September 24th, 2016.
It’s strange how life travels in full circles and what was is now reversed.
Ten years ago today I left home to begin caring for Grandpa in his Alzheimer’s journey. Now I am back to that old house, and it is home again. Time runs its path, but there are no words to easily grasp the decade which has slipped away.
A decade ago my younger brother Arlan had just finished college and was living with Grandma and Grandpa. He came home for a Saturday celebration of his birthday. It was a windy autumn day when he told me he had found Grandma crying that week, overwhelmed by Grandpa’s deteriorating condition. So began my journey of caregiving, one which took me through valleys I scarcely could have imagined a year prior.
The years passed. Arlan moved on from Grandma and Grandpa’s, and the rest of my family moved away from the old homestead. The place of childhood sat empty with overgrown lawns and abandoned fields. Arlan landed in California, the rest of the family settled deeper in the countryside of upstate New York. And somehow my circuitous path took me back to the old worn places of my childhood.
Life is different. They say you can’t go back again. You can’t. And you can. Familiar tracks can be traveled again, but the veil of time remains between now and former days.
Arlan flew in from California for a few days to celebrate his birthday with the family. On Friday he stopped by to check out the old place–home to myself now and once home to him. The two of us walked the field of our youth, now much overgrown, two men closer to middle age than to the season of childhood. Where we had once played in the grasses and weeds, saplings grew toward trees. In places thorns choked out the undergrowth. Curiously, where the older trees hid the ground in shade things seemed much unchanged, but in the field of sunlight life flourished and the world shifted almost beyond recognition.
The old plastic slide looked the same as always except for the absence of children. The forts built by little dreamers were much broken down. The old trail still etched its way up the field, marking the path where many wandering feet had trod. Things were so much changed, but the echo of what had been still remained.
Odd feelings come with such walks where the physical surroundings feel like a metaphor for my mind. Many people have died in the decade which has passed and their absence is felt like the cast-off leaves resting beneath the trees. I remember and feel that which is gone; the loss lingers strangely. And like the shadowed ground beneath old trees the memory of them remains unchanged. The rest of life has moved on, young trees hungrily reaching for the sun. Woven through it all is the echo of familiar things.
Where is my past self, running through the grass? Where is the boy who cut a path with his jackknife through the brush, creating a path for his wagon? What happened to the sticky summer days and the sweet wild strawberries? Strawberry Hill is lost in the locust saplings and the boy has run off through time’s doorway.
Age measures and marks us in ways too deep for easy scrutiny. I am older, perhaps wiser. A bit more broken, and a bit more whole. And I now see that answers can take the form of questions.
It startled me a bit to realize I am only a few years younger than my father was when he moved into this place. He seemed old to my child’s mind. Has time really moved that quickly, and what have I made of it? Or what has it made of me?
The years of a man are seventy, or eighty if he has the strength. When this autumn’s failing comes to its end I will have reached half of the former span. My strength hasn’t failed me yet, but my stiffness in the morning reminds me of more than autumn air. The body starts its betrayal early. The decades are short. Life is like a summer breeze that slips away to end in stillness.
I wonder about it.
Life and death are woven together in ways I wish I better understood. I find myself living in the midst of longing and promise which feels bittersweet and contradictory. We are bound by promises and loosed by death. In loss we know what we are given. There might be words for a poem in that. It is the riddle of the life I find myself living.
I can’t escape the paradox of how death delineates life. I’m not sure I should try. The tension first struck me when I began caring for Grandpa, a task of love and service I knew would not end until his death. Life felt marked in a way it hadn’t before. The reality brought a mindfulness both uncomfortable and grounding. Newly married now, I can’t avoid sensing the parallels, the promise of “Til death” still fresh from the lips. This bond of love is forged in a happier season, but all of life will not be sunny days. The last decade has taught me that. As surely as autumn follows summer, sickness follows health. In this life what begins will end.
Full circles. We laugh now, and build. But we see clouds on the horizon and feel the years in our soul. Having married a woman who lost her father early, we both know that life is different than childhood dreams would tell us. Still we love, and deeply, for it is love which will carry us through every turning until the final reprise.