“For some fool reason, they always lead you right up over the biggest rock to the top of the biggest mountain they can find.” Grandma Gatewood, the oldest woman to hike the entire Appalachian Trail, twice, alone, wearing Keds, eating Vienna Sausages, and sleeping, rolled up in a shower curtain.
We finally find her by the side of the road, standing in a clump of chalk blue chicory, fingering yellow cone flowers, a few feet from the bank of the river, a thirty foot drop below. Beside me, my father slumps in the passenger’s seat, fingers stained from baiting worms, his head hanging in defeat. We’d been fishing, my father and I, a few yards below our rental cabin, and then my father looked up, and immediately he knew she was gone. He drove up and down the mountain roads and called the county sheriff, while I walked among the nearby cabins, forcing myself to cry out my mother’s name louder and louder, rousing only a dog and awkward feelings of shame.
I ease my father’s car up to her, careful not to cause alarm, and get out. Ahead, a slim boy stands up on a trestle bridge and jumps into the river to the roars of his friends on the bank.
“Mom, what are you . . . (I want to say “doing” but catch myself) . . . what are you looking at?”
Her face registers that frightful blankness we’d come to know in her slow disappearance into dementia. Was it winter? Was it yesterday? Was it now?
When she spoke, it was as if she were no longer speaking for herself, or for the self that we knew, but of the wonder of the weeds themselves: “I was following these flowers; somebody’s planted them all along this road, see?”
The month before the police had found her in the parking lot of the local supermarket near their house, purseless, claiming she was going to the bank to get her money. Months before that, my father begged me to take her car. “Take it! Take it! Get it out of here!”
Travelers of the wide world in their fifty five years of marriage, boats down the Danube, the Yangtze, the straits of Terra del Fuego—now they sat in their car like lost children, as I drove them back to our two-room fishing cabin overlooking the Watauga River in the mountains of Tennessee. It would be their last trip, together.
I’d seen an old photo of them a few years ago at their wedding anniversary, a digital slide show made for the TV, Frank Sinatra crooning, a fade and flip of images, and then there they were: innocent newlyweds, lounging on a beach along Lake Michigan, glowing in the late afternoon light. My mother’s Irish dark hair rolled over her bare shoulders, her legs folded seductively under her in the sand; my father, beer-softened eyes and shirtless, leaned on a muscled left arm. I stared, a single man well over twice their age, shocked at their beauty and happiness.
Back at the cabin, I give them drinks, put food on the grill, hit play on the CD, and ask them to help set the table. We eat on the porch, Ella sings, and we watch the waters of the Watauga until a fish jumps. My father breathes heavily even as he eats. My mother looks at her food and wonders what it’s for. I fantasize myself into the water, stroke by stroke, one eye below the surface, looking into the murky depths, the other above, looking back at them on the porch. My mother gets out a cigarette, lights the wrong end, and tries to smoke it. My father grabs it out of her mouth with disgust, puts it out, and instructs, “Here, this end, light this end!”
Then the idea comes.
My father winces, shakes his head in disbelief, “You can’t take her out in that canoe.”
It was my mother who’d taught me how to swim, not my father, the athlete, the coach. He taught me other tricks of survival. Kneeling on my grandparent’s pier, she mimicked a baby crawling, and I was supposed to do the same in the shallows. I buried my head and dug my arms into the soft summer water, saw the sunfish on their nests in the sandy bottom, kicked, and I was off.
My mother’s decline had been incremental and hard to detect in my errant returns after years of drifting away from my family and the landscape of my youth. Without tangible means of reconnection--I had no house, no spouse, no children—we had learned over the last few years to relate by way of what needed fewer and fewer words: the weather, their gardens, the birds and animals they observed from their kitchen window. But in the last months, as my family began to plan for my mother’s move to an Alzheimer’s facility, her face began to appear in my mind before I went to sleep, a flash of fear in her eyes, wanting my help but not sure for what? It is true, isn't it, that emotions originate not in ourselves but in the fleshy borders of family?
What is it about sitting in a boat in still water? The sky mirrored in the surface holding you afloat. Where does what you thought the minute before sink? What becomes of time, of desire, of names and the things they name? Do they cease to exist if we can’t think of how to say them? What becomes of these regions of the mind as the brain wanders away? My mother facing me in the canoe, confuses me with myself of twenty years ago, leans toward me, and in a voice of concern asks if I was seeing anyone. I’m not sure how to answer. For me now? Or, for me then? I can’t decide, so I laugh and change the subject, pointing out my father not far away on shore. “Look, Dad?” We wave though she can’t see him. Then she asks in in the same voice and same emotional tone as before: “Are you seeing anyone?”
A blue heron lifts itself out of the water near shore, all wings and neck, moving over the water like a wave through the air. “See it?” I point.
She turns, lifts her hand weakly to help her find it, but looks in the opposite direction. Yet, she sees it all the same, her head turning as if admiring it, “Yeeess. Isn’t that something?”
What is she seeing if she is pretending to see it? Is there an image in her mind of a bird—of a blue heron? I wonder as I watch her so alive in her expression, her face bathed in the twilight of the mountain evening. Can wanting to see something—wanting someone else to know that we are seeing something— count for seeing something? Metaphysics after all these years finally has its use.
I paddle toward the lilies, out further into the canyon of trees and their reflection in the water, the second growth forests leaning in from the hills, growing out of the mountains at angles. We drift among their shadows, the lights of the lake cabins begin to glow, the water turns from green to black.
“What’s up there?” She points to the darkening trees on the ridges around the lake. I look. “See those people? There are lights up there, see them?” I still look when that strange voice emerges from her mind, eager to report on her findings from a world that works in a way we can’t understand.
I put down the paddle on my lap, “Where Mom?” I look along the ridgeline, and in my looking, in my desire to see or imagine what she sees in her hallucination, I still see nothing.
“There. See them?”
Her voice is real, reaching out, her body pointing, up into the dark mountains.
Back at the cabin, I make a fire from trash and driftwood I find on shore. My father hobbles out with lawn chairs, and we sit and talk of travel in the voices you use when you sit around fire.
When they go to bed, I smoke a pinch of old weed left in my pack from a former hiking trip, and stare at the dying flames, then sneak out, like old times, and take a walk into the Tennessee night. Above the mountain road, clouds scud across the star fields of the sky, and hover over the dark ridges where my mother saw her hallucinations in the trees. The Appalachian Trail passes somewhere along those ridges, follows the lake and continues on into Virginia. There are hikers up there, I imagine. Tents and tin cups. Socks tucked in tired boots. Happy bones sleeping in bags of fiberfill.
I’d hiked the Appalachian Trail first with my parents in 1962; we wandered among the monstrous hardwoods and magical ferns, my sisters in yellow ponchos in the fog and rain of the Great Smoky Mountains. In college, with pals high on mushrooms, I bivouacked in the manzanita ravines of North Carolina in falling snow. Once from Boston, I hitchhiked to a stony cliff atop the White Mountains of New Hampshire, with spam and a shitty tent, trying to escape from the world below; with big plans and strong legs, I lasted but one night in a neighbor’s tent, drinking their whiskey, huddled from the howling wind. In recent times, in clean pants and two hundred dollar boots, I take long walks on the weekends in Wisconsin and fantasize I’m hiking through the hundred mile wilderness of Maine on my last leg of the trail.
Lying on the fold-out couch in the cabin, I listen to my father’s laboring lungs, wondering how many more breathes he’s still got in him. I hear someone stir, hope it’s not my mother, who often wanders at night, up to go the bathroom, and then forgetting and thinking it’s the middle of the day, coming out to sit in the empty living room, not knowing where everyone has gone.
My mother often speaks of going home, as people do in stages of Alzheimer’s, wondering where she is as she moves from room to room, hour to hour, turning to me or my father as if she’s just met us for the first time in the street, “I’ve just got to go home now; this has been nice talking with you, but I’d better go home.”
At my sister’s house, a few months before, I awoke to find my mother, plodding like a child in bare feet, nightgown in hand, wadded and wet with urine, underwear to her belly button, breasts alabaster in the light of the outdoor deck. I watched as if I were unrelated to this wandering body, her eyes fixed on some distant dream world I couldn’t see. I closed my eyes hoping she would find her way to the bathroom, awaiting the voice of my sister putting her back to bed. How long ago had I seen my mother’s breasts? Forty-five? Fifty years ago?
I opened my eyes and mouth at the same time, “Mom?”
She turned, not sure who was speaking. “Where’s the bathroom? I can’t find the bathroom.”
I got up, took her hand, and step by slow step, we walked, in our underwear, to the bathroom. *
On our long drive down from Indiana to Tennessee, to ease my nerves, I made plans: Drive them around, do the tourist things, fish with my father, take my mother on a little walk, cook good food, find an inexpensive cabin, make their last trip a good memory, or at least for my father. The last day, I’d leave them for a good stretch of the Appalachian Trail, hike up onto the ridges between Tennessee and North Carolina, up early and out, hamstrings heating to a burn, come back and drive them home. But mother’s little ramble to the river shifts our plans to the here and now.
On our second day, after driving them through the mountains of North Carolina, switch back inside switchback, stopping here and there to stroll about old-timey tourist towns, my father, out of guilt, proposes that we drive to the top of Roan Mountain where there’s a festival of rhododendron blossoms and a trail for me to hike while they see the flowers.
On our way up the mountain, the famed floral display has lost its fuchsia flame and all about the parking lot browned blossoms litter the ground. On top, my father notices a sign and reads it out loud telling us that the festival ended two weeks before.
He sighs and shrugs, shaking his head at fate. We argue about what to do next. From the back seat, my mother asks us to stop. Then I have another idea.
I see a sign for the Appalachian Trail: a white icon of the hiker man and underneath an arrow that points straight through the parking lot to a stand of dwarf pines and firs.
“This is the Appalachian Trail, Mom, see, the sign says one mile.”
My mother, who as long as I could remember went to bed each night with books in her bed, stops before the sign and sounds it out, “Ap-pul-lat-cha-” and then, in an air of childlike pride announces, “trail.”
Wrapped in hat and gloves, she stands by the car, ready to hike into the glaciers of the north. “I’m ready.”
“Mom, it’s June, you don’t need gloves.”
My father begs off, reminding me of his ailing hips, his weak lungs. My father, the adventurer, who was always eager to go anywhere on a map to see what was there, unpacks instead another kind of map, a home-made spread sheet of three yellow legal pages scotch-taped together, the family finances going back twenty years, carefully etched in heavy ballpoint blue. “I got to study some of these figures.”
I assure him we wouldn’t be long, and then turn to find my mother who is wandering out into the parking lot.
“It’s over here, Mom. The trail is this way.”
From the state park map, I see that the trail essentially crosses from one parking lot over to another, wanders along a wooded path, a side trail passes a cascade off to the right, then it drops down to a lookout, from which one can see, the map promises, the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance. The AT blazes on down the mountain. Our portion is a trail for the family, the weekend tourist, the single boomer with the overfed dog; a chance to say one has hiked on the Appalachian Trail. Not far, I calculate, unconsciously taking off down the trail, leaving my mother behind. There and back, an hour, give or take a few minutes. I turn back, suddenly remembering she can’t walk as fast as she once could. And there she is, yards behind me, head down, laboring to find her footing.
When the reality of her decline became harder and harder to explain away, my mother retreated into herself. Her mother, a factory nurse, had spent her last days in a nursing home, clinging to her mother’s sweater, which she wore every day, until she curled into a ball and never got up. My mother knew where the road would end for her; fortunately, over time, she has forgotten, or I want to believe she has. I often wonder if she is pretending here, too, making it easy for us by not mentioning how confused she must feel, how lost. Sometimes she’s told me that she just can’t remember things, “isn’t that awful?,” she says looking at me like she’s somehow to blame.
We enter a tunnel of stunted fir trees, mixed with rhododendron filling in the under-story, branches wildly bifurcate reaching for what light they can find; below them ferns fan and curl, and on the moist earth and rock, left from the glaciers thousands of years before, dainty flowers and furry mosses spread.
I watch my mother negotiate along a path of rocks and roots, overlaid with dappled patterns of sun and shadow. She’d walk fine for a while and then stop in trepidation, confused, as if she might be stepping down into a pool of water, tapping her toes to make sure something was there. Gummed-up neurons in her brain short circuit information, some synapses connect, others don’t. Nobody knows why. A simple step forward becomes a complex task for a sputtering mind: see the ground, lift the leg, feel the pressure of contact, shift the balance, step, start again.
Selfishly, spells of anxiety come over me wondering if this might be me in the years ahead, knowing that Alzheimer’s is genetically inherited. But then I solace myself, as my sister does, with sarcastic bravado, making veiled jokes of how we should be disposed of when our memory goes, which are never really funny for anyone but us, and that’s because we’re too afraid not to laugh.
I think of offering my hand to steady my mother, but it feels a bit too public. Besides, she needs to work at it, I tell myself, exercising the body challenges the brain, creates new brain cells, develops circulation, and all the other benefits of walking I’ve researched on the Internet late at night, thinking I’m learning how to help her, when, of course, I’m obsessing about my own fears.
Along the trail I see the familiar blazes of white paint that famously mark the twenty-two hundred mile pilgrimage from the ancient lands of the Cherokee, through the Appalachia of my Scots-Irish ancestry, to the top of Thoreau’s cherished Katahdin in Maine. Those white brush strokes, appearing just when you’ve begun to panic, seem to glow from the procession pilgrims who have passed beneath them.
In those early stages of her disease, my mother began to walk a great deal on the beaches in north Florida, where my parents had wintered for years. She walked miles every day, alone, collecting shells and watching for the jumping dolphins. “It holds me,” she once confided, as we walked along the shores. She stopped and gestured out to the wide waters of the Atlantic and back to the dune grasses and gulls swooping overhead, as if the natural world were alive and listening to her. Then one day, she couldn’t find her way back to their rented condo, wandering from one identical row of buildings to another, confused. The next year my sisters and I tried to spend more time with them to help my father, but then it became too much for him, and their days along the beaches of Florida were over.
To make it a bit easier for her to walk, I look for her a walking stick. But I don’t have much luck. One is too heavy, another is rotten, another breaks. Finally, I find one that sort of works, “Here, use this, Mom.”
She laughs as it bends uselessly into a bow, but walks on like one of those old women in folktales.
She doesn’t know where we are. She doesn’t know how we got here. Doesn’t know what we did an hour ago. But she can read my emotional state, hear the tone, the abrupt bark of verbs, the whine of my sentences: her child needs to lighten up. For all of her cognitive impairment and memory loss, it’s curious to me how emotionally alert and tuned in she can be with me after we are together for a while. Part of it is of course, that I’m her son, but part of it must come from her ability to compensate and trust in the subtleties of reading bodies and gestures, sounds of voices, facial expressions, and mysteriously, pulling you into this subtle sphere of emotional language with her. It’s like those who live with the deaf, even without training they are taught in similar ways by the deaf, to expand their body’s ability to communicate beyond simple words and begin to use the intuition.
She’s tired. She wants a cigarette. I keep telling her she can have one when we get there, then change the subject. “Mom, look at this thick moss.”
I kneel in a patch of moss underneath a fir tree next to a few barberry plants and alpine flowers. I lead her to a rock and help her sit down on it. A world appears in miniature: emerald filaments, wires braided out of moist earth, the delicate debris of death from decades past. I watch her pale fingers, knead and spread through the moss, aglow and alive.
She looks up from the moss, pensively, and asks: “You got those cigarettes, don’t you?”
My body aches: my hips and knees, my jaw and joints, all feel like rusted metal rubbing against metal. My neck needs to be yanked out of my spine, my feet bathed in ice. Maybe it’s the hundreds of miles behind the wheel and the thought of all those miles I must drive back. More likely, it’s my impatience, feeling trapped in this slow motion walk. I swivel, kick a rock, bend over a few times, look up at the trees and think of which one I could climb. I imagine running down the trail a few hundred feet and then turn back to catch up with her. I call my father on his cell phone to tell him to bring the car closer, but there’s no reception.
As I sigh and try to keep my mind from drifting and feeling my anxiety, a memory comes to me. I think of it often now when I’m with my mother. There I am in the mountains of northern Thailand, at a Buddhist monastery. It’s night. Tall pines, a moon. I’m watching four elderly widows, the size of children, draped in silken scarves, practicing their walking meditation across the ancient temple grounds, moving like wooden statues floating out into a lake. I’d come there to meditate, to slow down, to learn what had happened to me while traveling in Vietnam, when I found myself one day on the floor of my hotel, in full panic attack, repeating to myself, “this is a bed, this is the table, this is my body.” I tried to mimic their graceful control, studying their arms and posture, but again and again I would fall unable to balance at such a snail’s pace. That night, those old women, who’d come to spend their last days at the monastery in devotion and prayer, as is Thai custom, taught me something of the art of walking. Speed was just one more illusion, one more joke on us all.
“Are you getting tired of waiting for me?” My mother asks noticing my fidgets and facial expressions as she stops, thinking she hears something in the trees.
“Yes!” I blurt out louder than I intend. “Get your ass moving, or I’m leaving you here.”
“I’m looking at things.” She protests. “I’m sorry. I’m an old woman.”
“I know. But if you want to go on, I’ll just go on back to the car.”
“No, no, no. Come on, let’s get to the lookout.” I grab her hand. “Dad is waiting on us. We got to get back to make dinner.”
I’ve noticed in the past months walking with her around her garden or sitting with her on their patio, that she has developed an odd habit of whistling at birds. Like music, bird song seems to brighten her mood and thus focuses her mind. Though she has trouble spotting the direction of a bird’s song, she holds it there in her alert body, as she seeks to call the bird toward her, trying to mimic its sound by whistling and walking in an animated way almost as if she were becoming a bird herself.
She stops and turns on the trail, lips puckered, poised. A cardinal, her favorite, its sharp notes and brilliant red coat sits on a pine bow. She whistles back, moving unconsciously off the trail. I reach for my binoculars, hoping I can get a bead on it to help her see it, but then hold back as I listen to her whistle. Seeing it and capturing it in a lens isn’t the point, not the game; it’s only necessary to listen and whistle back.
Hand in hand, we walk on, sometimes I catch myself moving a bit too quickly, but she seems to lean into me and let me move us at a quicker pace. Other times, she slows me down. As two bodies can do, we find the efficient pace.
I’d had to help my mother more often now, helping her in the winter in and out of the car, up the steps to our house. But these gestures are intended as courtesy, safety precautions, offering my legs and body as ballast, giving her the feeling of stability.
Holding hands is different, feels different; it’s a show of affection, intimacy, and for me awkward. I remember in the Peace Corps African men held hands, walked with fingers intermingling down the streets, boys, men fresh from work, old men walking home from the mosque. When they walked with me, I put my hands in my pockets, just in case.
After a few minutes, I think she’s more stable, she can walk on her own, but she tightens her grip, reading my mind.
A couple walks toward us, coming back from the overlook, a small white shaggy dog at their feet. “Can’t see anything up there,” a woman about my mother’s age whines. “The mist is covering the mountains.”
“Oh, we don’t care,” my mother says, smiling, looking down at the dog instead of the woman.
I look down at the trail as it goes into the thickness of the forest. I wanted to tell my mother about the trail and all I’d read about it. Tell her of times, I’d gotten lost walking on it. Trails beget trails, and in my mind I had so many, and thinking of one meant thinking of them all. Maybe she would understand the story of the first so-called through hiker, Earl Shaffer, who, mourning the loss of his best hiking partner at Iwo Jima, decided to walk the war out of himself, and walked 99 days to the top of Maine’s tallest peak, Mount Katahdin.
It’s a trail of many stories, many wounded souls, not the least of which is the one, my mother told us about many years ago when we drove through the Smokey Mountains and I begged to buy a souvenir at one of the many roadside shops that advertised all things Indian: moccasins, beaded necklaces, a bow and arrow. It was then I first learned of the Cherokee’s Trail of Tears, of their banishment from their homeland, thousands walking to their death from exhaustion and grief, before arriving in Oklahoma.
The lame and the lonely, the addicted and world weary, this trail weaves its spell over whomever is open to feel it, allowing the walkers like us free passage to face our sorrow as we feel the push of the earth lifting our legs on our way up and over the next mountain.
Finally, we make it to the lookout. I steer her up the steps to the wooden platform. “Here, let’s go up here, and take a look.”
The old woman with the white dog was right. There is nothing to see, as the fog shrouds the valley and the mountains beyond. Leaning over the rail, one could only imagine what the valley must look like. What my mother sees, I don’t know. She is tired. And so am I. We lean and peer out into the fog, feel the expanse, the mountain breeze moving the clouds so that the tree tops come in and out of view.
She sits down and pulls her cigarettes out of her pocket, straightens a limp one, lights it as she has for 60 years. Nothing to it. I look back to the trail hoping no one is coming, while she leans back, and inhales the world into her lungs, as if it were 1962 and I was five years old, needing to be told not to climb up too high on the guard rail.
Nervously, I look back to the trail, knowing for sure a Sierra Club type will show up and wince when they smell her cigarette. “Mom, maybe you ought to put that out, somebody might come and we don’t—“
But she cut me off in a flash of her old self. “I will not put it out. I came all this way, and I’m going to sit down and have a cigarette.”
So, I sit down next to her on the bench, reach over and take her cigarette, take a few drags, give it back, and we sit back and take in the fog.