There’s a bridge not far from my childhood home, and I visited it last fall. Even during one of the worst droughts the area has known, the cold cement felt rough and damp beneath my hand. There was no water in the creek bed running beneath the steel frame, but memories flooded the area as musty air kicked up by my sneakers filled my nostrils.
“Why would you visit a bridge?” you might ask.
I don’t know, or at least didn’t know until I sat on the rocky bank by the deeply planted pillar of concrete and rebar. I’d left something there years ago, forgotten about it, but needed it again.
I’m not supposed to walk for exercise, but my dog is old, has been a good companion, and I find it hard to deny him one of his greatest pleasures in life. In full honesty, walking might be hard on my hips but its sweet relief for the rest of me. My mind clears, my soul sings, and the weight of the world lifts from my shoulders when I’m alone or with someone I love on a trail. So, we walk sometimes.
That particular autumn day, I picked a path I’d taken thousands of times as a kid. With the creek dry, I decided we’d cut through a small ravine and then head back to the cabin. The crunching of leaves beneath our feet stopped abruptly when a steep bank fell where a gentle slope once existed.
Tornado looked down at the rocks below, glanced up at me, and started back the way we had come. We’d walked long enough that retracing our steps was reasonable, but I called Nado to me instead.
Time changes things. Creek banks wash away and form different routes. Things that once were exist no more. Change is part of life, and many experiences have re-enforced that lesson over the years. The route change shouldn’t have been startling to me, but it was.
Hmmm. The absence of this crossing will make it challenging to get to the bridge if there’s water in the creek. In that moment, I knew I needed to get to the bridge. The logical part of me wanted to put it off until another day when my hips ached less and Nado wasn’t panting as much. After all, it hadn’t rained in months and the creek was dust-dry for the first time in my 43-years of life. Something turned my feet toward the creek bed anyway.
Nado and I found a spot that allowed a safe descent. The banks on each side guided us while the roar of the highway gauged distance. Once there, I looked around us feeling somewhat disappointed. I didn’t know what I’d expected, but it was just a bridge. My old puppy climbed the bank and laid down in the shade of rugged steel. I felt guilty I’d dragged him and me so much further on a whim. My hips were aching and he was hot. After a quick search for snakes and bee nests, I sat down with him and leaned back against the pillar, tilting my head up with a sigh and running my fingers through his fur.
That’s when I saw them. My brothers and my name stood scrawled in each of our distinctive writing styles. One afternoon when I was still young enough to print my name, we’d stood in the spot where I sat with Tornado, and we’d written our names underneath the bridge. My brothers might already have had theirs there and they were just letting me add mine. I don’t remember for sure, but I remember hurrying so the infamous boogie-man who lived under the bridge wouldn’t get me as I added my name to the list.
We were low-tech kids and had used nothing more than a limestone rock as our stylus. It should have washed away with the two floods that had come in the years since, but it didn’t. Instead, our names stood—engraved not in stone, but with stone.
None of that may seem like a big deal to you. To me, it was exactly what I needed. I was at a point in life where everything felt out of kilter.
I’d always imagined I’d have children, and although I’m capable, other factors led to the choice not to. That choice is one of the greatest regrets I have and it weighed heavily on me. Despite loving my career, a parasite infection left me unable to do enough of the physical work required in order to earn a living with my chosen profession. I was studying for a new career, but I really didn’t know if I’d be any good at it. The pressure to have income was intense. A couple of online business ventures hadn’t been what I’d hoped for or returned adequate income for the time invested. They’re great products, but I lacked the energy to promote them. My husband is ill with an uncertain prognosis. His company had recently downsized his position leaving us without income. Gluten causes a chain reaction that ravages my body and I too often have to deal for months with the autoimmune issues created by inadvertent exposure to what seems a ridiculously small amount of wheat. So many things drastically contrasted to where I’d imagined my life would be.
If you look through this and my other blog, you can see the constant jumps from one subject to another as I tried to figure out how to handle all the changes, and who I wanted to be now that the things I’d planned on no longer existed. I’d lost my certainty, and it felt like I’d lost what defined me.
In the time leading up to my walk that day, I’d spent five years caring fulltime for a special needs child, two years sliding downhill as the parasites took hold, two years fighting for my life and learning to treat the recently discovered autoimmune disease I’d had since I was a toddler, and then three years caring in one format or another for ill family members while trying to heal, repair, and redefine myself. Whatever the word is that describes the state a few levels beyond exhausted, it falls short of describing me as I sat under the bridge and leaned against its pillar.
Seeing my and my siblings’ names still written on the supports of the bridge over 35-years later had a profound impact. It struck me that things I’d thought would last at least through my lifetime were gone while fragile marks in chalk still stood. I wondered if, in a twist of irony, the engraved name on my brother’s tombstone would fade before his written name disappeared from under the bridge.
That was when the first piece of what I have fondly started calling “timber musings” occurred to me: Except for eventual death, all of life is unknown and uncertain. We can guess what will last and what will fade, but we’ll be wrong just as often as we’ll be right.
I’d been seeking certainty and asking questions that had no right answers. It was nice of my friends to tell me that I deserved a better life, but plenty of people don’t get what they deserve in life—good or bad.
If names written in chalk could last through two floods without washing away, who could say how my life would turn out regardless of how it looked that day?
It was more than that, though. My brothers and I were leaving our mark when we wrote our names. We wrote with the enthusiasm of youth and the passion of hopes and dreams not yet tried. Without meaning to, that old bridge captured a snapshot of our potential. As I sat there looking at our names, I remembered who I am.
I don’t mean that esoterically or in a foo-foo manner. I mean it literally. Just like the younger version of me, I am someone with the rest of her future still in front of her. I have just as much reason to be hopeful now as I did then; just as much chance to experience wonder and miracles as to experience loss and heartache. I know with certainty where life took my younger self. If she knew back then what I do now, she might have enjoyed the journey less or been afraid of what was to come. Certainty might very well be over-rated.
Then again, my younger self would probably have told me that I don’t know anything for sure and shouldn’t tell her what she can and can’t do. My younger self was like that. My current self is learning to be that way again.
Nado and I limped back to the cabin. He slept the rest of the day. I started asking questions that had answers.
The next day it unexpectedly rained enough that I’d not have been able to make the trek to the bridge again during my time at the cabin without getting wet and muddy. Risking a fall and the damage a sudden slip could do to either hip or my knee would have been enough to stop me.
Uncertainty still surrounds me, as it does all of us, but I’ve found my center again. I decided my purpose. The weariness lifted and rest slowly ate away at the exhaustion. I have to work against it now, but at least I know to work against it. Life changed, mostly for the better; not instant change or perfection, but steady progress. As one of my friends recently said, “Now that’s the Kathryn I remember!”
I found the above Alan Cohen quote a couple weeks ago, and it once again reminded me of the sensation I felt when my feet instinctually led me to a bridge. An old friend had been on my mind both times. By example, that friend taught me the importance of loving others the way Mr. Cohen describes. It’s important for you, just as much as for the ones you love. It could all be my imagination, but I like to think that knowing love like that led me to a bridge—not to cross it, but to be reminded that our past and present don’t determine our potential or our future.