River, Take Me Along...
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RIVER, TAKE ME ALONG...
Edition 58. November 2023
“Goodbyes are only for those who love with their eyes.
For those who love with heart and soul there is no such thing as separation.”
He was going home to die. He knew it. She knew it too. But she would never allow herself to say it aloud.
There was no doubt in her mind that bringing him home, back to the low-country and his beloved river, was going to be a sacred and triumphant event for him...nearly as sacred as the births of his two children. More triumphant than surviving two heart attacks...the last of which was less than a decade before.
He’d often referred to that river as his oldest and truest friend.
The trip from Raleigh to the Pamlico Sound would mean driving almost due east...directly into the harsh late summer sun. His eyes weren’t what they used to be, and he was much, much slower to react to things than when he was younger. And so, he decided it might be better if she did the driving...
“It is your decision sweetheart,” she said. “But if you think it best, then I do too.”
“Do you mind?” he asked.
“Not in the least,” she answered with a smile, gently shaking her head.
The truth is, she thought it best too. And as a matter of fact, had he not suggested it, she most certainly would have.
In the last few years, as he’d gotten weaker and weaker, he’d begun to believe he’d never see his river again...never sit along its banks or let it work its magic on him. But once their plane had finally touched down at the airport a little after eight o’clock that morning, and as they were driving east on Highway 70, she could see his strength and his spirit were returning to him.
“He’d become an old man over the past thirty years living in Italy,” she confided in me at his funeral. “He’d grown tired, weary, homesick...suffering the aches and pains that old men tend to feel. But in this homecoming, new life was breathed into his spirit. His age and weakening body meant not an iota any longer.”
They drove through the little towns of Goldsboro and then Kingston, eventually coming into New Bern where they turned south. The closer they got to the river house, the more he could feel that river reaching out to him. Though they were still an hour away, she sensed his mood was changing.
She, as I have been calling her, was his beloved wife...fifteen years younger than him. She was his best friend, his confessor and confidante for more than thirty years. And she was intent on being all those things to him for at least a few more. He sat beside her in the passenger’s seat, his hand resting on her leg. He was a chatterbox, describing the sights and scenery along the way. It seemed he had a memory held dearly in his heart for almost each and every one of them...
He spoke of them as if they’d all just happened yesterday.
Glancing over as he spoke, she could not help but see how tired and frail he’d become over these past years.
Marrying him had started out like a dream come true. He loved living in Italy and treasured every day with her, on that little farm in the hills outside Bologna. But of late, more times than she would ever admit, she could tell homesickness had set in. He longed for the place of his birth.
Having finally come home, after a half-lifetime of being away, he was more determined than ever to live out whatever time he had left right there on the river...
with the woman he loved more than life itself.
He wanted nothing more than to spend his afternoons beneath the warm southern sun, sitting in that comfortable old Adirondack chair out on the end of the dock watching the river flow...perhaps cracking a few pistachio nuts from time to time and drinking a bottle or two of half-warm Crystal Coast lager...
just the way he liked it.
When Swindell Bay came into view, she noticed he sat straight up in the seat. Just short of the marina is where they’d turn onto Weaver Camp Road and follow it as it weaved back and forth for a mile or so. By the time they were turning onto the dirt road that would take them back to the house, he’d rolled down his window and with his eyes closed, breathed in all the fresh air he could take into his lungs. To him, nothing ever smelled as good and as fresh as the air of the low-country and the wind coming off the Sound.
The iron chain he’d had installed...the one that was supposed to block the lane, was lying on the ground. She was by nature a fearful person and began to worry about what they might find once they got back to the house.
But as she pulled into the grassy lawn in front, everything looked fine...at least from the outside. With the exception of how high the grass had grown and how badly the house needed a new coat of paint, not much had changed to his eyes...
“What do you think?” she asked, wanting to gauge his reaction to being back.
“It looks just like it did when I left,” he whispered out loud. “God...it’s good to be home!”
Surprisingly, the old wooden house was none the worse for wear and tear. With the help of a local realtor, they’d kept it rented most of the time that he was gone...though the realtor had passed, and he never did get around to replacing him. And so, for the last eight, maybe nine years, the house had been closed up and empty, save for the old furniture and carpets he’d left behind.
She parked the car beside the house...beneath the two oak trees that had grown monstrously taller than she remembered them from his old photographs. After standing to stretch her legs and then helping him get out of the car, she took his key ring and unlocked the house.
She went around opening each of the windows and the shutters and all the doors to get it aired out. He’d promised to help, but as she’d suspected, he was just too anxious. He had something more important he needed to do. While she worked inside, he ambled down to the dock to say hello to his old friend.
She appeared on the front porch after a few minutes and waved to get his attention. She shouted to him...
“We are not staying here tonight!”
There were so many bugs and too much dirt....
“I called Mary Beth over at the Clinton Creek Inn. She is getting a room together for us.”
And with that she turned around and went back in to continue with her cleaning.
He never argued with her anymore. As a matter of fact, he rarely ever had. He was nodding his head while she was talking, gesturing that he understood, but chances are, with his hearing as bad as it had gotten, he probably didn’t hear much of it...and she knew that.
He seemed surprised when they pulled into the parking lot of the inn. That’s when she realized her suspicions were right. He had not heard what she said. He wore a disappointed look on his face and said...
“I was looking forward to sleeping in my old bed tonight.”
She leaned over and laid her head on his shoulder. She patted his hand...
“It’s just too dirty and the electricity isn’t turned on yet. We have no water for our showers in the morning. The propane tank is empty. How will we cook our meals?”
He managed a reluctant smile. She stroked his cheek and spoke in her sweet Italian accent...
“Be patient just for a short while. We’ll go back in the morning. I promise.”
But they didn’t. They spent two nights at the inn. Though they spent their days at the river house together, working on things inside and out, there was still too much to be done before she’d agree to spend the night.
There was an old raccoon that showed up in a different room from time to time while they were cleaning and until he was convinced that he needed to find another home, she had absolutely no intention of sharing this one with him!
It took a few days to chase away the mice and the spiders. Eventually that raccoon left too. She kept the windows open all day, letting the fresh, sweet clean low-country air come through...
“We need to get the smell of mildew out of the draperies and these old carpets.”
She knew it was up to her to call the contractors to have the repairs done and to have the utilities turned on. She did it all gratefully, never complaining, not even once. Job number one for her was to get rid of those carpets...
“I bet that raccoon has done his business in every room in this house. I am having the trash man come by tomorrow and take them all away. We will buy new ones, or we’ll have the floors sanded and refinished. Is that OK with you?”
His smile had returned and seemed so much more aware of his surroundings...
“Whatever you want sweetheart,” he answered. “It’s all OK with me.”
Over the course of a week, she filled the house with fresh air and sunshine. They’d go for short walks together down along the river where she picked bouquets of the fresh wildflowers that grew everywhere.
One day a brown and white cat, obviously a stray, wandered onto the front porch and walked right in through the open front door. He was mewing loudly, trying to get their attention...trying to tell them that he was hungry, thirsty and in need of a little human companionship. Once she’d given him a small bowl of milk and part of her tuna fish sandwich...well, he decided this would be a good place to stay.
As he’d gotten older, he’d become kinder and less critical of himself...
“I've become my own friend,” he told her one evening as they chatted during dinner. “I’ve seen too many dear friends leave this world...much, much too soon...before they understood the great freedom that comes with aging.”
He was sometimes forgetful. But then again, some parts of life are just as well forgotten...
“But I eventually remember the important things,” he added, with a smile, a smile that mimicked a grimace.
Over the years his heart had been broken. How can it not break when losing a loved one or having watched a child suffer?
“But broken hearts are what give us strength,” he said. “Broken hearts make us understand life. The pain forces us to be compassionate...and that is a good thing I guess.”
“A heart never broken will never know the joy of being imperfect, will it my dear,” she answered.
She believed he’d been blessed to have lived long enough to have his hair turn gray. To have his youthful laughter forever etched into deep grooves on his face...
“Too many have never laughed,” she said. “And too many have died before their hair could turn silver.”
As he got older, it was easier to be more positive...
“I couldn’t care less about what other people think of me,” he said. “I’ve stopped questioning myself so much.”
“You’ve earned the right to be wrong, sweetheart,” she said, beginning to stand up. Before she could clear the dinner plates, he stopped her by tugging on her shirt sleeve...
“I like being old, sweetheart,” he said. “It has set me free. I finally like the person I have become, and I thank you for that. We both know I’m not going to live forever. But while I am still here, I am not going to waste another moment of time lamenting what could have been, or worrying about what will be.”
The days passed slowly, turning into weeks, until eventually the season began to change. They’d arrived in the final days of summer, when it was darn hot. And though it was autumn now and the days were shorter and the strong heat was lessening, it was still barely tolerable for her. She just was not used to it. So, she had an electrician come out and install a few window air conditioners one day.
She found October to be even more beautiful there in the low country than he’d described in the many stories he’d told her over their years together.
She sat with him out on the dock in the afternoon, basking with the warm sun on her face and the breeze coming in off the Sound blowing her hair back off her neck and shoulders. It was enough to make her forget that she was the one far away from home now...5000 miles away from everything that was normal to her. It gave her a better understanding of the times when he’d seemed so homesick.
By the time November came around, the weather was perfect. For both of them. But she could see he’d been slipping.
“I knew it was but a matter of time now,” she told me. “I knew I would lose him in the coming days.
The seasons began to change again. It was warm in the afternoons, but the nights got cold. During the day he wore the same old, worn linen shirt each day…a favorite of his. So were the cut-off shorts, a worn-out pair of sandals. And that darned old straw hat! She’d threatened to throw it away years before but somehow, he’d kept it just out of her reach. He’d hid it in his luggage and brought it along. The sunglasses he wore once belonged to his uncle...the same man who built the dock on which he sat. For as far back as he could remember, it had been right there…
jutting out into the water.
From it, he once fished for channel bass. It was where he’d learned to swim. But those days were long over now. The years had changed his body and robbed him of his strength. So, for now he was content to just sit at the end of the dock and watch as the last of his time and the river flowed by.
He’d kept a journal in those days and from time to time he would write in it. More often than not his entries were brief...a few words or phrases...
“Shore birds today.”
“I fed the crabs the last of my sandwich”.
“Looks like a storm coming.”
Most meant nothing. Just casual observations. He mused from time to time on how lovely yet strange it all was…the river I mean. It was always there. Yet the water that flowed in front of him was never the same and it never stood still. It was always changing…always on the move. And over time, the river itself had changed. His notes described what he saw...
It seems wider these days. A bit shallower than I’d remembered. Either that or the river grass has grown thicker. Either way, I no longer see it the way I did as a young boy. Once was a time...it seems like just yesterday, that I could swim across it without stopping. No need to rest or catch my breath.
Life for him had become very much like that old river. Sometimes it had carried him along gently and peacefully. Other times it raged and pulled him under…sweeping him into places he was not meant to go. And most times, those torrents came out of nowhere. He never saw many of them coming.
One day she watched him writing furiously. She said nothing but wondered to herself...
“What could he possibly be doing?”
He was learning the age-old secret all rivers hold. This was his river, but it was no different than any other...
“There is no such thing as time to a river,” he wrote. “A river flows everywhere at the same time…at its headwaters and at the deltas that empty into the ocean. They flow over the waterfall. They carry the ferries across themselves. They exist only in the present moment, not in the shadows of the past or the clouds of the future.”
He asked her one day when she was sitting with him and sharing one of those beers...
“Are we like these rivers? Am I like that?
Have I changed like my river has changed?
Have I become wider? More shallow?”
A simple touch of her hand against his and a kiss on the cheek answered his question...
“Yes, I will agree with that. But look at us.
We’ve grown old together.
There is nothing wrong with that.”
He thought about it for a while, and he agreed.
He was indeed very much like that river…always flowing but always different. There were times in his life when he meandered along steadily…peacefully, with hardly any movement to be noticed. Other times, when there was too much water, too much life inside him, he had surged into the rapids…furiously raged…bursting from his own banks.
And there were times he feared to become stagnant…to dry up from lack of rain and become a dry bed. This was what the years had done to him.
On one particular day the warm beer went right to his head! It made him sleepy. It was nothing for him to fall into a nap now that he had officially reached old age…something he could not conceive of doing just ten years earlier. He fell into a shallow sleep and into a dream that would leave him restless and anxious once he awoke.
In this dream he was in the water, drifting along. In an inner tube. He wasn’t alone. There was a little girl with him, ten…maybe twelve years old. She was in a tube of her own.
He felt as if he knew her somehow, though he could not recall how. He watched her spinning in circles in the slow current…her eyelashes fluttering from the water that dripped from her forehead. Her face was drenched in sunlight. Her feet lazily kicked in the water. She propelled herself along with gentle strokes of her cupped hands.
It was her smile that haunted him the most. He’d seen it before. It meant something to him at one time. But damned if he could remember…
As they drifted down the river together, he felt as though a medicine was moving through his veins, flushing his cells with a natural, liquid peace. The sounds of chirping birds and the katydids and frogs along the shoreline filled the air. There was the soft murmur of moving water everywhere.
He wanted to look only at her…to think only of her. She created the calmest vision he could imagine, and it released every other thought from his head. His worries and all that pain flew from him like flocks of birds, scattering in every direction and filling the sky.
Together they drifted, side by side, without talking. They drifted until the night sky set in. and the stars were beginning to sparkle in the sky. That’s when it all started coming back to him. That is when he began to remember this little girl.
He knew the constellations by heart. He and that little girl had done a science project together on them one time...many, many years ago. It was all coming back to him. The two of them had spent hours lying on their backs right there, on that old dock, looking up at the sky.
As the river bent to the south, their tubes came side by side again. They could see Virgo and Centaurus coming into view. There were a lot of stars out that night. The two of them giggled, pointing with their fingers and drawing imaginary lines in different directions, creating their own, brand-new constellations.
He wanted to rise up from the river and fly to them, much like he did when he was young. But he didn't have the power anymore. All he could do now was let the river carry him along...
And then the dream was over.
She came down from the house to wake him...
“It is time for lunch. I’ve set the table in the shade of the oak trees.”
But before she woke him, she noticed the journal was open. Normally she would never have looked, but that day something told her to read...
I was born in the path of the winter wind.
I was raised where the river is old.
The springtime waters came dancing down,
And I remember the tales they told.
The whistling ways of my younger days
Too quickly have faded on by.
But all of their memories linger on
Like the light in my fading sky.
I've been to Italy and back again
I've been moved by the love that I’ve earned.
Met many fine people, called some of them friends
Felt the change when the seasons turned.
I've heard all the songs that the children sing
And I’ve listened to love's melodies.
I've felt my own music within me rise
Like the wind in these autumn trees.
Someday when the flowers are blooming still,
Someday when the grass is yet green.
My river’s waters will round the bend
And flow into the open sea.
So, here's to the woman who’s followed me here
And here's to the friends that I’ve known.
And here's to the song that's within me now
I will sing it loud before I go.
River, take me along.
In your sunshine, sing me a song.
Ever moving and winding and free
You rolling old river,
you changing old river
Let's you and me river,
run down to the sea.
She closed the journal and decided to let him sleep a bit more. She knew they’d come back just in time...a few months later and everything would have been much different. In her prayers at night, she thanked God for giving him these last months to make amends with the heavier things he’d carried in his heart and on his conscience for so long.
And she also knew the river was the only place it was possible. She was sure of that. Had they stayed away, back in Italy, he would have taken many of these things with him to his grave.
In his last days, it became much more apparent how heavy a toll this struggle he was waging with time and his conscience was taking on him. His breathing had become labored and he’d all but stopped eating.
This was the first day he’d been out of his bed in more than a week. She’d lovingly given him sponge baths and brushed his teeth and combed his hair when he couldn’t do it himself. She’d even shaved his face for him that morning.
She’d moved his bed out into the sunroom...turning it just so, so that he could see the river and his dock. She made sure the many windows were always open and the curtains tied back. He loved the fresh air and the sunshine. She made sure there were always fresh flowers on the table and plenty of pillows in bed. She wanted him to be comfortable.
She loved him very much and she had always done whatever she could to make him happy. But now she was coming to understand her job was nearly done. Once a man has taken that turn toward the last scene in his final act...well, he had to walk it alone. That’s all there was to it.
“When the moment comes that we pass from this world to the next,” he’d told her once, “all we can do is turn and wave a sad goodbye. Keep an eye out for me sweetheart when I go...I promise I will be waving.”
That moment came for him in the middle of the afternoon on a warm December day, two weeks before Christmas. It would have been his first Christmas back in America in a long, long time.
Life cannot be encompassed within the one act of birth, life and death. We are not a finite act...one that once existed and then is lost for evermore.
He had learned that we are each the author of our own story...a story that is written and spoken in our words. His story will live amongst those who continue on now that he is gone...because they loved him, and he loved them.