The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth in the present moment. Thich Nhat Hanh
In those early days and weeks after Jimmy died, walking with Buster was my salvation. Doing anything beyond the mandatory … canceling his health insurance, finding a venue for his celebration of life, getting rid of all things medical that reminded me of what cancer did to my sweet boy … felt daunting and impossible. Too raw to leave the house, I also hated being home alone, even when Dan and Molly were only gone a short time.
It was Dan who got me out on the horse trails near our house. I don’t remember him asking me to go. We just starting leaving the house every afternoon around 1:00 pm for a 5-7 mile walk, which allowed one of us, usually him, time enough to pick up Molly from high school. Head down, mind numb, I plodded along behind Dan, scarcely noticing the kinetic black border collie bouncing along next to me. Impossible to tire, Buster’s boundless energy was a gift as he would walk and walk and walk for as long as we needed without slowly down or losing enthusiasm.
That February, purple lupine blanketed the brown hills on both sides of Folsom Lake. Impossible to miss, it was the first color I saw from the black and white of my grief. Resilient and beautiful, the flowers burst forth from the parched landscape.
Once I raised my head, I began noticing the vultures circling above us, their dark shadows gliding over the path a silent call to look up. Weeks into our walks, I realized that I never failed to see one and began watching for them, feeling incomplete and adrift until I did. They say that loved ones who’ve died can come back as birds. If that’s true, Jimmy visits as a vulture, moving with us as we walk, diving into the grass at something only he can see, startling Buster by landing on the tall, jagged granite boulder in the front yard. Perching patiently as we watch through the window, staring back at us as if to say, “Hello. I’m here to say hello.”
As time went on, and Dan went back to work, I got farther away from Jimmy’s death and closer to my mother’s. Buster and I walked intermittently but too often, he had to burn off his dog zoomies racing around the front yard, startling the deer feeding nearby and chasing the occasional jackrabbit who’d wandered in to feast on our grass.
It was the pandemic that called us back out to the trail. As meetings and gatherings flew off my calendar, my time became my own again. After a day of writing or Zoom calls, I could barely wait to put on my running shoes, grab the leash and head out with Buster. Soon, I was organizing my day around those walks, leaving early in the morning to avoid the heat or ending my day early to fit one in before the sun went down.
About six months in, my feet started hurting and my toes began turning bright red. I tried walking more and walking less. Days off didn’t help. Worried about seeing a doctor with COVID raging, I kept going through the pain, hoping that I wasn’t ignoring something serious. Then, one morning, it occurred to me to turn over one of my Asics, only to discover that I had worn the rubber under the front of my foot completely away. I took pictures and sent them to my trainer, Laura, in Oregon, knowing they would make her laugh.
I am two pairs of Asics past those shredded shoes and back to inconsistency. Most days, I take Buster out for 30 minutes in his wheelchair as he slowly recovers from his spinal injury, but struggle to find the motivation to go without him. When I do, I wonder what I’m missing without his keen nose and quick-to-notice-everything ears to alert me to the coyote in the tall brown grass or the peacock perched on the neighbor’s wrought iron fence..
Grief is a walk you take alone. Or, if you are lucky with a small, spunky four-legged companion. The pace, the path, the journey itself done your way. Carrying your jagged pain, your open wounds, your regrets and rage, longing and if onlys. Others can walk with you, but peace is yours to find only when you’re ready to search for it. You can’t outrun your sadness, hurry it along or ditch it by the side of the road. It’s when you learn to walk with grief that you start to see the small blessings alongside all that was stolen from you. Blessings you would trade in heartbeat but are there nonetheless. My son’s meandering pace, the way he stopped to look, how much he loved the world. I would not pause the way I do without his gentle influence teaching me still.
In the end, all we can do is hope that the peace we seek is worth the walk. That we are slowly but surely moving toward what we need. I walk to ease my pain, forgive my failures, offer grace to my younger self, knowing now that she was doing the best she could at the time. I walk to find the stillness, those molecules of time away from the shattering. The solitude interrupts my sadness, creating a space where I can begin to make sense of my monumental, all out-of-order loss, keep moving into this aftermath life and find a way forward without my son.