I started this journey 4 years ago, honestly I didn’t know it then, all I knew was my wife of 19 years took her last breath in front of me while on my knees and her head in my hands. I did not know what I felt then… I know more now. There was pure panic watching her die in front of me, then came a numbness. Numb to the world, God and life. I wasn’t sure I was alive nor was I sure I wanted to be. When the paramedics took her away I stared at the floor, it felt an hour but it was only seconds. I snapped back when when my then 13 year old daughter came to me with my wallet and bag.
I hindsight I felt a bit abandoned, not by Sharol though I felt alone, but by God. I believed in eternal life and in heaven, I believed if either one of us died while Christians we’d go to heaven and be with Jesus. I believed I would die first and Sharol would be holding my hand as I looked up into her eyes in fear of that death. I believed she would have comforted me and strengthened my faith in those final moments. I was wrong! I was robbed of all of that, our old age together, enjoying old people sex, an empty nest, traveling, camping, working out together, changing our diet in our golden years… most importantly, I was robbed of that faith affirming belief in God. Belief in eternity. What no one tells you is that, watching someone die like that wakes you up to a reality. Life my friend isn’t just “short”, it passes quickly and some times with indescribable sounds. You learn life is finite… and perhaps… perhaps… so is faith, so is belief, so is heaven. It all ends in that passing moment. Everything you’ve ever held on to as truth, taught your children, whether it’s God, love, family, eternal life, it all goes out the window. POOF!!! Just like that! I’ve had my beliefs challenged in college, with hypocrisy in church, raising children, lost of money and job… but this was someone different. The empty side of the bed was a daily reminder of all that was lost that day. My prayer partner… my warrior wife… her daily presence encourage my everything. There was no way of getting it back! And it was a suffering I endured alone…
It wasn’t long before my mind and body switched to autopilot. Wake up, wake my daughter up, go to work, school, church and so on. But inside, everything screamed one word. RUN!!! But I never did. When my first relationship failed I stayed and raised my 2 children as a single dad. When my sister left home when we were kids, I stayed behind. When marriage got rough, unlike some husbands I stayed. It never felt natural to me, in a way I always felt I had to do the “right thing” be “good”. But inside I was like everyone else I wanted to leave too. If there was one word to describe it I’d say, stuck. I’ve written about it before. The difference now is I’m starting to understand now. When my daughter and I bought the SUV in 2017, almost a year after losing my wife I had no idea the freedom it would bring. She’d been telling me “We should just leave!” for months. I sat quaking in my boots in that Nissan dealership. “Is this the right thing… is this the right time… this is more than I expected to pay… what if I made a mistake..?” Question after crippling question. I was raised in a “don’t count your chickens before they hatch” atmosphere. Second question every move in life, a perpetual state of petrification. I physically felt that once while on our first hiking trail, it wasn’t planned but since we were in the neighborhood we took a detour onto the AT (Appalachian Trial) in Virginia. An older couple invited my daughter and I down to the Overlook, I was quite fine where we were but curiosity pushed pass my comfort zone. It wasn’t long before we were standing at the edge of the mountain. At the very least, it was 10,000 feet above sea level with nothing to hold onto. No safety rope, trekking poles, walkie talkies, no map, no chance of survival if either of us fell, no way for “my little girl” to get back home or contact her big sister who meeting us in town later. A beautiful breeze and view with about a boot’s length between us and death. We had to come down from where were to the couple… which was to edge of the cliff.
My legs were like noodles every step of the way, looking out over the mountain was… it was… indescribable. I’d never seen anything like it outside of a movie. But here I was… then I made the mistake of looking down. I was petrified!!! My daughter was talking to me but it only my me more afraid. She touch me but my feet could not move. The few minutes it took to move me felt decades! I had never experienced that before and it was unpleasant. Or had I…? I had been living in this state all my life! Never coloring outside the lines, walking a thin line between bad boy and good boy. Not picking a side. Afraid to take chances, live the adventures I’d seen on TV, in books and learned about in school. Speaking of which I discovered old report cards some years back. The teachers all seem to say the same thing “He stares out the classroom window”. I was always imagining myself somewhere else, a cowboy riding along my ranch, acting on stage, sailing the seas. The edge of that cliff was scary as heck but knowing we could have fallen to our death was oddly exciting. It wasn’t a death wish, it was something else. The salesmen came back with the papers for me to sign. I prayed over and over and over in my head. I asked Sharol if it was okay… if it was the right thing to do… Luckily it was all in my head and no I didn’t expect my wife to answer me. But I was used to having her with me while making decisions. I was now on my own. I signed the papers, got the insurance, the plates, the title and the keys and the embarrassing cheer from the entire dealership. My daughter and I walked out, looked at the SUV… got in and drove away. I almost immediately felt remorse, guilt and if I made the worse decision ever. I did’t have a parking permit for our lot, I had to get up everyday to find a place to park, I worried every minute about the car, I found a shady garage not too far that only took cash and even that kept me up at night. Mentally I was paralyzed! I couldn’t even enjoy the car… this was my life. Then came the feeling of obligation. You know, when you’re the one with four wheels and an engine, you become the taxi driver. You hate it and are made to feel guilty if you don’t say yes. Once again I was trapped… stuck. It was all a mistake.
From February to May of that year we traveled to visit family, church and Walmart, but I still couldn’t shake the feeling. I slowing discovered that we both like the driving part but once we landed where we were going, we were eager to get going again and the closer to our home we got we both become down. When May hit I wanted to keep my promise of camping. Something I wanted to do with Sharol alone and as a family. I purchased a ton of equipment; most of which we still use today. Found a site way upstate by Lake George. It was freezing, bug infested (I swear there were Scarabs) and rainy. But I started My own fire! That moment, right there; we were hooked. Me on the wilderness and open sky, her on the travel and quiet. I didn’t know it then but we never looked back…
Something about being in nature in natural surroundings. I hope that I can explain it but I fear my words will not do it justice. The Hiking community says that hiking is healing for the soul and that doing it can bring healing in other areas. The same thing can be said of writing, in fact after the death of my wife my writer friends told me to write about it as it would help in the healing process. They were right and I did, you can find the whole “With And Without Her” series right here. How can both things be true? For me it’s easy, I see writing as a solitary expression of thoughts and feelings put on paper or in this new world, text. In other words, I’m alone with my thoughts while writing. During that solitude I’m with God as well… whether crafting a story, journal or public journal like this. In that moment the lord has time to deal with my heart. Ah, but you must be willing to be still, spend that quiet time alone. Hiking is similar to fasting, you’re putting your body through pain to reach a goal. Fasting is denying yourself food for period of time to focus on prayer, reading and God. Anyone who’s done this knows, your stomach starts calling out for food halfway in but you must persevere. Like writing, when you’re hiking; even though you might be with someone else, you’re still alone in your thoughts. The drum of your heartbeat crashing into your ears, louder than your thoughts but in those moments you commune with God.
The goal of the hike is to reach the peak, to summit, sometimes it comes with fantastic views other times it’s just the highest point of that mountain. However in order to reach it you must go up hills, down hills, walk on, climb on, crawl over and squeeze through rocks. You will twist your ankles, knees, your back and you will fall. You will push your lungs to their limits and them some. You will want to quit, cuss on your partner, and you will question your sanity. You will be hungry, tired, thirsty, dizzy, cramped, mentally exhausted, and sometimes there’ll be nowhere to sit or pee! Nausea will want to claim what little you have in your belly. You will sweat like never before even in the winter. After you’ve reach the top with everything in you totally and completely wrecked… you have to come back down. Some don’t make through, many have fallen to their deaths, stranded due to injuries, and so much more. I’ve had my share of falls, bruises and cuts. Then why do it?! You may be asking. Because it and the challenge is fun. Hard but fun and the air of danger is exhilarating. It’s been said that pain reminds you that you’re alive. It’s a fascinating thing to push your body and yourself to it’s breaking point.
Hiking is covering terrain with nothing but your body as the machine to get you there. As I said earlier we started out camping then quickly fell in love with the fresh air, open sky, quiet, trees and everything that comes from being in the wild. No one likes bugs, but to see a deer stand a few feet away is awesome. Seeing unfamiliar birds, snakes, rabbits, waterfalls, mountain ranges, smell pine trees and flowers, who can resist that? Traveling the road to get to such places is great. Hearing the tires on various paved and unpaved roads makes the heart leap with joy, because it knows an adventure is on the way. The more we drove the closer to Sharol I felt. As the years have rolled on, I’ve found the open road and time with nature to be relaxing, comforting a place to draw nearer to God. I have felt my lungs exploding and in the next instant felt a cool breeze and the peace of God silence my thoughts. I’ve been surrounded by nothing but trees for hours, tripping over rocks and suddenly a worship song comes to mind…
About two weeks ago my daughter and I hiked in the sweltering heat… she looked sick, I didn’t say anything to her I also didn’t let her quit. I did take her pack and carried up the next hill to lighten her load. A few days later we watched The Pilgrim’s Progress an animation I rented. I’ve heard of the book but never read it, so I didn’t know what to expect but it was perfectly timed. Christian leaves The City Of Destruction on a journey and it’s a hard one. What he goes though is was what we go through when we hike. More importantly what I’ve been going through as I have had to contend with my faith in God. I started out saying everything came to an end when my wife died but I have been finding God more and more in the mountains, valleys, fresh air, on the road, in the flowers and in the hikes. Not only have I rediscovered my adventurous maverick side, I have found strength, I have found a life for myself. It’s funny, I’m fearful of making some decisions but not scared at all about hiking through the mountains. Yes, in my older age, I’m still working on ridding myself of the bonds of “Counting chickens” and I never want to return to that mental slave hold. I may not completely rid myself of that thinking because it’s been my whole life. But my daughter will have no such the boundaries on her life. Seeing the lord at work in nature and the people she’s met along the way, should give her an interesting perspective on life.
So, what does this all mean? Has anything change…? Has the pandemic made me more distant from God..? After all even though the title leaves room for hope, after losing ones spouse, struggling for years and then a pandemic hits. How much more can a person take before calling it “quits”?
I might be incline to say… “I’m done!” too. And most may say I have a right to walk away. But what about my grand children? My daughter? Do I owe it to them to hold on to my faith…? I’ll say it like this.
If I came to faith after being married it might be bleaker than it seems. But I knew God before I met my wife. I was alone when I grew in my faith and I’m alone now. The difference is, the pleasant gap in between when she was in my life. The past few years on the road and in the wild, in my solitude, I have slowly rediscovered a God I thought to be far from me. I’ve discovered a passion for living unchained to anything else. Being able to finally “leave” has allow me to live and love the Lord and all that he has created. Maybe for some this period in my life seems foolish but this is where life has turned at the moment, much like the pandemic shifted the culture and world. Because everything is widely accessible online the world experienced mortality all at once for the first time. Some went running to God… until the churches were shutdown. Now what? For me nothing changed, I had already been going through massive changes and if I wasn’t and I relied on a “building” to be close to the lord I’d be in trouble.
It’s a little weird but being outdoors, hiking, traveling, is like being a monk. I get to experience God in the still of the quiet mountains. And I’m loving every minute of it, every minute reminds me of him as well as increase the faith I loss on my knees in that hallway. Am I completely whole? Well, I don’t believe we ever really are, we just adjust to the new life… What about you dear reader…?
Until next time…