I haven’t posted for a while, because I was confused about my life, and I couldn’t seem to find the words. I’m not sure I do now, but I’m giving it a stab. I often write about water, because it interests me, how it’s both life-giving and life-changing, and the topics are endless. In my last essay, I wrote about the muddy, swift and pretty damn cold water that was swirling around me.
The short story is, a few days before last Christmas, a large corporation unexpectedly took over my husband’s medical practice, casually tossing out he and his partners like kitchen scraps. At the merriest time of the year, we were both mad, worried and without a job.
That was miserable enough. Our house went on the market January first, and we prepared to move, as our mortgage was too big to pay without his salary. I set about the sad task of packing up all our personal belongings, as the realtor wanted prospective buyers to imagine their family in our home. But then something else happened.
I’d headed into the woods, for my evening walk with the dogs. I left in a hurry, because I didn’t want my family to see the tears that were threatening to fall, forgetting my flashlight or phone. The woods were becoming dark, like purple and black ink, but there was still a trace of light.
I glanced over my shoulder at our house. It looked pretty through the trees—every window in the house glowing. Usually seeing those lights through the woods cheered me. That night, they did not. I knew soon they’d be welcoming someone new. I turned away, let my tears fall where only the trees would see, and trudged up the trail.
Then, in the dim light, I made out an unfamiliar sight. A young man curled up along the edge of the path in the leaves, his face turned away, one arm flung out towards the stuffed animal beside him.
He looked like a small boy who’d run away from home with his teddy bear, resting at the edge of the forest. Just barely inside the woods, it wasn’t really too dark or scary. From where he lay, he could have seen the cheery lights shining from my house.
I was worried, but not afraid. I have young adult sons, all of whom have roamed theses woods since they were small. Was it one of mine? One of their friends? Did this boy choose here, so close to my house, hoping I would spot him, and call him in soon for supper, where family troubles could begin to sort out? I called out to him, twice. No answer. I stepped closer, my heart beginning to thud.
Against his dark clothes and the dark woods, I could make out a light patch, where his shirt tugged up, exposing the small of his back. A quarter-sized tattoo caught my eye. Roundish with some marks I couldn’t comprehend. I struggled to make sense of it , stepping closer and squinting, finally seeing it was a Chinese symbol. I can’t read Chinese. Who has that tattoo I wondered? What does it mean?
I’m ashamed that I felt some relief not recognizing that stamp. It’s not one someone I know. But then, another thought crowded in, do we ever really know our children’s secrets? How would I know who had that tattoo?
My heart banged harder; somehow understanding what my brain could not. The boy was not responding. He was not waking up. I ran, as fast as I could, back to my house, gasping so hard I could only get out a few words.
My husband, our middle son, and his friend, raced down the hill and headed up into the woods, calling 911 as they ran. My husband’s flashlight found him. Then it found the gun gleaming next to him. The teddy bear was a little black dog. Neither one would be waking up.
Hours after the paramedics and coroner left, we found out it was a neighbor’s son, recently come to live with her. She didn’t know of the tattoo. She didn’t know he’d been depressed. She thought his life was going great. The only thing she knew is that she’d just lost a son she loved beyond everything.
I barely knew this young man. He and I had passed each other on the trail several times in previous months. We’d chatted about local wildlife, and how much we loved this woods. The last time I saw him, also in dim light, he’d mistaken our St. Bernard for a mountain lion. He was relieved it was only me- and Gus. We laughed together. He told me to be watchful for mountain lions.
The day he lay himself down in the woods, I’d missed meeting him by a few hours. I kept thinking, what if I’d left earlier? What if I’d met him, with all his sadness and that terrible mission in his mind, and been alert enough to notice?
In my mind, I would say, “Whatever this is that’s so painful right now—this will pass. You will barely remember this when you’re my age.” Probably, though, I would have smiled and waved, as I jogged by, not noticing a thing. I’m pretty good at not seeing what’s right in front of me. Like most of us, I’m pretty good at hiding pain, too.
This boy’s family and friends, also, wrestle with the same thought: could anyone or anything have stopped him? If a gun hadn’t been available, could he have outlasted his despair, and his terrible impulse?
Sometimes, high water comes upon us, so quickly, we barely have time to call for help. It sweeps us down stream, into scary places and stories we don’t recognize. It can sink us. Maybe that’s what happened to this handsome, smart, accomplished, dearly-loved boy.
My husband, said sadly, “He lost perspective.” I think we all do that. We stand so closes to our troubles, and the stories we tell ourselves about them, that we can’t see our way around them. The question is, how do we recognize that in another, or in ourselves? How do we step back, and see a larger perspective? How do we reach out for help, when we’re too proud to say we’re sad? How can we help, when it’s awkward to address another’s sadness?
Shortly after my neighbor’s death, we took our house off the market. Other opportunities came along, so we could stay, at least for now, while we figure out our next step. But while our physical address remains, my inner landscape shifted.
I came to see up close how fragile life is, and how precious. I understand more the impermanence of everything, and treasure everything more: my family, my friends and neighbors, dinner on the stove, the view of the mountains, the mocking bird in my garden, the roof over my head. The simple stuff really is what matters most.
It sounds so sappy, but I finally get it--all of this is just on loan. This life, this family, these friends and neighbors, this house--only mine for a while. That’s what makes it precious. I know I will forget, and take things for granted again. Life will rush in. But I’ll try hard to remember. Because one day, sooner or later, some other woman will be gazing out at this view I took for granted - where mountains meet sky, and gangly blue herons flaps past each morning, headed for breakfast along the Salinas River.
I’ve tried to recall how that young man’s tattoo looked. Memory is tricky, though, not reliable. I spent hours looking at Chinese symbols. There is only one I found that looks like what I remember. It was the symbol for dog. I could be wrong..
But whatever it was, somehow, I trust that little dog was waiting for his person,when he arrived, wherever he was headed. I hope there were lights shining in every window of the house that welcomed them both. But mostly, I wish I could undo what he did- to himself, to his little companion, and to his family. I wish him still here, paddling this river with the rest of us, trying to navigate the currents.
Now, I walk past two memorial crosses in my woods each day, one large, one small. A tiny collar rests on one. I am reminded: sometimes, if we’re lucky, we’re there in time to toss a lifeline to someone struggling. Sometimes, we’re the ones that need that line. All of us are lifeguards, all swimmers. May we be awake enough. May we be strong enough. May we treasure our blessings, while they are ours to enjoy.
Welcome to Streamriffs.com, a place for fellow creek- walkers and nature lovers. Lori Fisher Peelen lives in California with her family.