The Path to the River
This story is dedicated to my father,
Michael H. Grossmith 1948-2004
I can only hope that in his final hours, he knew how much I loved him.
The path down to the
river’s edge seemed steeper that night, and the pain in his legs made
navigating through the stones and branches more challenging than other days.
Perhaps it was because the sun had already gone down, and the night air’s
chill had begun to awaken the ache in his bones that the warmth of the sun
had kept in slumber. He did not normally venture out in the dark hours,
but that night finding the peace of the water seemed necessary and urgent.
He zigzagged down the slope slowly and carefully, surprised at the steadiness
of his step despite the throbbing at his knees. The trees seemed to reach
out to hold him, and he grasped their arms for assistance, flinching as
his knuckles curved tightly around their branches.
Finally, he reached
the bottom, and the water kissed the soles of his boots with welcome. Except
for a distant owl and the sound of the wind shuffling through the fallen
leaves, the night was silent. He stepped quietly and deliberately to keep
from disturbing the sanctity he so desperately needed to surround him.
He walked for a few
minutes until he spotted a rock glowing with moonlight. As he approached
it, he was struck by its beauty and how it sparkled like a million tiny
crystals pulled together by the sheer force of light upon them. Placing
his palm onto the rock’s smooth surface, he maneuvered himself down
until he was seated facing the water. The coldness emanated from beneath
him and reached up into his throbbing temples. He closed his eyes and waited
for his body to adjust to the temperature. With a shiver, he released the
chill and opened his eyes. The woods looked blue now, and the gaps in the
treetops allowed the moonlight to draw designs on his jeans. He moved his
hands in and out of the rays, changing the shapes of the shadows on his
legs and the shimmering rock beneath them.
He settled into his
space, and although his pain found its way through every inch of him, his
soul was momentarily hushed. The sound of his steady breath focused his
attention away from everything else. Every now and then, the water licked
at his feet, and each time it did, he smiled at its delicate attempts to
reach him. It was in such stark contrast to the way he felt. There was nothing
delicate about him this last year. He ached constantly. His legs gave out
on him, causing him to crumble into a mess of a man in front of his loved
ones. He cried all the time, even when he tried not to. It was agony. Every
moment of every day. And he could never make them see or feel or understand
why he could not get past it. Despite their love, he was alone. Shut in
with this thing that had stolen his body, had a grip on his mind, and was
reaching for his heart.
The tears came then,
and even as he felt his medication coming upon him, he reached into his
inside coat pocket for the beer he had brought along. It was a task getting
it open, but once he did, his tongue and his throat welcomed the taste eagerly.
To be numb was what he wanted – what he needed – and he gulped
the liquid down before it could fill his mouth. Wishing he had brought more
than one, he placed the empty can next to him and searched for his cigarettes.
They were not in this left pocket and not in his right. He looked backwards
up the steep slope and sighed with the realization that the cigarettes were
still in his truck. His medication was in full force now, and the beer rushed
it through his system and to his head. There’d be no way he could
get up the hill and back down with the cigarettes. Even though he longed
for the further high of the nicotine rush, he resigned himself to being
His beer empty and
his cigarettes absent, he was left with nothing but the company of the woods
and the water. He looked across the river into the darkness and imagined
a family camping there. His family. It had rained on them that day (it had
almost always rained when they camped), and his wife and daughters were
huddled close to the campfire drying off as he gathered more wood. They
were young. He was young. There were hotdogs, marshmallows and burnt shoes.
There was laughter.
It had been so long
now since he laughed. Although there were brief moments of happiness, the
pain would quickly chase them away like a jealous lover, and he would be
left reaching. His memories were his solace. This monster inside him could
not erase the strength he once had or the joys he had known before it arrived.
He no longer questioned why this was happening to him. Acceptance had been
a sympathetic friend, and he held tight to the pieces that could not be
destroyed. He lived inside himself where he could still fish with his brothers,
ride his motorcycle with the love of his daughter clasped tightly around
his waist, or sit comfortably wrapped in the familiar grace of his wife.
He knew, however, that
to live like this was hurtful to those that loved him. In order to find
peace, he had to turn so far inside of himself that he could not be reached.
His family needed him, and he could not be there. He could see them searching
for him, wanting him the way he was. He was letting them down, and that
was tearing at the final few shreds of his being. If he believed in anything
anymore, he would pray for peace and wish for the way things used to be.
The wind kicked up,
and he drew his denim jacket tight around him. The breeze knocked the branches
together above him and created supple, even ripples in the water. He listened
to its softness, and he was quieted. He sat still for a long time and let
the ache ebb and flow with the medication and the beer. Something warm blanketed
him, and he let his eyes close.
When he opened them,
there were waves of swirling colors in the air. He pressed his palms to
his eyes and rubbed them, but the colors only grew more vivid. Something
brushed his cheek and he reached and caught it. It was a feather. Confused,
he looked around. He saw the rock where he had been sitting, only now its
shimmer was even more brilliant. There were feathers everywhere –
on the trees, on the ground, and all around him.
The situation was surreal,
and he thought maybe his medication mixed with the alcohol was causing some
abnormal side effects. He raised his hands up in front of him, waved the
feathers apart, and poked at the swirling hues of light. When he did this,
his fingers changed colors as though he’d dipped them in paint. It
felt so good that he dipped in his whole hands and waved them around. The
sensation was the most wonderful thing he’d ever felt. It was warm;
it was thrilling; it was comforting. But most of all, it was painless. He
could move and bend and grip his hands in ways he had not been able to do
for a long time.
He looked over his
shoulder at the river’s edge, which now seemed as gray and flat as
an old photo. There were cracks in his view, and he knew he no longer belonged
there. He turned back toward the colors’ brilliance, and they beckoned
him forward. Closing his eyes, he walked ahead and immersed himself fully.
When he did, the colors exploded as though he were a match that lit them
And then he understood.
He understood it all. The love he knew, the love he questioned, the love
he’d lost, the love he thought he never had – it all burned
bright inside of him and all around him. There was nothing but love, ever
His pain turned to
ashes around his feet. And there was peace.