I have many memories from early childhood. For example, one morning, at six years old, I recall sitting on the toilet and looking at my hands and fingers and thinking I will never be old. This thought may have been inspired by observing my grandmother’s hands. I recall how fresh and strange my hands looked and how time seemed to move so slow. As I got older and a friend of mine lost a family member, I recall that I felt envious. Looking back it sounds insensitive but I must have felt incomplete, not fully manifested without someone close to me dead. The first significant person I lost was my paternal grandmother, Edna.
I mostly recall the severity of how her death effected my father. It wasn’t especially real for me in the way it was for my dad and I would later understand. His grief was astonishing to me. I knew she was dead, but as a seventeen year old, I had so little experience in this aspect of life. Later I often dreamed about her, still alive and very old. In the dreams I had not visited her and forgot about her. She lived in a small trailer and dreaming, suddenly I would visit and greet her with waves of emotion and guilt. I am still afraid of such dreams with her.
As the years have flowed on, I am saddened and astounded by the many losses of friends and relatives that have passed on. I am writing this because I am especially sad by the passing, this year, of my friends, Roland (71) and Greg (55). Roland was a poet and mentor. We both shared our passions with each other of the creative process and often compared our strikingly similar methods. He loved words and language. I met Greg as a volunteer photographer at high school track meets. We would often find ourselves trying to get the same shot at the high jump or pole vault and realized our shared fascination with photography. We soon learned that music was our deeper connection. Greg was so supportive and generous, and combined with his kindness it was so easy to grow in our friendship.
Roland wasn’t in good health and often suffered from exhaustion. Greg was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig disease. Roland passed away suddenly, after being admitted to the hospital for less than a week. I lost contact with Greg less than a year before he died. Our last communication was by text. He explained to me how exhausted he would get from writing, through an iPad with voice recognition, just a few words. I thought about him constantly, praying for him. It was very difficult to imagine what he went through.
My mom also passed away this year. We were estranged, mostly. She was committed to breaking my family apart and I was forced to choose my family over her. At some point I made an emotional disconnect and we never fully reconciled. Although our last exchange included saying we loved each other. Her death did not ignite a similar loss I feel for Greg and Roland. Loosing a mother is likely a once in a lifetime event and I am still understanding what this means for me.
My story really begins way back, when my dad cultivated in me a love for nature and the woods. He taught me how to walk a straight line and never be afraid to be lost. He taught me the names of trees and how to look for animals. He demonstrated how to hunt patiently and without movement. I was sold, hooked and forever became a student of the forest.
Throughout my adult life I have retreated to the woods for rejuvenation and firewood. The woods are an endless source of inspiration. Nature is a master of so much. My painting is deeply connected to observations and the awe that I continuously experience on walks.
I am also prone to the delight, likely through DNA, of cutting firewood. Two of my paternal uncles provided income for their families with a chain saw. My father found other means for a livelihood but still loved cutting firewood and hauling it out on his homemade jitterbug. His enthusiasm was so inspiring that it rubbed off on me. It would seem to be the antithesis of nature bathing, yet a valid way, I have found, to enjoy another side of nature.
My New World, European ancestors were known for selling firewood which would be shipped from Cape Neddick Harbor to points south including Boston. They would work in the woods with crosscut saws and oxen. I expect this would have happened in the winter months when the swamps were frozen and passible by ox carts. They likely stripped as many trees from the land that would have been economically beneficial to them.
This desire to work in the woods isn’t exclusive to my family. There is actually a local culture, nearly exhausted to death now, that loves saws, axes, chains, malls, splitting wedges and tractors. My friend Brad, who passed away two summers ago, and whom I miss very much, shared my enthusiasm and lineage right back to the woods. We admired each others tractors and axes, gadgets for hauling as refined gentlemen might admire a well aged bottle of scotch. There was a camaraderie among many locals, a lust for getting into the woods and taking action.
With the cycling of life and death most of the old timers have expired and are replaced by those from away and who pose no risk of injury to themselves from a chainsaw.
It is only in the last year, however, that I find a deep melancholy when I saunter upon the foliage carpet of the forest floor. I am continuously reminded of my father and ancestors who once walked these same woods where I now live and left their presence by their long, labor intensive stonewalls. It was my aunt who owned this land, now my home and brought me here, when I was very young and paid me to help her refresh boundary lines and monuments.
Last summer, I was walking nearby by my home on Gulf Hill. I found a path which I knew led to an old cellar hole. As I made the choice to follow the path, I also remembered there were old rose bushes, honeysuckle and apple trees around this spot which is now nowhere but once hosted civilization. I was immediately reminded of my friend Roland’s poem, Old Roses. I was very sad thinking about this. Roland died the previous February. Greg had passed away only a few weeks prior. I felt helpless with my grief as I approached the old cellar hole. These feelings were new to me and I didn’t wish to suppress them. I moved forward with a very heavy heart bearing witness to the subject of the poem. The loss of Greg and Roland commingled in my heart. I prayed for their spirits to soar and was grateful for their release from mortal pain.
On this particular day, I had come to the woods with expectations. I thought that a nice long walk would bring me closer to a feel good state. They almost always had. The trees, ledges and even bird chatter had other ideas and I submitted. I called forth the anguish and sadness. I was overwhelmed at the old rose bushes, the loss of Roland and more recently Greg. I couldn’t step back.
I was very sad for days. Was this grieving? I thought it must be, a sort of do it yourself version. I didn’t have a plan other than let the feelings rise and be aware of the validity. I then noticed the woods weren’t calling to me the way they always had. When I thought about going for a walk I instinctively reacted against it and realized I now associated my sense of loss with the place I loved most.
I drive by Roland’s home daily. I am always reminded of him, of his hearty cheer and enthusiasm for conversation. Greg was gone far to soon for me and in such a brutal way. His disease was the opposite side of nature from what I experience on my walks. Both natures co-exist, both a grand mystery, experienced. I no longer drop in on Roland, nor am I invited. His home now has tenants. The same place with different cars in the driveway. I imagine Greg soaring though the universe, free of pain, as his family and friends miss him so deeply.
I have always had empathy for my elders who had lost loved ones. I could see the pain and anguish they were feeling. Now, it seems inevitable that I have moved into the ranks of elder and will either live longer than my remaining friends or pre-decease them. There is only certainty of more sadness. The deeper the connection, the greater the love, the greater the loss. If this is the way of nature, I am grateful to have such great and wonderful people in my life to cause this much anguish.