“About 480 million years ago, the North American plate started moving and it made the mountains raise up, like the snow in front of a plow.” Teddy had been talking almost nonstop since we had started walking. I used to do the same thing when I was his age if I was around people I knew. Like me at that age, he was shy around strangers and was beginning to withdraw into himself as an introvert.
“After it gained speed and pushed the ocean plates out of the way, bam! It hit a continental plate and things got interesting.” He was a lot like me in many ways. Watching him gave me a glimpse of my younger self.
“Then Africa joined the party, making Pangea, with the Appalachians rising out of the middle, higher than the Himalayas.”
“Uh uh,” Derek said. “The Himalayas are huge and the Appalachians are wimpy. The Rockies are much bigger and then there are the …, uhm, hey Dad! What are the mountains in South America called?”
“The Andes,” I said.
“Yeah, the Andes. They’re bigger than the Rockies, yet they’re tiny compared to the Himalayas.”
“Maybe now,” Teddy said. “The Appalachians have been eroding for hundreds of millions of years.” I wondered what 250 million years meant to an eight year old. “They’re ancient and worn down. Heck, there are parts of the mountains that were created by the washout of the main chain. Isn’t that all right, Dad?”
“That’s right. The Appalachians are the oldest mountains and once were about as tall as the Himalayas. What we see today is just the core of the mountains that used to be here, and, as Teddy said, weathered and gullied piles of debris that eroded off of the original ranges.”
“Now if you look at the trees over there…” Teddy was at it again, talking nonstop with Derek playing along. I wondered if he would tire soon.
“I’m hungry,” Jason said. “Let’s stop for lunch.”
“We’ve only been walking about an hour and a half since the rain stopped,” I said. “Let’s go a little farther.”
Jason came to a stop. “What time is it?”
I looked at my watch. “About half past noon.”
“I’m hungry.” He took his pack off and sat down next to it.
The other two boys looked at me. I could tell they wanted to keep going, but I didn’t want to cause an issue, and Jason was right, we typically ate around noon. I knew the experts would say that I shouldn’t give in, but I was tired.
“OK, let’s have lunch,” I said. “We’ll eat all of the perishables we can and leave the rest. They’re getting heavy. I’ll redistribute the firewood and take most of it. OK?”
Teddy and Derek took off their packs and sat down.
I watched the kids as they ate. Jason was still being quieter than usual, but joined the other two on occasion. The chemistry between Teddy and Derek, though was interesting. Derek was so much like his mother while Teddy was a “mini-me”. When you toss in the age difference, one might think they couldn’t have been more different, and yet they made a great team. They had so few times when they could interact like this, that for a moment I was almost happy we had the accident. But then reality returned and I knew we had to pack up again and start moving. A few rain drops spattered amongst us as we cleaned up and got the packs back on and then moved off. The sky was a patchwork of dark clouds and blue.
Back on our feet Teddy and Derek soon got far out front while I stayed closer to Jason. Jason seemed to be happier after lunch and talked a little, but mostly just walked by my side in silence. It wasn’t long, though, before the two boys in front stopped and waited for us.
“Dad, I have to go to the bathroom,” Teddy said.
“Go find a tree. We’ll wait.”
“No,” he looked at the other two, then back at me. “I have to, you know…”
“OK,” I said. “Derek, you and Jason continue on. Don’t go too fast. If we don’t catch up in, say an hour and a half, stop and take a rest break and wait.”
“Sure Dad. Hey Jason, you ready?”
“Yep. Let’s go.”
“Hey, look up there. The trees are huge and so close to the road it’s like a cave. Isn’t that cool.”
“Yeah, you’re right. Cool!”
The two older boys slowly made their way off, chatting. With Jason up, I wanted to make sure he kept moving. He was the type that would sit in front of the computer all day if you didn’t force him outside. When they were far enough away, I opened my pack. I pulled out a small hard plastic shovel and a baggie full of toilet paper.
“Now just go back into the woods a little way and dig a hole. Clean up after yourself. OK?”
“We don’t have to carry out?”
“No, it’s fine here. It’ll degrade.”
He went past several rows of trees into the woods, looked back at me, then went a little farther and stopped. I could barely make him out but could tell he was getting ready. I turned towards the two departing boys, now barely visible, to give him some privacy. It was great that Jason was opening up to Derek. Perhaps earlier it was just hunger, since his mood did seem to raise after lunch.
I waited a few minutes then went to the edge of the woods. “Hey Teddy, you OK?”
There was no answer. I walked in a few steps and called again. Still no answer. I went to the last place I saw him. It was obvious he had done his business there and had tried to cover up, but he wasn’t around. I called again. I went farther into the woods. After a few steps I could see him, sitting on a downed tree with his back to me.
“Hey, how’re you doing?” I asked as I stepped across the log and sat down next to him.
He lifted his tear stained face. “I miss Mom.”
I put my arm around him. “So do I, so do I.”
“Why’d she have to die, anyway?” He was always much closer to Nancy than to me. I knew her death hit him hard, but I hadn’t seen him like this.
“She was very sick. She had cancer,” I said.
“I know, but why?”
“Everybody dies eventually. Nobody knows why, and why some people live long lives and others don’t. I’m sorry, I wish I knew, but there are no answers that I can give.”
He stared at the ground as if the wheels in his head were processing my answer. He turned and looked at me with an angry eye.
“Last night, when you were going down to the car, you yelled and then were silent. We saw you lying down there. I thought you were dead. I thought you were leaving us, just like Mom. I thought…” He started to sob.
“There, there,” I said as I cuddled him. “I’m sorry. I was in a bit of shock when I fell and it took me a few moments to regain my bearings. I’m sorry, but I’m fine. OK?”
“After Mother, I didn’t want to lose you too.”
“I know. Don’t worry, I’m not planning on going anywhere. I promise to be extra careful.”
“I don’t like you seeing me cry. I’m not a baby.”
“I know. After your mother passed away I hid my crying from you and your brothers. Don’t look surprised. We all cry, even the toughest of the tough. Nobody will think you’re a baby.”
“But don’t tell them, OK?”
“Don’t worry. I won’t. And you don’t tell them about what I just told you, OK? It’ll be our secret. You better now? Ready or do you need a few minutes?”
“I’m almost ready.” He sat, looking at his feet, but no longer crying. “I sometimes dream about Mom.” He looked up at me.
“Yeah, so do I, every night.”
“Last night it was so weird,” he said, looking back down. “I woke up and was on the road, under the sleeping bag and between you and Derek. There was a light, and I thought it was the moon. But the moon isn’t even close to full. I turned over and looked. It was Mom. She was glowing. I was about to shout, but she put her finger in front of her mouth, silently shushing me.” He demonstrated.
“Mom walked over to us. You guys were still sleeping. She Looked down with a smile that was, uhm, I don’t remember the word. They say it in church. I thought it was beautiful, but it’s different, more spiritual.”
“Beatific?” I asked.
“Yeah, that’s it, beatific,” he said. “I never knew what it meant until I dreamed I saw Mom last night. She watched us with that smile. She then came over and touched you, Derek and Jason. She kissed me on the forehead and I knew she was telling me that everything was going to be alright. And then I woke up. I was flat on my back looking up, but it was dark and Mom wasn’t there. It was only a dream”
He looked back at me, full of excitement. “But isn’t that a cool dream?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Anyway, let’s go.”
I got up and reached down for him. He took my hand and I pulled him up. We walk, hand in hand towards the road. We stopped at the edge of the woods. It was gently raining, not hard enough for more than a few drops to make it through the trees. After about thirty seconds it stopped, Teddy dropped my hand and we walked out onto the road. We put the shovel and paper back in my pack, got ready and started down the road at a fast pace.
After a couple of minutes of walking we reached the spot where the trees on either side of the road almost touched, giving the road a tunnel like feel. Steam was rising from the wet road. It had obviously rained harder here than at the place where we had lunch.
“Look! Frogs!” he said.
The road was covered in small frogs. We slowly made our way through the living carpet, careful not to step on any. I had seen large numbers of frogs on a wet road before, but being in the middle of them while we walked was surreal. They hopped out of our way, but then just sat there, moving only the bare minimum to avoid being squashed. It was almost as if we had entered their kingdom and they were letting us through.
Teddy started to laugh. I couldn’t help but join him. As if on cue, we both sped up in a half dance, quickly moving our feet but missing the frogs, staying on our tiptoes, and twirling as we walked. I don’t know why I did it, but I felt freer and more alive than I had since Nancy became ill.
Soon we were out into the patchy sunlight and the frogs were behind us. The road was drying.
“Wasn’t that great?” I asked.
Teddy nodded. “Hey, race you to where Derek and Jason are,” he said.
“Sure,” I said. I’ll give you a head start. Go!”
He started running. I waited for him to get about 15 yards down before taking off after him. I sprinted until I caught up and then jogged just behind him. When I saw the older boys I moved so I was running right beside Teddy. We crossed that imaginary line together, as one.
— — — — —
See the next installment, Jason (Stars)