I walked the dogs on a rainy night. We walked farther than the dogs needed to because I needed to keep going. In the illumination of a streetlight, I saw concentric circles in the knobby twigs.
We walked on. A row of conifers caught my sight. When we stood under them and near a light, I looked up, this time on purpose. The needles were a crystal halo in the mist.
We headed home. It took a while. We had walked far, but walking was what I needed. I shook my jacket on the porch, toweled off the dogs, padded up the stairs on stocking feet to whisper to my husband that we were back. “About time,” he murmured and went back to sleep.
I sat on the stairs and spun my thoughts. “I’m lucky to have this husband because he lets me do what I need when things are tough. I’m lucky to have a warm house–this house, which comforts me. I’m lucky that so many years ago I asked to keep the house in the divorce. I’m lucky to be part of a book club for so long because by now we are all old friends and support one another in quiet ways. It’s lucky I joined Facebook—an irregular action for me—to follow my daughter without pestering her in her years overseas. I’m lucky because I could use Facebook to reach many relatives and family friends when I had the saddest news.
Then I changed the verb—not that I was lucky. I was glad. Not lucky my brother Charlie got pancreatic cancer, not lucky or glad at all. That was why I needed to walk. But glad to have this husband, this house, friends in book club, Facebook. Glad to have writing as an outlet and a tool. Specifically, glad I had started writing again some years before on a sabbatical when I audited a writing class, and glad I kept it up. I was glad that I semi-retired from my professorship in forest biology the previous year. That, too, was an irregular action, but I had irregular reasons. Glad the semi-retirement gave me the flexibility to fly to Charlie’s, to help gather information when information was still useful. Glad I had the time to meet news of a half-brother Bob we hadn’t known about. Glad at that moment that they became part of my support—family but not family– to help me see where to cry and what to cry about, where to contemplate and what to contemplate about.
I was glad I had engaged with hospice already, from whom I had already learned much about death, life, and care. I was glad I had survived through Mom’s death already because I was familiar with the ache of watching a decline. And familiar, to some degree, with estates, advanced directives, taxes, certificates, obituaries. I was glad Dad and my other brother had been through Mom’s hospice care, to better understand Charlie’s options and choices. I was glad we knew what the choices were. And what they weren’t. And glad that we were united in our support of Charlie and the care he chose. Glad that Charlie knew that—very glad.
And more. I was glad we were united in celebrating the life he had. “Many people are saddened by his death,” I said. “We can flip that sentiment around,” Dad said. “Many people were gladdened by his life.”
I was glad that my step-daughter and her husband in Michigan had a baby because I wanted to meet that bundle of glee. I was glad I flew there a year ago and then drove on to Indiana to see Charlie for a few days. I was glad to see the house he had bought four years before, to share dinners with him in his home and town, to steep in the décor that his sometimes-present wife had set up, to see the buildings where he’d worked for many years. He and I had always stayed quite close, and I was even glad for the family, personal, and professional situations that had given us common concerns that we discussed.
I was glad my husband understood my need to take that trip alone last spring. I was glad he and I married ten years ago, and glad that my ex-husband and I realized we would be better off apart. I was glad my family, including our children, did not encourage us to stay together. I was glad my parents had raised us in a way to eventually understand there may be a time to call a project quits—my first marriage, for example. My job. And Charlie, his life.
And sitting on the stairs at night, I was glad for Charlie’s wisdom, life, and grace.
A few nights after Charlie died, my husband and I went out to dinner. After menus were withdrawn and before our sushi came, I saw the table in front of me, lacquered and burnished with use. A bulb reflected in the surface, with both a white spot and a halo of scratches.
That was when I saw what I had missed. Those specific actions that prepared me to deal with Charlie’s sickness and death—my divorce, marriage, writing Facebook, semi-retirement, trips—were they divine providence? Not at all.
Scratches on a tabletop, needles or twigs on a tree picked out by a light. Actions and thoughts that I picked from my vantage were simply hindsight. Looking back. They were the relevant ones among the thousands in my life, the ones that softened the blows, cushioned the falls. There was no need to invoke gods or magic for the halos or my preparatory acts.
And yet I gather up my gladnesses and swaddle myself in them. They show me there is pleasure in this random life. They remind me that to find those joys I need to look. I need to take a walk at night with dogs, with rain. Come home, sit quietly on carpeted steps, and spin my thoughts.