Saturday, October 17, 2015

Fear and Wonder: The Bookends of Age

Along Johns BrookMy mother Hendrieka is going to turn ninety-five years old just after Christmas. She has led a remarkable life – her adventures would make for an interesting memoir to say the least. Her innate spirit and resiliency remain, but while she shows every sign of being around for a while longer, there is no doubt that she is in the sunset of her life. Even as recently as a year ago she still walked with her trademark pace, an energetic stride with arms swinging in long, purposeful arcs. Now she shuffles, small steps, cautious about any variation in floor or terrain.

Being Mom’s caretaker in her last years has been a learning experience. One of those lessons is the observation that as people get older they become like children again, possessed of both fear and wonder. That may be a cliché, but I’ve seen for myself that it’s true. It’s interesting to live it through Mom – and disquietingly, a little bit through myself.

One afternoon in early September, not long after Mom had arrived in the Adirondacks, she rose from her daily reading chair and padded softly into the kitchen. I could see that she was restless. She spends a lot of time in that chair and I could tell she wanted to do something different. Our rental has a beautiful setting in the forest, overlooking Johns Brook just above the single lane bridge that leads to the Garden. Mom hadn’t really seen the grounds yet and it was a perfect late-summer day so I suggested we take a walk. She was hesitant. With her recent loss of gait she has become quite fearful of walking outside unless it’s good and flat. I assured her that I’d help her along and after a moment she assented.

We walked carefully down the porch steps onto a path covered with pine needles and bracketed by low ferns and mosses. The surrounding forest was dappled with patches of warm autumn sunlight and Johns Brook, coursing beside us, supplied a perfect soundtrack. “Oh, isn’t it beautiful!” Mom exclaimed. “Have you ever seen a forest so beautiful?”

A few yards from the cottage the path began a modest descent of two or three feet. At this Mom stopped. “Oh no, let’s not go on that,” she said. We stood for a moment, looking at the path. “You can do it, Mom, I won’t let you fall.”

“I don’t know if I can make it,” she replied, haltingly. This was a most un-Hendrieka thing to say and it threw me. Mom is not exactly wishy-washy. If she doesn’t want to do something or thinks she can’t, she’ll announce as much in no uncertain terms, employing a tone perhaps best described as strident. This was a voice that was saying something else. I heard in it a real tone of sadness, of old age robbing her of safety in a world she has loved for so many years. This was an Adirondack path and she was afraid of it.

The decision to proceed suddenly felt very important. “Let’s go ahead. You can turn around any time. I won’t let you fall, I promise.”

“I don’t think I want to.”

“Come on Mom, it’s okay.”

“Well, I guess it’s alright,” she said and she clutched my arm tightly. We eased down the little slope.

The way Mom held on to me, the feel of her as we stepped along, gave me the strongest memory of walking with one of my children. There was such a powerful need for reassurance in her, yet at the same time there was a child-like delight with the flanking pines and sparkling brook. I thought of my son Alex as a toddler, holding on to his Daddy and braving the rocks as we navigated Calamity Brook years ago on a trip to Flowed Lands.

I found myself unexpectedly moved by this dramatic juxtaposition of past and present. I considered that I had never experienced such a combination of old age, fear and loss on the one hand and youthful innocence, enthusiasm and wonder on the other.

But then I realized I had felt such a combination before, in a small and telling way, in a sad and private way, that very morning. This realization brought me closer to Mom, who was still holding me firmly but now asking to turn back.   It was a discomfiting and unwanted hint of commonality between the faltering woman next to me and the faltering man I would never want to become.

That morning I had taken a hike up Little Porter from the Garden. I was doing the climb for exercise as well as pleasure so I went fast. At fifty-four I am carrying a little more weight than I’d like, courtesy of too much stress and eating over a trying year. But as a life-long active person – runner, hiker, climber and stilt walker – I’ve always been fit.  Certainly nothing has ever felt better and more natural to me underfoot than an Adirondack trail and over the years I have never experienced a material difference between the feel of any hike versus a hike in my twenties.  Whatever the reason or timing, this one was different.

The day had dawned misty and clouded over. The trail was damp, the rocks covered with a wet sheen. I didn’t experience anything untoward on the way up, but on the way down I found myself unusually concerned with my footfalls. Over the years I have enjoyed countless experiences flying down mountain trails, rock-hopping and jumping over roots, spinning and fast-stepping right on the edge of control. But now, descending the switchbacks of Little Porter, I felt a strong hesitation. A repeated caution came to me with every slick rock, sudden drop or tangle of roots ahead.  No, it was more than caution; it was fear.  I felt fearful, perhaps of breaking a bone or falling on my head, of the idea somehow that my body couldn’t take it.  I was faltering in a way I never had before.

I tried to deliberately ignore my feelings by breaking into a run, but it felt forced and dangerous. I dialed back and proceeded at a slower pace, picking my footfalls carefully as I went.  The mist broke and brilliant sun flooded the forest, igniting the droplets on the leaves and creating shafts of diffuse color through the foliage. It was stunning and I was carried into that sense of timelessness these mountains never fail to offer.  I momentarily forgot my awkwardness. Then my foot slipped on a root, I stumbled, and the fear arrowed back. The odd and uncomfortable  juxtaposition of youth and age left me feeling depressed.

Eventually the descent flattened out and the familiar rhythm of the trail returned to me. The rest of the hike felt no different than it ever would have.  I wanted to dismiss the episode on the steep portion of the descent as an aberration, an artifact of having been away from these mountains too long. But when I had my walk with Mom later that afternoon, I realized it had been no aberration. It had been my first experience of feeling old.

About a week ago I climbed Little Porter again, having had a few more weeks under my belt to regain my hiking legs and lose a few pounds. I ascended at crisp clip and enjoyed a healthy exhaustion as I scrambled onto the summit. I lingered for a while over the crystal-clear view, but the descent was on my mind; I was anxious to try it.

As I started down I was disappointed to feel a little bit of that disquieting fear again. I decided to defy it and broke into a jog that before long was a full speed charge down every variation in the trail, my legs flying like a football player doing an agility drill. It felt good and right, affirming if a little jarring. Youthful enthusiasm surged in me; I wanted to grab my wife and seduce her, I wanted to play beach volleyball, I wanted to go climb something else, maybe the Ridge Trail.

When I returned to the cottage Mom was ensconced in her usual chair with her magnifying glass, her scissors and her New York Times. She welcomed me back with a cheery greeting. I thought of our walk. I thought of her next to me, childlike on my arm, fearful, needing to go back up the path to her chair.

That fear is in me now. It is a small thing so far, a little nag at worst. I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to admit to it in any way. But I know it’s there to stay, I know it is an inexorable evolution. It may not eliminate a child’s wonder and dreams, but it will crowd them. It will task them.  I mean to fight it to the last.

Photograph: The cottage path along Johns Brook

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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.


10 Responses

  1. Bill Joplin says:

    A powerful and beautiful piece of writing, Pete — one of my favorites by you.

  2. Terry says:

    You’ll be fine, Pete. Your strength and positive attitude about life’s changes, like your wonderful mom’s, will be with you to help you through these thoughts and trials!! You are, after all, still learning from her!

  3. Susan Gaffney says:

    I climbed to the First Brother this summer, with my son and two granddaughters, ages 5 and 7. I could keep up with the five-year-old, only because she “fell five times,” as she proudly said. I’m 72, and I said: This is my last hike. But a few days later, I also climbed Little Porter from the Garden. There was not another person on the trail, just me and my cell phone. (No, I didn’t call anyone, but I texted pictures so people would know where I was.) This really was my last hike, but maybe I’ll do another, next summer. I had double knee replacement surgery, three years ago, so I wasn’t cavorting like you were.

    I’ve gone the other way from you: I’ve moved from KV to NYC, where I do my NYC version of hikes on the streets and in Central Park. It’s the right place for this time in my life, but, of course, there are many ways and places to live. Thanks for what you wrote.

  4. What an articulate and enlightening piece of writing Pete. I am about your same age and experienced these same nudges of fear and caution for the first time this year. I too am watching my once agile parents decline in different ways both physically and mentally. As I wrote in a recent blog post of mine, aging comes as a surprise to me. In youth I assumed that aging would simply be a an older version of my younger self and I would pretty much continue on with everything I did. I like that you mentioned Wonder as the other bookend though, for this is the gift of age. It seems that after 56 years of listening and being present with the forests, rivers and rocks there is an incomparable depth of beauty that fills my soul every time I am with them now. A beauty that far surpasses any of my youthful experiences and for that I am most grateful. I feel as though I am entering the Autumn of my own life and since this is my favorite season I hope to make the most of it and savour it fully. Thanks for sharing this piece, it brightened my Sunday.

  5. Bellota says:

    You have written a salient and beautiful piece regarding aging and fear. But we keep going, just a bit slower and more cautiously.

  6. Michael Bobseine says:

    Thank you for sharing Mr. Nelson.
    Having much the same experiences as I understand from your story, I am redoing my health care proxy! (And I recommend an HCP to everyone.) One final provision is that my children take me “camping” in the ADKs. (And leave me as carrion!)

  7. George Nagle says:

    Thank you for this beautiful reflection. I’m 79 and am forwarding it to my wife and my daughters ages 51 and 54.

  8. Debra says:

    Reading this beautifully written observation/reflection was an unexpected treat this morning, Pete.

  9. Mike says:

    A gem for sure! It is neither easy or pleasant to pause, consider, and fully acknowledge the inevitable, that all of us, will at some point decline, just as all who have come before us. And the feet that trod confidently up the steepest ridge and down again, will be reduced to shuffling along in fear on a tame path. Having considered this eventuality, and to resolve to forestall it as best and as long as can be done, is inspiration!

  10. Charlie Stehlin says:

    “fear and loss on the one hand and youthful innocence, enthusiasm and wonder on the other. ”

    Gee Pete,I have what you have. I’m not relieved to know this but it sure as heck makes my world seem a little less lonelier. Surely there’s ten-thousand lots of us out there as we cannot be that unique!

    “That fear is in me now. It is a small thing so far, a little nag at worst. I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to admit to it in any way. But I know it’s there to stay, I know it is an inexorable evolution. It may not eliminate a child’s wonder and dreams, but it will crowd them. It will task them. I mean to fight it to the last.”

    It is along these same lines of thinking that has me thinking about death every day Pete,and I don’t mean that in a morbid way. What I mean is I know I am going to die. I don’t know when or how my end will come but I know it is coming and because of that I live my life to the fullest every day. And I strive to be good….not just to humans,ungrateful though some of them may be,but to the other lifeforms as well…especially so to other lifeforms! I feel things I never felt before. I am told it is normal at my age to feel what I feel. I keep my mind in positive mode,even when a crease or creak has set in. I too mean to fight it to the very end. Us stubborn mules.

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