A Grandmother’s Lessons
A year before I hiked the Appalachian Trail, I lived in Colorado. I’d been there for six years and my family had no reason to believe I’d be coming back to the east coast anytime soon. Indeed, I loved the Rockies: the mountains were bigger, the weather was better, the powder was magical, and I’d started to cultivate roots. Still, I felt a draw to return home; to be close to my mom, dad, aunts, uncles, cousins, and especially, to Missy, my 93-year-old grandmother.
On April 4, 2012, I found a job posting for a private speech therapy practice in Maine and my gut said, go. I sent a letter of interest that day and spent the evening refreshing the webpage over and over. Part of me worried the posting would disappear, the other part felt a manic and unbridled excitement that home suddenly didn’t feel so far away. I told exactly two people about the job opportunity and neither of them were family members. What was the rush? It was nothing more than an idea, a prospect at best.
The next day, Dad called and uttered words I’d never actually prepared myself to hear, “Your grandmother is gone.”
I have few regrets in my life, but, to this day, I wish I’d picked up the phone to tell Missy I was on my way home and that I loved her very much. It wouldn’t have gotten me there any faster, but she would have known.
And so, like everything else, I carried the memory of my grandmother onto the trail with me.
On April 5, 2013, I woke in Plumorchard Gap shelter. The previous day’s hike had been cut short due to cold weather, driving rains, and intermittent hail. The morning didn’t look much more promising. We woke in dampness, the trees shrouded in clouds, beads of water hugging every surface, and our string of wet clothes just as soggy as they’d been the night before.
I trudged out of camp alone, seeking solace in the trees and wondering what they would offer me that day.
Within an hour, what I had mistaken for cloud cover proved to be a lifting fog. As the last wisps retreated, a brilliant blue sky emerged, as well as a cacophony of birdsong – the first I’d encountered since starting the AT. A grin crept across my face as I thought of Missy. It had been a year since she’d left, and this morning, the hole in my heart formed by her absence was filled with the woodland creatures she held so near and dear. Missy, ever the avid birder, had spent untold hours in the woods tuned into the crooning and warbling conversations that took place in the canopy.
As I walked, a bird descended from the trees. It landed just in front of me on the trail and took several hops forward before looking back, as if to be sure I followed its lead. In a giddy trance, I did. We traveled like this for several minutes until I pulled out of my reverie long enough to snag my camera. The moment I stopped to take its picture, the bird darted off trail. When I put my camera away and continued onward, the bird returned and resumed its bouncy lead. Twice more I tried to take a picture, and off the bird went. So the camera finally went away for good, and we went for a walk in the woods: my grandmother and me.
Three years later, and I can still say I’ve never felt anything so profoundly as the presence of my grandmother hiking with me on the Appalachian Trail that morning. Missy. Teaching me lessons a year after her death in the middle of the woods in North Carolina. Live in the moment. Let go. Be open. Be curious. Smile. Slow down. Live lightly. Love deeply. And, most importantly, those who have passed are never truly gone. May they manifest in myriad ways just when you need them.
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