A Stranger

I posted about this a couple years ago but a friend recently asked me to retell the story. So you old-timers might recognize this one.

Ten years ago I was going through radiation treatments for lymphoma. Every morning I drove an hour and a half to the cancer center, took off all my clothes, put on this robe, and sat in a room with others in their robes.

There was no socializing. There was little, if any, talking. Everything going on in that room was internalized. We were all head down, thoughts inward. Preparing for what we knew was coming, and how awful we were going to feel in a couple hours, and how sick we were going to be the rest of the day.

We were simply breathing. Grateful to be breathing, but able to do nothing more than take the next step right in front of us.

There was an older woman in that group. Short, steel-gray hair. She was always there before me, and when I walked in, she would lift her chin in greeting. We could manage an acknowledgement, but that was it.

Three or four years later I was in a grocery store, in the produce section, and happened to look up. And there she was. We met each other’s eyes and immediately burst into tears.

She was alive.

We hugged. We asked each other how the prognosis was going, how the healing was going. That’s when I found out she’d been in there for breast cancer.

And then we moved on to finish our shopping.

We never asked for each other’s name, or phone number, or email.

It was so random, to run into her there, of all places. That we happened to be, not just in the same town and the same store, but the same section at that exact same moment in time.

Years passed.

Two years ago I was…you guessed it…back at that same store. And there she was.

Once again, as soon as we met eyes, we were crying. We hugged. We asked those questions. Are you still free? She was. I wasn’t. I’d just finished another round of radiation and was still pretty sick. But I was able to tell her it was a precaution only and all was good. We cried some more.

We never asked for each other’s name, or phone number, or email.

She’s a complete stranger. I know nothing about who she is as a person, or what her family is like, or any of the myriad of stories we associate with those we know.

Yet I count her as a close friend.

And some day I’ll run into her again.

What’s Left?

I read a fascinating book by Peter Ward called Life As We Do Not Know It regarding NASA’s search for alien life. While 99.9% of the book was way over my head, one thing he said stuck with me. How can we expect to find alien life when we haven’t found all life on this planet? Basically, we redefine ‘life’ because as science changes and new discoveries are made, that definition of what life is also has to change.

If we must redefine our definition of what ‘life’ is, so, too, must we redefine how life changes and is altered by the death of the physical body.

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Please be kind and respectful in your comments here, because I’m going to move into a topic that people not only feel strongly about, but also one that many feel must be pushed on others who feel differently. Please tell us how you feel, but don’t tell us we have to feel the same way.

I tried different religions but never found one that fit. I personally feel religion was simply early man’s first attempt at a moral code. I don’t believe in some great hereafter, and I don’t believe people go to heaven or hell, or some other variation of that theme, after death.

Mom at cabin

Yet, when you lose a loved one, beliefs on the afterlife get seriously challenged. Because we don’t want to let go. We don’t want to believe they are gone forever, beyond our reach, or beyond any hope of ever seeing them again. So how do you reconcile love and loss with no afterlife?

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I’m not ready too say there is nothing after death. My siblings and I had an unexplained moment when our dad died. We were far apart at the time, in our individual homes, and didn’t realize we’d each had similar experiences until days later. But even with that mystery, I don’t believe in some heavenly afterlife.

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I just don’t think it is something we can know or understand, or maybe even wrap our minds around. I think people’s attempts to define it in the language of religion are limiting something that is unknown because we, as humans, are also limited in our knowledge of the world around us.

I don’t believe in some all-knowing god. But I also can’t truly say, after that experience with dad, that there is nothing afterwards. I just have to settle for ‘I don’t know’ and try to accept that it helps not one iota with the loss that comes from death.

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We are made of energy, or as some say, we are made of stars. I think that energy dissipates, maybe stays around, maybe becomes something new, maybe swirls out there in the universe forming new planets and new life. Who knows? I sure don’t.

If I haven’t learned about all the life that exists, then how can I begin to fathom all the possibilities of what happens to life when it transitions, or dissipates, or moves on, or simply ceases?

Mom's wedding

I hope that there is something after death mainly because it eases loss. That comes from selfish longing, not from some sense of fear about what will happen to me. Personally I’ll be happy fertilizing some trees.

But for those I have loved and lost, I hope they are among the stars.

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The House That Wandered

Our house was built in 1928. At some point in the 1930s, it went for a stroll and never came back. It also took a few other houses with it.

They originally were beside a whitewater river but they got tired of floodwaters seeping under their foundations and inside their walls. So off they went, on the hunt for a drier location.

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They ended up on the other side of the highway, where they still sit to this day.

I like to cross the highway and wander down to the river, where the forest is slowly reclaiming those places. In some areas, it’s obvious, but in other areas you have to know what you’re looking for, to find the spots where the houses used to be.

For instance, a row of young trees that is just a little too straight for nature.

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That reminds me of when we had a parking area installed. Our friend wouldn’t put in a square area, saying all landscaping should be about moving people away from the straight lines we live in. That nature doesn’t like squares.

But anyway, some areas over there in the woods are more subtle. There is a plant blooming right now. More of a twig, actually. It only catches the eye because of the cluster of little purple flowers. The plant is non-native and is left over from the days when someone planted the shrub in their yard. The yard is long gone. The house is long gone. But children of that shrub have spread and occasionally a tiny one pops up where it shouldn’t be, and happily blooms.

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There are old railroad tracks, half-buried in moss and forest floor. Glimpses can be caught of the rails as they peter out in the woods. It gives a sense of mystery. Where did they go? Where did they come from? What was it like when they were in use? They weren’t used by full-size trains, but for smaller units carrying supplies. But it stirs the curiosity when you stumble across a section of rails seemingly not connected to anything, out in the woods.

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It’s interesting to me how your eye can be drawn to those straight lines, even if you don’t know that a community used to thrive there. Those lines don’t belong along the river, between the trees, among the rocks, under the moss. And so you see them, almost like a haunting, or a shadow of what once was.

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Maple tree, moss, and a nice crop of licorice root

I wonder sometimes what memories get absorbed into the walls of an old home. What voices the wood might remember, what stories, or what dramas. Do they remember the feel of roots reaching down and branches reaching up, when the boards were trees?

And I wonder sometimes if the house remembers the rush of water, the sounds of it, the feel of cold snow-melt flowing around its frame.

Or if it just sits on its foundation, quietly hibernating, maybe dreaming of the next walk it will take, and where it might go.

Who knows where I might wake up one morning.

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