(Yeah, the last one was #9, and this one is #13. I know. I don’t think it fits narratively, to follow the last chapter. But it was more about the timing of when I post it. Eventually I’ll sort it into the correct order. )
Nothing is forever. There’s beauty in the temporary. Treasure the moments that you’ve got.
I thought, looking at my phone. It wasn't even 7am, I was still laid in my bunk, and I had a missed call from my mom. Besides the notification, was a text: "please call. He's not doing well."
Phone calls before 8 in the morning, are never about anything good. Only bad news carries the kind of urgency, where it's acceptable to interrupt someone's sleep. I knew what I had to do. I got out of bed, and I went to take a shower instead. Like hitting the snooze button on reality, just 15 more minutes, I'm not ready for this dream to end. And I had a good idea of how that call would turn out.
The shower hadn't washed the thought outta my skull; and the shame I felt for thinking it, couldn’t drown it out either.
It bounced around in my head, as my mom spoke over the phone.
She told me how the hospital had called her at 3am, to ask if she was the health care proxy. Like I said, nothing good comes from early morning phone calls. She was scared, and didn't go back to sleep. She'd stayed up with my brother and cried all night.
It'll be fine. I told myself. Surely if I thought otherwise, my selfish thoughts wouldn't survive another minute. But denial keeps selfish thoughts on life-support.
I asked her if I should go back home. A while back, I’d told her I would, if I had to.
Say no. Say no. Pleaded my inner monolog.
“I don’t know.” she said in a somber tone, “I’ll call you later and let you know.”
“No.” I said firmly.
- - No! I thought desperately.
“I’m in town now, later I’ll be miles down the trail, and may not even have cell service."
- - I'd finally gotten away - -
"You gotta tell me now:"
- - and started making my own way - -
"Do you want me to come home?”
- - just to have to go back now?
Silence stretched at the end of the question.
I Just asked my mother whether or not she believed my dad was going to die; my mother, who always under-estimates how late we’re running; my mother, who doesn’t even like to honk the horn, she’s so averse to confrontation; my mother, who audibly gasps, at dramatic moments in movies she’s already seen; my mother, who goes out of her way helping everybody, because she doesn’t know how to say ‘no,’ and she doesn’t want to inconvenience anyone, or disappoint them. I asked her to disregard her innate tendency for wishful thinking, and in that moment face a grim reality.
But I needed to know.
Just say no. I knew what was coming, and the voice had no strength left to protest.
I broke the snooze button, and the alarm was about to go off, and tear me out of the dream . . .
“Come home.” She said. With just two words, she’d shattered all the hopes I had silently built in my head. “I don’t think he’s going to make it.” I had forced her to admit that. I wasn't going to make it any harder with pointless chatter, or reassurances.
Why now? The thought lingered as I let out the breath, I didn’t even realize I was holding.
“Okay, I’ll see you later today, then.” The words came out as easily, and assured, as if it were as simple as walking down the street. It wasn't until the phone slid into my pocket, and I turned back towards Uncle Johnny's, that the reality suddenly hit me:
I have no idea how to get back from here.
I had never booked my own travel; I hadn’t been on a plane in over a decade. Hell, I didn’t even know where the nearest airport was, let alone how I was going to get there. It’s those kind of mundane uncertainties, which, in my former life, might have caused me to stall or freeze, but I had walked almost 1000 miles already, and I’d done it on my own. I just had this nonchalant figure-it-out attitude. Besides, I was at a hostel, and there were adults around; adults with life experience and know-how, I could certainly find directions and advice, if not a ride outright.
I walked up to the patio, LowGear was out in front. I was glad to see him, it felt really good to have a friend around right now.
“Hey Ish! How’s it going, man?” He called out as I approached, a big smile on his face.
I forced a smile, and shook my head. “Not too great, honestly.” I told him.
His cheer dropped into a concerned expression, “What’s going on?”
“I gotta get off trail. I have to go home.”
With a somber tone, I explained the situation with my dad. I had already told LowGear about his recent health problems, and hospital visits, during one of our long talks a couple of nights ago. It made this conversation easier. He told me that CobWeb and Professor, the section hikers I had met the day before, were getting off-trail, and were waiting on a shuttle to Asheville, North Carolina. I nodded, but showed no reaction at this information, so he further explained that there was an airport there. My face lit up, “Ohhh-kay, that is helpful! Yes.” And he told me I could book a flight on the hostel computer.
I found CobWeb and Professor, and repeated the situation. It was a $90 shuttle, and they had no complaints about splitting it three-ways instead of two. The shuttle was picking them up at 9am; it was already after 8:30, so I had to hurry.
I went straight inside and booted up the computer. It must’ve been running Windows Vista or something; it was old and slow. I tapped my foot impatiently as I waited for the browser window to open. For $253 I would be landing in Laguardia in just over 12 hours, with a single layover in Atlanta.
I had the tickets printed with just eight minutes to spare.
I got dressed and switched out my camp shoes, for my jacked up hiking boots. And then I looked at the pack I had carried for over 900 miles. It was big and bulky, and would be nothing but trouble trying to get it through airport security. Also the stick. There was only one thing I could think to do, but I didn’t know if I could get away with it.
I rushed out of the bunk room, with the pack over my shoulder. The shuttle driver was there already, and they were waiting for me. “Gimme two minutes!” I shouted as I went straight into the shop, to the main desk of the hostel.
Gary was behind the counter. Good, I like Gary, he’s good people.
“Ish, I’m sorry to hear about your dad, man.” He said, sincerely.
I nodded, “thanks, it is what it is I guess.” I never know the response for that. “Can I, um, ask you a big favor?” He raised an eyebrow.
“I gotta go home right now, but I am coming back to finish this thing.
“Is there somewhere I can leave my pack, until I get back? I don’t know how I’ll get it through the airport.”
He thought for a bit. “Yeah, put it back here in the storage room.” He pointed a thumb over his shoulder.
I immediately went in and put it as far out of the way as I could. All I grabbed out of it, was my journal, not even any food, or my camera charger. “Thank you, so much. Hopefully everything works out, and I should be back in a week or two.” Famous last words . . .
Back outside LowGear was waiting, and so was my ride. “Best wishes to you and your family, Ish. Hope it turns out alright.” He said.
I gave my trail-brother a hug, and wished him “Happy Trails.”
As I walked towards the waiting sedan, he called out “Hey, you forgetting your pack?”
“Nah, they’re gonna hold it for me, for when I get back.”
I bid farewell to my friends, and a brief goodbye to my quest. But I am not done.
It seemed like a long drive down to Asheville. And it was. We all made conversation, and I tried to stay involved, but I was a bit distracted by the abruptness of current events. After 45 minutes, we were dropped off at the car rental. They would drive back to Kentucky, where Professor is from, and then from there, Cobweb would fly back to Canada.
I waited outside, awkwardly, while the grown-ups procured their means of transport. My flight was at 5pm, the earliest I could get. I figured I had enough time to walk it, but it definitely wouldn’t be a zero day. The airport was across town. 12 miles across town.
It was not going to be a fun day . . .
Professor came outside with the keys to their rental, and offered me a ride, and asked if I had time for breakfast. So we did that instead.
I had never been to a Cracker Barrel before, and they could not believe it, when I told them. It was part of their annual section-hiking tradition, to have a meal at a Cracker Barrel. I ordered some strawberry french toast and poured on the thick blueberry syrup. Then a smore brownie for dessert. We all stayed upbeat, despite the obvious somber mood hanging over us. All three of us were being taken off-trail, our plans unfinished, by circumstance. Unexpectedly, Professor picked up my check; just one last bit of trail-magic.
I got to the airport at noon. On the security line, while emptying my pockets, I found my pocket knife. I had to go find the information desk, and I shipped it back to Uncle Johnny’s in a plain envelope.
I had four and a half hours to kill on the other side of the security gate, before my flight.
So I just started making phone calls. First I called to have my replacement shoes shipped home from Hot Springs, where I was planning to pick them up. Then I called up two of my friends in NY, and arranged to meet up with them on Saturday. Then I called some friends I’d made on trail; HB’s phone was disconnected. I called up Shire, and texted StickyPawz. I got a text from Jersey, he’d still been asleep when I had left the Hostel in the morning. They all sent their sympathies and well wishes, when I told them what was going on.
I messaged my mom, asking if she told everyone that I was heading back. She had told my dad, and he got scared. I replied "he better be scared I'm coming. Haha"
"Why is he coming? What's gonna happen to me?" The doctors were already making him nervous, and now his son was canceling his super-funtime-adventure, out of the blue, to visit. Not exactly subtle signs of confidence…
Still had three hours to kill after that. I should’ve made more friends . . .
I walked around the airport for awhile, taking boring pictures of the boring place, bored out of my mind. I took pictures of the stuff in the gift shop, until I was told to stop, by the girl behind the counter.
I still had two hours left.
I took pictures pretending to sleep. And I wrote out my frustrations in my journal:
Don’t Want To Stop.
Not Done. Too Soon.
Can’t Sit Still.
Out Of Place.
Isolated & Crowded.
Back To Reality.
But Better In Fiction.
And then I rewrote them:
Don’t know how I’ll sit still.
Don’t remember how to sleep in a bed.
Aching feet want to roam.
Life so steady, anywhere but home.
Need to move, want to act
Find my way, back on track.
Gone so far, Back so soon.
Release this EGO. It’s not about YOU.
Still more to say:
Called & Summoned, Journey on Hold.
Relax, No Regrets, Won’t be Long.
Won’t Stay Put, Relapse, or Fall.
Called to Run. Summoned to War.
Stories Untold. Memories Not Yet Made.
More Miles to Go, More Sunsets had.
Disappointment & Pride
Hand in Hand.
Form Bitter Demands:
Not As We Were,
So On With The Show.
The words flowing through my arm and out my pen:
Everything I needed,
I carried on my back.
Now it’s all left behind,
I Walk Unburdened,
Last I was there,
Not quite ready to leave.
No longer fit.
Don’t want to.
I don’t know what they’ll expect.
But - -
I AM NOT DONE.
THE ROAD IS CALLING:
BACK TO THE TRAIL.
NO MATTER WHAT.
(I don’t know how much time was left after all that, but we’re skipping ahead.)
A 45 minute flight. A 90 minute layover. A 2 hour flight. 12 hours since my last meal. And a 2 mile walk. 6 slices of pizza and 1 hour on the train.
I had to walk from Laguardia, through the dark night streets of Queens. My sister had spent the last two weeks in Norway, and she had flown in today too; it wasn’t an alteration of her plans though. She’d book the flight back on this exact day, months in advance. However she had landed in JFK, and she was the one getting picked up. I was actually grateful for it; the extra buffer time. I wasn’t ready to be back. And walking below the streetlights was a good way to reacclimate.
I picked up a large pizza and took it onto the 7 train. I ate slice after slice; hiker-hunger in full effect. After six stops on the train I had two slices left, not because I couldn’t eat them all, but because I just didn’t want to be the guy on the train that just devoured an entire pie, and had to carry an empty pizza box. I transferred to the G train and got off on 9th street.
Back in Brooklyn.
I would’ve given the pizza to a homeless person, but I didn’t see any on the way. So I carried it all the way to the ICU, at Brooklyn Methodist.
HikerTrash with a pizza box, walking the hospital halls.
Cardiac ICU has an open door visitor policy; just another vote of confidence. The closer I got to the room, the slower my steps became. I was nervous, but also I was trying to come up with a good joke to enter the room.
The door was open, and there were all the faces that I had known for my entire life, but hadn't seen in over two months.
I walked in, and presented the pizza box, "there's only two slices in here, so you guys are gonna have to fight for it."
"Mikey!" My mom called out.
My brother, Stephen, snatched the box and immediately started chomping.
"No, it's Ishkabibbel." My dad corrected.
Jennifer, my sister, grabbed the other slice away from him.
"You were expecting someone else?" I asked, in case they were worried I'd lost my sarcasm on the trail.
My mom came up and gave me a hug.
Jennifer called me out, "yo, how you gonna bring just two slices of pizza? You knew how many people were here. Tsk, come on son."
I was extra glad for the pizza, now that it had completely sidetracked what might otherwise have been a touching family reunion. "Ok, I didn't get pizza for you, I got pizza for me. I just chose not to eat it all. So, you're welcome."
I hugged my dad after that, but not the other two; we're not huggers like that.
"Hey, where's your stuff?" My dad realized.
"Back in Tennessee, where I left it. I wasn't getting passed the TSA with all that."
A nurse came in, "oh, are you the traveler?" she asked me.
Clearly my legend had already spread.
"Nah, she's the traveler," I pointed at my sister, "just came back from Norway. I'm just the hiker."
"But you're walking?"
"Yes, it's much stupider. I should've gone to Norway."
"No, I love it."
"This is the first time we're all together again." My mom said, pulling out her phone. "Can you take a picture of us." She handed it to the nurse. I quickly set up my own camera on a timer, and got into position behind them.
He didn’t look quite like himself.
A salt and pepper beard, mostly salt, wrapped his chin. He only ever had a beard after so many hospital stays strung together. His usual look, was a bushy mustache, he’d grown since his teenage years. A breathing hose was plugged into his nostrils. Various tubes, bandages, and medical bracelets covered his forearms, except for a large black and blue on his right arm. The medical gown he wore, had red and blue square shaped polka dots; it did nothing for his figure. On his head was a new baseball cap, “Norway” printed on the front; my sister had brought it from her trip; it was the only thing normal about his look. He had a collection of ball caps, most of them variations on the Mets logo, in different color schemes.
His face was softened, and his eyes weren’t quite as sharp; dulled by fatigue and medications.
He was in pain. He could barely stand. But he was smiling. He was happy. And he was laughing.
Since I'd been gone, he had spent 35 days in the hospital. Admitted, discharged, and readmitted, five different times, from April to June. Though I can’t say seeing him in a hospital bed, was an unfamiliar sight; the first time I remember, I had just turned six years old. The hospital staff almost didn’t let me in to visit him, but six was the cutoff, so I was let up. Six has been my favorite number ever since.
He had more health problems than I could list off the top of my head, but the big one was diabetes. He’d been diagnosed at 24; my age. Now 53, he’d spent most of his life pricking his fingers to test his blood sugar, and injecting himself with insulin. I’d say he struggled with his weight, but he struggled more against changing his diet. He loved greasy foods, and big portions, and would sneak extra salt, and fast food burgers, as often as he could. “Let me eat what I want,” he’d say, “when I go, it’ll be with a smile.”
It was one of those jokes that was only funny to him.
Other than that, he had cardiac problems, high blood pressure, respiratory problems, shortness of breath, and a persistent cough. Also his kidneys had failed, and he had to take dialysis three times a week, to filter his blood. And paracentesis, weekly to drain the excess fluid build up in his body. He had seven stents inserted into his arteries, to keep them from collapsing; he’d joke he had ‘implants.’
The main reason for his recent hospital stays, was his severely low blood count. A normal range is 10 -12; the past few days he was fluctuating between 3 and 4. He had internal bleeding, and they couldn’t find the source, so he kept losing blood. And for that, they wouldn’t do the paracentesis, and he was left with the extra fluid. He was often groggy and sluggish due to that.
He endured a lot of pain throughout his life, and he wasn’t shy to let you know it.
When we left, I turned to my mom, “What’d you call me back for? He’s fine.” He really didn’t seem that bad at all, a bit lethargic, maybe; I had definitely seen him in worse condition. “You told me he was dying.” I feigned disappointment. “You owe me a dead body.” (This joke really didn’t age well, but it seemed hilarious at the time. To me at least.)
In the car, Jennifer asked me to guess how many cats were in my room. The summer before I left, my mom had begun taking in the stray neighborhood cats, and feeding them. She was well on her way to becoming a full blown cat lady.
“Seven.” I said, just to guess a ridiculous number. I was thinking it was probably four, which was absolutely too many.
“How’d you know?” My mom said, completely serious.
I knew she wasn’t joking. My mom's not so funny, and that would have been funny. I must've had one of those cartoonish expressions of disbelief: mouth agape, and eye twitching. Just "why?" was all I said.
We made it home, by 12:30. The family dog barked like mad, and jumped all over me.
In my room, sure enough there were seven cats too many, a few were kittens. They were all in a large cage, and we quickly moved it out of my space.
I hung up my hat, and collapsed in my bed. For the first time in a long time, I slept past 9am.
Day: June 9th
I had come back to see my father, in case things took a turn for the worst. But I saw him yesterday and decided that he was going to be fine.
The urgency had slipped away.
So I took advantage of being home, to do some necessary work. I imported all the pictures of the adventure so far, over 6000, and began culling, sorting, and very basic editing. I'd canceled my editing software subscription while I was away, so all I could do was adjust contrast, exposure and saturation, which was for the best, anything more would take me infinitely longer. Even so, it would still take me more than a single day to get through, and I was still at the beginning of the process when I left to visit my dad, late in the afternoon.
He’d been born in Manhattan, in late September 1963.
His parents were both in their early 20’s, and they were both from Puerto Rico. He was the oldest of four kids they had together. (The second son, had distanced himself from the family, later in life, and they never reconciled.)
He spent his early years playing baseball, with other kids in the neighborhood. And he’d take fishing trips with his father. He enjoyed bowling and bike rides.
He had gone to college for two years, leaving one credit shy of graduating with a degree in computers.
For most of his life, he worked at a printing press in downtown Manhattan. Ragged Edge Press, he’d work there since he was 18; for 27 years. He was the last employee left. And he was unceremoniously let go, with the death of the printing industry.
Then he worked as a paraprofessional at a few different schools in Brooklyn.
He loved working with the kids.
On one of his last days at the school, he had passed out as he was stepping out of the elevator. The kindergarten class he worked with, saw him collapsed on the floor. The kids got scared thinking he was dead. He was advised to take a medical leave, and file for disability after that. For most of the years since, he would spend his time at home, between doctors appointments.
They moved him out of ICU. My mom said that's when his mood really dropped. He liked the treatment in the ICU, and he didn't want to change rooms. They moved him anyway. From then on he never got out of the bed.
Day: June 10th
I spent most of the day signing up for stock photo websites, and uploading pictures. Following HB's advice, I hoped it would generate a bit of income while I was on the road. (It didn't.)
I left to visit my dad again, before meeting my friends in the city. The train was delayed, so I got out and called a ride. I could only stay for a short visit, by the time I made it to the hospital.
He was completely out of it. Blank stare and mumbling.
Seeing him like that, was the first time I really got worried. He barely even registered anyone else in the room.
I was glad I couldn't stay long; I didn't want to see him like that.
Everyday my mom had stayed with him from when she got off work, until visiting hours were over. This was a Saturday though, and she’d been there most of the day.
They had been married 30 years as of last October. And they’d known each other since they were kids, 10 years old. His mom had begun studying the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses. And my mom had already been studying with her mother since she was four. They met, at one of those study sessions. Paquita (my mom’s mom), and another woman were studying with Norma (my dad’s mother). Paquita had brought my mom along, and the two of them sat together in the living room.
They grew up and became close friends. And eventually started dating.
They stayed active Witnesses, and Dad always wanted to work at Bethel; the world headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses, where the literature was printed, located right in Brooklyn. When they had opened up the application, for commuter volunteers, he jumped at the chance. The only stipulation was they had to be single. He wrote that he wasn’t dating, to get in. Reasoning that he hadn’t proposed, so it would be ok. My mom was not happy when she found out.
He loved it there. And he worked at it for 5 months, before he did propose and had to go back to work to save for the wedding.
He’d also volunteered with the Kingdom Hall construction effort.
And in 1986, he and my mom were the first to get married in the hall he helped build.
They’re first child, my brother Stephen, was born two years later. Then Jennifer, two years after that. And me after another two. They’d moved from one too-small apartment to another, every time the family got a new member.
They worked tirelessly to make ends meet, and raise their kids.
I met up with my friends, in the city, and we went to an improv comedy show. It had been a pretty regular tradition for us, before I'd left; once a month, we’d meet up to catch the show. I found out that they hadn't been back since the last time I had gone with them. I was glad to catch up.
A lot of people treated me differently after the trip; people I knew, but never really had conversations with, like suddenly I was interesting and worth talking to. But these guys, they didn't really care about the trip, they were just happy to hang out now that I was back. I didn't have to impress them with crazy stories.
In some ways, it felt like I'd never left at all.
I got home late, but not crazy late. It was too hot in my room, so I slept on the couch. I'd lost all loyalty to any sleeping surface.
Day: June 11th
I didn’t bother to try and fit into my old suits. I just put on some black jeans, and buttoned up my shirt, left untucked. The rest dressed up for their Sunday meeting (church, basically). And the four of us packed into the car, and drove into Manhattan.
The Kingdom Hall on Pearl street, had been such a big part of my life growing up. We’d attend two weekly meetings here, since I was 8, and we had switched from a Spanish congregation in Brooklyn.
I hadn’t been to a meeting in over three years now. Much to the disappointment of my parents, but more than that, it broke their hearts.
To live an honest life, I couldn’t pretend that this is where I fit.
To be my own person, I couldn’t live by their approval.
To find my own path, I had to leave the one I was on.
We walked inside, to a sea of familiar faces, mixed with some I didn’t know. The place was packed. I lingered around in the back for a bit, while my family found seats, so I could find my own. I sat quietly through the talk, but my mind couldn’t focus. A week ago I was hiking out of the Roan Highlands, and into a storm.
Now I was caught in the old sounds, a sea of scripture, and rustling bible pages, that sounded like a wave.
I started getting fidgety, about halfway through the meeting. I have to move. I got up and headed for the exit. An attendant, that I knew, caught me, “are you leaving?” It was a simple question, not a plea or an accusation.
“I just need to walk for a bit.” I said. So I head out the door and took a long walk around the block. I pulled out my camera, and relaxed behind the shutter. I walked down by the East River, and took pictures below the Brooklyn Bridge.
I set the camera on the ground, and stepped out in front.
The sounds of traffic all around; the footsteps of pedestrians, on the concrete. A light breeze disturbed the water; I took a deep breath of the New York flavored air, and I tuned it all out. I stared off for a while, with my quiet thoughts, until I remembered my camera was still on the ground behind me and probably gonna get stolen.
I caught the end of the meeting, and leaned up against a wall in the back of the hall. More people than I expected came up to talk to me, and give hugs, and welcome me back. People I had known for years, some of whom I’d spoken to in the past, and some that I only knew in passing. I was introduced to some of the new faces. They asked me about my trip; they’d asked if I was back for good; and a few asked if I was going to regularly attend meetings again.
A large group came with us to the hospital that day. Good friends that wanted to show their love for the family. My dad was surprised to have so many visitors.
Yesterday he was practically catatonic, today he was energetic, and happy, cracking jokes and laughing with everyone.
He enjoyed sci-fi and baseball, (Star Trek and the Mets were his favorites, respectively) and was disappointed none of his kids had any interest in the latter. But he gave all of us our love of fiction; superheroes and space travel.
He liked taking pictures, a dozen at a time, to the point we'd all be groaning and annoyed, having spent 10 minutes posing in one spot. He recorded every milestone of our lives; bike rides, family trips, and our participation at the hall, giving talks and doing Bible readings.
He was always telling jokes, even if he was the only one to laugh at them. His favorite insult was to call someone a turkey; he'd sigh, roll his eyes and shake his head as he said it. Sometimes, if you're really being dumb, he'd call you a turkey farmer.
He was a kid at heart, with collections of toys and comics.
He loved trips to Disney World, and had gone 5 times between 1994 and 2005. His favorite character was Tiger.
He liked watching TV, and would record every show he had even the slightest interest in watching. We wound up with boxes and boxes of VHS tapes, he had labeled but never watched. Later it turned to boxes and boxes of DVD’s, but he still kept the old tapes.
He also enjoyed video games. Growing up, we would play Co-Op, or versus in Halo. He was never very good, and even after years of playing, always asked which buttons were for what.
He lived by his own time, and was always running late in ours.
The only thing he was ever on time for, was a breakfast at DisneyLand, where he’d scolded us for not hurrying.
He carried his passions on his sleeve. Or more fittingly, as a logo on a baseball cap.
There were so many people to see him this day, we had to take turns going up to his room. The rest had to hang out in the waiting area. We filled the gaps in conversations, with group selfies.
And eventually the party came to an end, and we all went home.
Day: June 12th
It was a Monday. It was sunny and hot out.
Again, I spent the day working on the pictures. My mom texted me around 11:30, to ask if I was going to the hospital today. “Yeah, later,” I sent back.
I wanted to have something to show him.
Mom went over during her lunch break. “How are you?” She’d asked.
Dad gestured a noose around his neck. Universal sign for “a-ok.”
A friend had visited him in the morning, kept him company, and they had talked for awhile. But he also got a cut on his foot, when the staff was sitting him up. He was miserable.
A nurse came in to hook him up to the dialysis machine. Mom took the queue to leave, and went to say goodbye.
Dad asked her to stay.
“I’ll finish up at work, and come back later.” She said. She hated to see the dialysis machine pumping his blood, and wanted to get out of the room before it started. “I’ll be back.” She promised.
I exported the pictures onto my hard-drive, and because it would take too long for me to pick one by one, I just dragged a selection box through the middle rows of the folder. I uploaded them to an online album, and then left. It was around 2:30 in the afternoon, I wasn’t in a rush so I just walked.
I’d made this walk so many times, cutting through Prospect Park. I stopped by my old job first, mostly to gloat about how well things were going. How great the trip had been, and that I was so glad I went for it.
Coming from work, the only thing Jennifer had stopped for, on the way to the hospital, was a slice of pizza.
She’d thought about calling ahead, but decided not to.
He’s my dad, I shouldn’t have to let him know I’m coming to visit, she thought, besides he’ll like the surprise.
She got off the elevator and walked toward our dad’s room. There were a bunch of doctors all around his bed. Probably doing a procedure, she thought, and stepped back out into the hall, waiting for them to finish.
One of the doctors came out, and told her what had happened.
He was gone. He had died.
“Do you want to see him?” The doctor asked.
Jen shook her head, already crying, “no.” Not alone.
“Should we call your mom?” The doctor asked next.
Again Jen shook her head. “No, she’s driving, she’s on her way, she’ll be here any minute.”
They stood there silently, in the hall, waiting by the elevator. People came and went by, in and out of the elevators, but Jen was just focused on keeping it together.
Finally the doors opened, and Mom stepped out.
I wasn’t in the shop for even 5 minutes, when my sister called. She asked where I was. Then she said to come to the hospital right away, and not to say anything.
I left the shop, and started walking towards the train station. Then I walked past it. The train would take too long. I started running.
I stopped when my phone rang again. This time it was my mom.
I caught my breath and then I answered.
I could tell by the sound of her voice.
“I don’t want to say it over the phone . . .`` But she already had, without speaking the words.
“Just say it.”
I couldn’t help but remember when my grandfather, my dad’s dad, had died. I was 11, they told me late in the night, that he’d had a heart attack and was in the hospital. I was raised to pray every night, but like brushing my teeth before bed, usually I didn’t. But I prayed in my bed that night, more intensely than any night before or since. Begging Jehovah, that my grandpa would be alright.
My brother woke me up early in the morning; another heart attack, and this time he didn’t make it.
I cried with my face in my pillow.
“He didn’t make it.” She said. Her voice was broken.
I gave up running, and called a carshare. The driver pulled up and I got in.
“How ya doing?” he asked.
I smiled at him, not forced, but genuine. “Pretty shitty, thanks for asking.”
His shoes smacked hard on the pavement as he ran.
Stephen left work, in midtown Manhattan, running for the train station. They would move the body soon, hurry up! He thought.
The only way I can describe it, is a hollow feeling. The world felt muted.
I got to the room. Mom and Jennifer were by the window. Watery eyes, and somber expressions. I didn’t say anything, just gave my mom a hug. It was long and quiet.
“I’m sorry.” She whispered.
I stayed silent. And so did Jen.
It wasn’t until after that I turned and looked at The Old Man in the bed. Eyes closed, and static. The stillness was unsettling.
A doctor came in and explained how he died; his heart just gave out, and they weren’t able to bring him back. For 15 minutes they tried to resuscitate him.
She asked if we had any questions. More words were said but I wasn’t listening.
They told us they needed to move him out of the room again. My mom said “Stephen is on his way, he has to see him.” She pleaded.
Stephen got off the train, and kept running. It was nearly 5:30. He ran to the lobby, and then to the elevator. He walked down the hall, and rounded the corner into the room. He still didn’t know if he’d made it in time, if the man who raised him, was still in the bed.
He saw the three of us, standing at the far end of the room. And then he saw the face of his father.
He’d made it just in time. A few minutes later they came to move the body out of the room.
In movies, endings come with closure, some final words, and imparted wisdom; a slow fade to black, and a sad saxophone plays in the background. The real world doesn’t tie threads so neatly; they’re frayed and cut abrupt. There’s no closure. There was no heart-to-heart. No blessings given, or words of advice.
There was just a body in a bed. And the rest of us standing around unsure of what to do.
Like a morbid nostalgia trip, I remembered one night a few years back. Dad had made a habit of staying up late or falling asleep watching TV in the living room, with his 3DS. Then in the middle of the night, he’d finally go to bed. (Despite keeping such terrible sleeping habits, he never could figure out why he had such a hard time waking up in the mornings.) This particular night, he felt lightheaded as he slowly climbed the stairs (one at a time, because of his shortness of breath). He reached the top landing, right where the stairs opened into my room, where I was sleeping in my bed.
Then he started blacking out. He tried to catch himself on the bannister, reaching out with his left hand, he let go of the 3DS, and it fell down over the stairs. But he couldn’t catch himself, it just leveraged his fall into a spin, before falling down anyway. His head crashed into the doorknob of my brother’s room, just behind his right ear. He got a massive bump from the impact, and left a dent on the doorknob. He landed heavy against my closet door, propped up just below his neck.
I woke to the sound of the crash. He had turned the stairway light on, so I could see him plain as day, not moving and slumped. I jumped out of bed, calling “Dad! Dad!” No response. I woke up my mom, and my brother.
Adrenaline was pumping through my veins, and time seemed dilated, but I had no idea what to do.
“Call an ambulance.” Someone said. (It might even have been me.)
One of the other two called. I just stared at the situation. There was something really wrong and I was trying to figure it out.
Blood was oozing down the side of his head. He was slightly foaming at the mouth. And he was turning purple.
“He’s not breathing!” I said, like my ‘eureka’ moment. “We have to move him.”
Me and my brother pulled him off of the door, and laid him down, with a pillow under his head.
As I looked down at him, laying on the floor, the only thought in my head was ‘I’m watching my dad die, right in front of me.’
But I was calm, because panic is contagious, it just makes everyone more scared. So I stayed stoic, so my mom wouldn’t freak out. And maybe she was doing the same, because she was visibly shaken, but she was keeping it together. So was my brother.
That was my first glimpse of ‘the Nieves Steel;’ we may not know what to do, but we are calm under pressure.
Eventually my dad’s face returned to normal color. The EMTs arrived and he slowly regained consciousness. And a bunch of firefighters showed up too, to help carry him down the stairs if needed. It wasn’t; only a couple had to help him make it down himself. I rode with him in the back of the ambulance, my mom followed in the car.
It was maybe 4 in the morning. Luckily I didn’t have to wake up for work or anything, because it was Christmas Eve (Not that it meant anything for our family, other than time off work).
“I should’ve stayed.” My mom broke the silence. “He shouldn’t have been alone.”
It was a pointless line of thought. Grief was one thing, but self-blame and anguish over things that can’t be changed, are toxic. And I wasn’t about to go down that line of thinking.
Besides, I was the one that was supposed to be there. Isn’t that why I had come back?
. . . Dammit . . .
Hadn’t he asked me to stay? Not in the days before, but back in February. Back before I left on a journey, that I didn’t understand, for reasons I didn’t fully want to think about.
“Stay.” He’d said, as we spoke about my plan, for the hundredth time in the living room of our house. I was sick of hearing it. “I need your help.” He said. But I didn’t want to be helpful. I just wanted to be independent. And free.
“Even if I don’t go, I’ll just have to go back to work, and I won’t be around anyway.” It wasn’t fair for him to ask.
Or maybe it was.
When my grandfather died, all of his kids were with him. When my dad died, he was alone. All of us were busy doing things that didn't matter. That's the greatest trick that life plays on us all; we get so caught up in the "necessary" minutia, and convince ourselves that there will be time for everything else. And we all know that it's a lie, but we fall for it anyway.
“I should’ve stayed.” She repeated.
“What would that have changed? Do you think he died of loneliness?” I don’t know if words can remove poison from the mind, but I wasn’t going to let it go unchallenged. “Can you just be sad that he’s gone, and stop trying to take responsibility for it?” (I don’t actually remember if those are the words I said; probably not, but it's the point I was trying to make.)
I felt more lost and confused, than actually sad, at that moment. It hadn’t yet sunk in, and I had no tears to fight back. My mom had been crying, but she wasn’t now. My sister had been crying too. My brother, was like me, serious expression, but no visually falter (he told me later, his eyes were burning, but he just couldn’t cry).
It wasn’t until my mom called my uncle Danny, his brother; that I broke. I let the tears roll down my face.
They moved the body after that. We gathered up his things, and we left.
My uncle and aunt had been told over the phone. Now we were going to my grandmother’s house, to tell her in person, that her oldest son had passed away.
We waited outside the building for my aunt Jackie, and her fiance Will. We all hugged when they showed up, then we went up.
My grandma was quiet. She nodded as she listened to the words. “At least he doesn’t have to suffer anymore.” She said.
Her heart broke, but she didn’t show it. She’s too strong to let anyone see.
And then we had to let everyone else know.
My dad had touched a lot of lives. They needed to be told.
We started making phone calls. Calling old friends and other relatives. Locals, and out-of-towners. Coworkers and colleagues. People we’d fallen out of touch with, and people we considered family.
We all came together that night. Danny and his wife, Diana, they were on their way home, to Pennsylvania, when Mom had called. They turned around and came over with the rest of us. They brought pizza. Enough for a whole housefull of starving, depressed Nieves’. Some of those friends I mentioned, like family, they came over too.
We shared stories, and told jokes. There were a lot of hugs, a lot of laughs, some tears and a whole lotta pizza.
It felt as right as we could make, out of the shit situation. The next days would be hard. The coming weeks and months, and that new vacancy, would come to be normal eventually, but for now it was raw, and fresh and not fully processed. Again, for the second time in my life, I had to be completely impressed by my families strength. A hard bunch to break.
I’m not the strongest of them, I’m just the craziest.
My mom, she carries the weight of the entire family, and holds it all together, by sheer strength of will, and ever-persistent effort.
My brother, he’ll avoid it as much as possible, but when he has to step up, he seems more sure of himself than I pretend to be.
And my sister, she may not be so good in an emergency, but she’s brave enough to go places she’s never been, and she’s outgoing enough to have people to go with, unlike me.
My Grandma Norma, she’s the toughest person I know. And she’s never afraid to share her opinions.
My Aunt Jackie, She’s compassionate, and fiercely loyal. She values family, and cheers us on, and always has our backs.
Her fiance Will, he’s as good with sarcasm as he is with a sincere conversation, something I still struggle with.
My Uncle Danny, he’s a family man, and a kid, and he balances it better, than I think even my dad ever did.
His wife Diana, she’s kind and supportive, and the least crazy of all of us. Which is good because we're insane.
And My dad, well, he was a good man. He raised his kids to be decent and honest. He wasn’t always strong, but he was always there. He could be loud and bitter, and he could be loud and generous. He had his faults, but he tried his best, even with his ever degrading condition.
I wish we’d had a chance to really speak. But it didn’t happen. I feel like we had never really gotten past the adversarial phase of the father-son relationship, held-over from the teenage years. We hadn’t quite reached the level of mutual respect, man-to-man, and for that, more than anything, I felt robbed. For a long time, all I could see was the things he did wrong, and for a long time I didn’t want to turn out anything like him. But I’m proud he’s my dad. And the things he got right, I hope I’m able to do half as well as he did.
Well into the night, the family finally dispersed, off to home, and their own quiet thoughts.
I stayed over at my grandma’s. No one would be alone tonight.
Eventually I found sleep, but she never did that night. She stayed up with the pictures.
Day: June 13th
I thought I was going to get a hemorrhoid.
Me and my mom, had gone over to tell her mother the bad news. My mom had said it as gently as she could, and her mom didn’t get it. So Mom told it a slightly more blunt way, and she still didn’t understand. So my mom flat out said it directly. And then my grandmother wailed.
She threw her arms up, and she had been sitting down, but she kind of jumped up, and threw herself back. I came in and caught her. She leaned heavily on me, sobbing. For a really long time. She had already been at the edge of the bed, so I didn’t have any space to sit. I just had the bed frame very uncomfortably, up my ass.
I didn’t say a word. And I didn’t move a muscle. Just stayed there, in agony, until she was ready to let go. It's the least I could do.
She doesn’t have that same Nieves Steel, but that’s ok. The rest of us are strong enough to help.
After a full eight minutes, she finally eased off, and sat up on her own.
I remained standing for the rest of the visit.
Back at Norma’s, another gathering of friends and family was taking place. They pulled out the photo albums, and started reminiscing. My mom was making the funeral arrangements, and I would be putting together the slideshow, it was decided.
Since I would need my computer for that, Jen stayed at Grandma’s, and I went back home, at the end of the day.
Day: June 14th
I started gathering all the photos I could find; scanning and importing them to my drive. Luckily I had already gone through a lot of these old pictures, last year, when I was thinking to put something together for my parents 30th anniversary. Nothing came from that attempt, because i suck sometimes. But this time I was under pressure.
And then I found the greatest picture of my dad that ever was.
It brought a smile to my face, and made me laugh so hard. I shared it to the groupchat, with my family, and they all started laughing too. Especially when I started cropping it.
I debated with myself whether to use that picture for the super serious post I would have to make. Ultimately, I decided that I would. It made all of us happy, when we all really weren’t, and that was a priceless thing. So I posted the tuna pic, with an update about my dad dying, and the time of the funeral service. My dad wasn’t a super serious, doom and gloom, kind of guy, he had a sense of humor. That said, he absolutely would’ve been mad at me for posting that picture.
But it wasn’t for him anymore. He was gone. This was for everyone left behind.
Except I didn’t just post it once. I posted it 10 different ways.
StickyPawz, told me to call her, if I needed to talk. I didn’t need to, but I wanted to, so I called her up. We talked for 40 minutes, about everything going on, and catching up on the last month. She had been through New York, and was heading farther up the northeast. She was planning to sell the “Cool Bus,” ahead of her trip to Thailand. I was sorry she would have to give up Sunshine, but I was glad to talk to her. I like that one. She’s good people.
Day: June 15th
More scanning, more editing, and more cropping. Staring at the screen was straining my eyes. Or maybe it was all the emotional baggage, piling ever higher.
LowGear told me to call him, if I needed to talk. I didn’t need to, but I wanted to, so I called him up. We talked for 30 minutes, about everything going on, and catching up on the last week. He’d had to get off-trail, he’d been doing poorly with the heatwave that had come to the trail, and had nearly dehydrated. I was sorry to hear it, but I was glad to talk to him. I like that guy. He’s good people.
I finished the slideshow. It was 30 minutes long, and I would have to replay it manually. And I was happy with it.
Oh and I wrote some more words:
He’s the voice behind the camera, the narrator of my childhood.
& He could get on my nerves like no one else.
He passed down his nerdy passions, like they were genetic.
He gave me my love of stories, & my eye for photography.
He never wanted me to go on my crazy trip. He wanted me to stay.
But he’s the reason I’m a Dreamer, & I chased that dream into an adventure.
I wish I could tell him, when it’s done:
“It’s the best decision I ever made.”
I wish he could see the person I become.
But life isn’t fair, we rarely get what we deserve.
Him, least of all.
Nothing is forever.
There’s beauty in the temporary.
Treasure the moments that you’ve got.
Day: June 16th
The quiet before the crowd.
We forgot the Met’s hat at home, so mom went to buy a brand new one. She placed it by his graduation picture that my grandma had brought from home. We read the cards on the flower bouquets. And I set up the TV to play the video.
And we saw the body. His beard was shaved, leaving his iconic mustache. My mom cried, she said he looked good.
To me he just looked like leather, and his chest was too flat. The stillness was still unsettling.
I’d only ever been to open casket funerals, but I decided right then: when I die, leave the lid on.
And then it had begun.
The afternoon viewing, brought in a large crowd. Old neighbors, and a lot of my mom’s coworkers; she worked at my old middle school, so some of them were former teachers of mine. They lined up to pay their respects. Which meant they were lining up to talk to us.
Condolences, apologies, and other platitudes; obligatory hugs, and asking “How are you doing?” With a look of genuine concern.
How could I be anything but sarcastic, in the face of such dour circumstance?
“I’m fine. Why? Did something happen?” I got a few chuckles, and some rolling eyes for that. Both, the source of my power.
My sixth grade science teacher, did come up and tell me how I never did homework in her class. So that was really profound, and was a great comfort to hear.
Instead of going for lunch after, me, mom, and some of our stern faced friends, had to go to the hospital, to deal with some bureaucracy; paperwork, was threatening to hold up the cremation. We got it sorted, with the help of the friends. Then got some burgers.
The second viewing came in the evening. Even more people showed up. People I hadn’t seen in years; people I had just seen on Sunday; people I didn’t remember at all, but just nodded like I did, when they would say how small I was the last time they saw me. Some others were distant relatives we only see at funerals; and say the usual line: “we gotta catch up some time,” sure will, next time somebody dies. And some were people I had never met.
My friend Nate gave the eulogy. Mom had wanted him to do it. He’d always been close to our family, and he did a great job. Kept it personal; he told funny stories and touching stories, without trying to hide his own grief.
Then they lined up to talk to us again.
The only thing I remember someone saying, was this guy I didn’t know. He came right up to me, midconversation with a friend of mine, and started talking out of his ass. “You gotta step up now, ya know? Be the man of the house, and take care of the family.”
I held back the laughter. “Uhh, no, no no. I’m the youngest actually. You want Stephen, my brother, he’s the firstborn.” I pointed to Stephen, in the crowd. The guy nodded and went straight over to deliver his deeply important message. I laughed so hard as soon as he went over. I could see my brother give an awkward nod.
Day: June 17th
I spent the night at my Grandma’s again.
We put the coffin in the hearse and we all went down to the cemetery for the final goodbyes. I rode in my uncle’s car, with Nate and my kid cousin, who I had nicknamed Submarine. He thought it was funny that I was called Ishkabibbel, so I gave him a new name too.
At Greenwood cemetery, they asked if anyone had anything to say.
So I stood up, and read the words I had written.
I had written some words for my Grandfather after he had died too, all those years ago. I felt it was important, even back at 11 years, to do something with that sense of loss. A tribute for the departed.
No one told me to do it. I just started writing. It seemed the most natural thing.
We went to the pier at Coney Island, to spread the ashes out to sea. It was just the family there, but I was too scared to speak. I handed the paper to my mom, and she read what I had wrote, while I tried to hide my face.
This time I wouldn’t fail like I had in my childhood. I wouldn’t let the fear hold me at bay.
It wasn’t a long speech, but my confidence faded as I read. And I just felt like that same kid again. I quickly remembered my trepidation for public speaking, and heartfelt emotional displays. I nervously read it quick, and dropped back to my seat. Awkward and embarrassed.
Maybe this isn’t something I’m supposed to be good at.
After me, Submarine went up. He just said he was sad, and he’d miss his Uncle. Short and simple, smart kid. He’s only eight.
We went back home, and I collapsed in my bed. Coming from the carefree and mostly solitary trail, to the severity of a funeral, and overwhelmed by crowds, had left me completely drained. There was still company downstairs when I woke up, but I was done with it.
I needed to be alone.
The Days That Came After
I wanted to be gone, more than anything, far from home, but I stayed a bit longer, for the sake of family.
I called up Gary, at Uncle Johnny’s, and told him how things had turned out. He asked if I wanted my stuff shipped home. I said no. I would be back; more than ever, I needed to be On Trail.
I bought a ticket back to the AT, for July 2nd.
Then came the farewell tour.
I spent different days reconnecting with people I loved, but had fallen out of touch with.
I went to lunch with my Mom one day. We got Thai food.
With my Grandma another day. I went with her to the senior center, and met her gang.
Then with my Aunt. We ate Chipotle.
And then with her fiance. Me and Will got some burgers.
I spent a few nights in Pennsylvania, with my Uncle and the family. I trashed Submarine at MarioKart.
I went to the movies with my sister and my mom. We saw Guardians, and this time it didn’t even cost me a tent. Another night we saw Wonder Woman.
I woke up at 4am, and caught the train out, and finally walked across the George Washington Bridge, as the Sun rose over the city.
I did some community clean up, with RTNY in Central Park.
I went to lunch with Nate, and ordered milkshakes.
I spent a few days doing nothing at all.
And I walked over to visit my other grandmother.
I stopped to talk with a friend of mine.
I paid another visit to my old job.
And I worked up the nerve to strike up a conversation on the train, with the girl that worked next door.
I got my new shoes, and a new phone.
And I took long solitary walks with my camera, and my headphones.
And I thought, I was alright.
Day: June 30th
The family wanted to have a sendoff, before I left, apparently they didn’t get the memo that that was the point of all the one-on-one lunch visits. Stephen was a no show, said “I’d left too many times, so it wasn’t a big deal anymore.” He’s not wrong.
We had dinner at ShakeShack. Because I needed Milkshakes.
Then we went to Coney Island.
It was Friday, which meant there were fireworks. I ditched the group, and walked the boardwalk, with my camera out.
We met back up later, and I rode the Thunderbolt with Jackie and Will.
It was a good night.
Day: July 1st
Another funeral. Someone else I’d known for a long time, she’d passed away a week after my Dad. I had a good long conversation with her grandson, at my dad’s funeral, and went to show the same support. He gave a good speech. We went to dinner with their family.
Back home I uploaded the most recent pictures, and I gathered my gear, what little I had to bring with me anyway, that wasn’t already waiting for me in Tennessee. Couldn’t risk forgetting anything.
My mom made pancakes. And then we took a long drive to Newark. She’d get lost on the way back, she always got lost to and from Newark.
The song Unsteady by X Ambassadors played on the radio. I cried at these words:
“Mother, I know
That you're tired of being alone
Dad, I know you're trying
To fight when you feel like flying
If you love me, don't let go
If you love me, don't let go”
Was it a mistake to leave?
Was I just being selfish?
Was it worth it?
. . .
We got to the airport with 45 minutes before my flight. And I boarded with 20 to spare.
THE ROAD IS CALLING:
BACK TO THE TRAIL.
So Back I Went.
To Be Continued . . . .
Life will always get in the way of living. Live life anyway. Any way you can.
In Loving Memory:
William Nieves Jr.
September 24th 1963 - June 12th 2017