study each other like trees. Her smile is never used to ingratiate herself; so rare.
The ferns almost looked as if they have sprung from an umbrella shaft — that you could click and cock it, and the spokes burst forth, or can be put away.
Picking up speed, we barreled around the next corner going one mile an hour: Susie mentioned that they actually had to get back to San Francisco for a meeting. The city seemed far away, on another planet, but not as far away as a meeting. We passed a great show of burl in a thick lumpy flow, as if arrested in downward movement, like mud or lava. One burl looked exactly like a bear cub. Ferns and sometimes whole redwoods spring from burl. The ferns remind you of pre-history. Dinosaurs hide behind them. They are elegant, tough, and exuberant, like feathers in a woman’s hat.
I asked Barbara, "Are you afraid very often?" She shrugged, smiled, stopped to type on her laptop, and hit send. Kate spoke: "Not today."
The glossy Bay trees are so flexible, unlike other people I could mention (i.e., me) with long horizontal ballet arms. They are light and sun seekers, and when you are in the forest of crazy giants, you might have to do some sudden wild ass moves, darting through a small slant of space in the giants — “Oh, wham – sorry — coming through — sorry. Sorry.”
We were nearly to the end of the trail. I love to see all the foreigners in their high heels speaking Russian, Italian, happy as birds today. Maybe they have St. Petersburg and the Sistine Chapel back home, but we have this cathedral. Who knows what tragedies these happy tourists left behind at home? Into every life crap will fall. Most of us do as well as possible, and some of it works okay, and we try to release that which doesn’t and which is never going to. On the list of things she could still do, Barbara included, "Clip my nails with a very large nail clipper, hear songs in my head, enjoy a baseball game, if the Giants or Orioles are winning." Making so much of it work is the grace of it; and not being able to make it work is double grace. Grace squared. Their somehow-grounded buoyancy is infectious, so much better than detached martyrdom, which is disgusting.
This is not what they signed up for, not at all. Mistakes were made: Their plan was to spend as much time at Yosemite, the theatre, Mendocino, and helping people with breast cancer. But they are willing to redefine themselves, and life, and okay-ness. Redefinition is a nightmare — we think we’ve arrived, in our nice Pottery Barn boxes, and that this or that is true. Then something happens that totally sucks, and we are in a new box, and it is like changing into clothes that don’t fit, that we hate. Yet the essence remains. Essence is malleable, fluid. Everything we lose is Buddhist truth—one more thing that you don’t have to grab with your death grip, and protect from theft or decay. It’s gone. We can mourn it, but we don’t have to get down in the grave with it.
Barbara pointed out a bird so tiny that Susie and I didn’t see it at first in the fallen branches and duff of the forest floor. It was the only thing moving besides the humans. All of a sudden we saw a tiny jumpy camouflaged creature, heard the teeny tinkly peep. We did the obeisance of delight. It is so quiet here, as though the trees are sucking up so much sound that anything that can get through them has a crystalline quality.
A great Bay arch across the dirt was our last stop on the way. It was in full curvy stretch, arched all the way over our path, reaching for sun, and touching the ground on the other side. I wondered if it would snake along on top of the duff, always following the light. It is nobody’s fool. Lithe and sinewy, the branch looked Asian: I guess we’re all Pacific Rim on this bus. All of its leaves were gone, as if it had spent its time and life force in the arching. Barbara trundled along up to it, smiled, and made the exact arch with her hand — like, Here’s the arch and I’m saluting it, standing beneath it, and now walking through.
Excerpted from "Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace," published by Riverhead.