Today, 20 months after her passing, I find this memory, above all others, to hold the essence of the woman I knew and loved.
February 2009 My daughter Brett is here on her annual escape from the frigid climes of Detroit. While I was working (I retired from Rio Salado College in 2008) Brett spent most of her time hanging with Bernice. Since Brett was most interested in warmth and sunshine she fell right in with Bernice’s habit of spending afternoons in our condo pool. Bernice would read and Brett would lay out. Bernice’s job was to watch the clock and turn Brett every fifteen minutes. This scheme never produced a full-blown tan, but Brett at least acquired some light browning to show for her time in the desert.
This year was different. My being home more gave the three of us a chance to do more things together.
Sitting on west patio taking in a sunset
Brett: I thought you guys did a lot of hiking. I told my boss I was going get some exercise this time out.
Bernice: We’ve been slacking off. Making excuses. Too tired. Too old. Just too damned lazy really.
Brett: Bernice, I thought you hiked with your girlfriends.
Bernice: My main partner Dominica just up and quit on me one day. The rest of them are just too fast for me anymore. Can’t keep up. One girl died up in Canyon De Chelley. Right in the middle of the hike.
Garry: We’ve been doing North Mountain some.
Bernice: Your dad’s been doing North Mountain. I just hike around the ramadas at the bottom until he comes down.
Brett: Is North Mountain where I beat you running up that really steep incline?
Garry: Where you bushwhacked me you mean. I didn’t know you could run that fast.
Brett: I think you let me get ahead.
Garry: Like hell! You know I never let you girls (daughters Brett and Amy) beat me at anything if I could help it.
Bernice: You’re lucky he didn’t trip you, Brett. He hates to lose.
Brett: That was a good hike. I wouldn’t mind doing that again.
Garry: Hell, we can do it tomorrow if you want to.
Brett: You feel like doing it Bernice?
Bernice: I’ll go with you guys. I don’t know about the mountain. It’s been a while.
Next day the three of us hit North Mountain. Not early because Brett likes to sleep late on vacation. Heat not a factor given the time of year. Bernice is sporting her walking stick that she has used as far back as I can remember now. She seems eager to get started.
Bernice: I’m gonna be slow on these rocks. You all go on ahead. Wait for me where the road pitches in.
Brett: I’m not in any hurry. I remember this hike now. Like Camelback Mountain at first. Then the paved part gets really steep.
Garry: We’ll stay with you babe. We be the Three Musketeers.
Bernice: Make that two musketeers and one slowpoke.
So slow and steady we ascend the rocks. We take our first breather and our first water “where the road pitches in”, less than half-way to the top. Bernice is huffing a bit but still smiling as we banter.
Garry: So what you think Brett? Shall we run it?
Brett: Get real! I might run down if I’m not too tired.
Bernice: You two just take it easy. You may need your strength to carry me down.
The paved portion of the hike consists of long, sometimes nasty stretches of up, hidden from each other by switchback-like curves. Impossible to see what lies around the bend. After a couple of these stretches you start thinking that what lies around the bend might be the end of your journey. NOT! Brett and I are keeping a close watch on Bernice. By the end of the first stretch she has fallen silent. As we round the curve for the next stretch she seems to be searching the mountain’s rocky wall.
Bernice: I need to lean on something for a minute.
She finds an indentation with enough angle for her to partially sit. She settles in and takes a long drink.
Garry: You OK babe?
Bernice: (not looking at either of us) I can’t seem to catch my breath.
Garry: Your legs holding up OK?
Bernice: My legs are fine. Stop trying to talk to me.
Brett and I exchange nervous glances. Bernice seems to be shifting her focus internally, taking stock of her reserves.
Brett: We don’t have to do this today. Far as I’m concerned I already got my exercise.
Bernice: You came here to climb the mountain, you should climb the mountain.
Garry: I’m with Brett on this one babe. I say we ease back down the road and go to lunch.
Bernice: Do whatever you want, but don’t say you’re quitting on my account. I don’t want to hear it.
Brett gives me an “it’s up to you shrug”. I have nothing so we fall into a long silence. After a while Bernice brightens and breaks the silence.
Bernice: How you doin Brett?
Brett: I’m doin fine. So far. I just know it’s a long way to the top.
Bernice: Be even longer if you two don’t get moving.
Garry: You packing it in?
Bernice: I ain’t packing it out!
Garry: Well let’s just rest then. We got all the time in the world.
Bernice: I’d feel better if you two just went on without me.
Garry: You know we can’t leave you here.
Bernice: I don’t know why not. You been leaving me places for years. Always wanting to see what’s around the next corner, scrambling up places too steep for me.
Garry: That’s because I knew you’d be OK.
Bernice: You didn’t know, you just hoped I’d be OK.
Garry: But you always were.
Bernice: That’s my point. Why should now be different? I got water. Getting my breath back.
Garry: (treading lightly) I know you’ll be OK if you stay put. But you’ve never been good at that. How many times have I come back to the spot I left you and you weren’t there.
Bernice: So I get bored easy. I’m getting bored right now. Make up your mind. Are you gonna hike the damned mountain or not? Sorry Brett. Your dad can be aggravating at times.
Brett: No apology necessary. I’m with you on that.
Garry: (after giving Brett a scathing look) So you’ll head back down to the car?
Bernice: How about I just do what I feel like doing. Like I always do.
Garry: I worry about you falling on the rocky stretch.
Bernice: I worry about you falling off a cliff lookin at some lady’s backside.
Garry: Smile when you say that.
Bernice: (brandishing her walking stick) I’ll smile when I land this stick on top of your head. (she is smiling now)
Garry: C’mon Brett. We don’t have to stand here and take this abuse.
Brett: What’s this “we” shit Tonto?
Brett and I take off at a pace we can’t possibly hold longer than it takes to get out of earshot.
Brett: You think she’ll be all right?
Garry: I’m more worried about me right now. You in a hurry or something?
Brett: Seriously dad.
Garry: I think she’ll be OK if she stays put. I’ve seen her like this before. She always rallies after a rest.
Brett: But have you seen her like this lately?
Garry: Not really. It’s like she said. I do the mountain and she does her loop. Then we go to breakfast. She’s been OK with that.
Brett: What if she doesn’t stay put? What if she goes down those rocks by herself?
Garry: Got to think about that. (We walk on in silence, assuming a more comfortable pace. Typically we meet folks coming down from the summit, alone, with a group, couples, people with dogs)
Brett: Dang! How come all these folks look so happy.
Garry: We’ll look happy too, on the way back down.
As we spiral toward our destination we take a few breaks to appreciate the view of North Mountain Park. To me the most scenic respite is the one just below the final short-but-brutal stretch leading to the towers at the top. Hikers can sit on a stone bench and enjoy a great look at the city as it spreads out far below. I told Brett that we could stop there for our last major break before starting back down.
Brett: Dad, look at that woman up ahead. Is she reading a book?
Garry: I’ll just be damned! She sure as hell is. Walking right on the edge too. That’s an insult to nature.
Brett: Maybe she just likes to get some exercise while she reads.
Garry: Exercise my ass. For two cents I’d shove her right off the edge.
Brett: You’re sick dad. I’m gonna tell Bernice you said that.
Garry: Speaking of Bernice, I wonder how she’s doing.
Brett: You think she’ll start down without us?
Garry: I’d make book on it.
Brett: You worried?
Garry: No, I think she’ll get to the rocks and hunker down and wait for us there.
Brett: (sudden exclamation) Dad, look. I see the towers. They don’t look too far.
Garry: They’re not. But the last 50 meters are vertical. Just when you think you got it made.
Shortly we arrive at the vertical. We stop. Look at each other
Brett: You’ve got to be kidding.
Garry: Hell no not kidding! You say “go”.
Brett takes two cheater strides and says go. We battle kneck and kneck to the top, then across the top to the big metal Warning sign hung on the chain mail gate that keeps folks from fooling around with the towers. We smack it simultaneously for a tie. After a five minute pant we start down the vertical, allowing gravity to pull us into a trot.
Brett: We gonna stop at the bench?
Garry: Let’s not. I want to get back to Bernice as quick as we can.
Brett: Good! Me too.
Leaning back to provide plenty of braking time should the incline pull us too fast, we descend the mountain. We round the first down stretch laughing and start into the second. Suddenly we put on the brakes and come to full stop. The figure coming up towards us is all too familiar.
Brett: That looks like Bernice.
Garry: It is Bernice. My God, she’s goin for the top!
Brett and I scamper like two kids to greet her.
Bernice: My aren’t we the frisky ones.
Garry: Hey, you. We were just streakin down the mountain to save you.
Bernice: Don’t need savin! Might need some pushing though.
Garry: You must have caught a second wind.
Bernice: More like a second opinion.
Garry: From who…whom?
Bernice: From myself. My first opinion was “put a fork in me”, I’m done. But every time I started to go back down something stopped me. (She lets the thought hang for awhile, conserving her energy.)
Then I started thinking about all the times I did this hike. I would get tired sometimes but I never quit. She looks and nods her head at both Brett and me. Determined. Confident. Happy. Through with words.
Brett: You go girl!
From that point we move on in reverent silence, three companions on a mission. Me, ‘I’m thinking The Three Musketeers got nothing on us.’
Finally we reach the vertical before the summit. To our left is the stone bench and it’s accompanying view. To our right is the final challenge.
Bernice: I want to sit awhile on that bench coming down.
Garry: Gotta earn it first babe. It’s all about the sign now. What did we always say?
Bernice: ‘You don’t bang the sign you never did the climb.’ Let’s go!
Bernice reaches the sign, raises her hand and then pauses. Hard to say how long. Maybe seconds. Maybe years. Maybe long enough to remember every single time she declared this victory. At last she lays her hand on the sign, pats it and turns around. Invites us into her moment.
The three of us are sitting on the stone bench, Bernice in the middle.
Garry: I think I like this view of the city better than the one from South Mountain.
Brett: I remember that one. We drove up to the top, right?
Garry: Right. We called that our Chamber of Commerce tour.
Bernice: Funny how people remember different things.
Garry: How so?
Bernice: You guys remembering South Mountain. You’d never guess what I’m thinking about.
Garry: All the times you and Dominica did this hike?
Bernice: I miss Dominica. Our non-stop conversation. But that’s not it. You should know this Garry. Think night time.
Garry: We did this at night?
Bernice: Several times. Certain time of the month. (pause as she waits for my light to go on) Too slow. I’m remembering when several of us would hike all the way to this bench just to get a view of the full moon. Just hanging there over the mountains. So big and bright. So close you could almost touch it.
Garry: Oh my gosh! How could I forget. But you know what I remember most? How we all forgot to bring flashlights and we blamed Walking Ellie because it was her idea in the first place.
Bernice: I just remember how beautiful it was. How thrilling. (pause) You would have loved it Brett.
Brett: I’m sure I would have.
Bernice was in her 80th year. She would not do North Mountain again in her earthly form. On her birthday, the October following her death, we hiked eleven strong to a secluded space on the backside of the mountain to scatter her ashes. I have returned to that space alone several times since. Each time I’ve spoken my heart, told her how it was with me. Being without her. Bernice never spoke but somehow managed to lever the workings of my mind. The last time we met I shared this epiphany. Caught in the twilight zone between wanting to forget and wanting to heal, I came to the happy conclusion that the one thing I would never have to give up was loving her. I could keep on loving her and still have room in my heart to love others.
This is the final episode in the Bernice and Garry Story. I began telling the story as a way to work through my grief. At first I thought I was simply preserving Bernice’s memory for myself. But early on in the telling, I realized that my greatest need was to share our story with others. I wanted family, friends, the whole world if it was so inclined, to know that we once lived and loved and formed a beautiful partnership. In short, I began to approach our life together more as a storyteller, a writer. Perhaps I can be forgiven that because I am a writer. But as a writer, I’m still a mensch, a human being, a good person. It is the mensch in me that thanks you for reading this blog. I take your readership as an act of love, for both me and Bernice. It is the mensch in me that cannot say farewell. I can only say what is in my heart-Godspeed good souls, Godspeed
The Bernice and Garry story will remain available on the Run for Your Life blog. Still to come are new posts under Notes on Grieving and Progress Report. In the near future Run for Your Life will be included on my still-in-the-works website, Garryspeak. The website will include new blogs featuring all my writing projects. One to look for is my current novel, World Without Midnight.