The Slippery Slope of Mortality

Nameless Creek
Nameless Creek

I thought I might die. Stupid way to go, really, but not unprecedented—to choke to death, at home, alone.

I could breathe, mind you. It was only a stupid bit of chip I inhaled while laughing (“My Cousin Vinny” I think was the cause) and at first it was only a mild nuisance of irritation just past the point in the back of the throat where voluntary muscles can contract to expel bits bound ominously for the trachea and parts south.

But an hour later, somehow it passed the point of no return, and my gag reflexes would have none of it. I heaved and hacked, choked and gagged—quite disturbing the poor dog. After a bit, I was on all fours, tears flooding my eyes from the general irritation of all parts from the neck up.

And in the end, it might have been a freaking heart attack that would have got me, the reflexes were so violent and unrelenting. I thought there for a while it had happened, but it turned out it was just a rib-sternum strain that got better over time. And the tickle, though I never coughed up the offending crumb, went away.

Maybe that distant brush with the hem of the garment of the Grim Reaper made me somewhat more reckless this morning than I would have otherwise been—to have (in my mind) come close to a stupid, pathetic domestic death indoors when there are many much more glamorous ways and places to go.

This morning out there alone, it could have happened on the slippery rocks. I could have screamed my bloody head off and nobody would have heard me or found me with a broken hip in the ravine for days, my smashed camera lying somewhere in the cold water at the bottom of a boulder.

But I’d have been doing what I loved, surrounded by the mountains to which I belong.

I obviously survived, but it was pretty stupid—especially the climbing up the sides of the gorge to the old road instead of retracing my steps back down the cascades of the creek to where the banks are not so steep. Had to see if I could do it. I could.

Heading home once I’d “clum up” out of the gorge, I soon passed the Four Poplars just past the Sitting Bench. I went back and sat for a few minutes, needing to catch my breath and regroup; I’d left the house on an impulse, after all.

Now it’s not likely to happen because I cannot imagine we’ll be able to afford to keep this place until we’re both gone. But if we do, I have said and at least imagine it happening that my ashes will reside down in the deep cleavage of these four massive poplar trees near my “Fortress of Solitude.” (They’re bigger than they look in this picture.)

It’s a strange thing to think about, but to do so is to give your survivors one less decision to make. So here it is: November_09_0832fourPoplars480

Make it a Mason Jar. And put it right down as deep in that quadfurcation as you can stick the matter that was me that didn’t matter so much in the end as the volatile spirit that once inhabited those ashes.

Come wrap your arms around one of those big trees now and then, and follow their lines up to the sky above. What a good life it was!

Is. Not going anywhere soon, if I have a thing to do with it. And an occasional brush with one’s own mortality—by chance or by choice—isn’t such a bad thing, after all.

Bells of Autumn in the Distance

Worn With Time
Worn With Time

This image (click) of the lovely wear and fade of time will be calendar-coordinated soon, though the greens still dominate–at least from a distance. Up close, hardly a leaf remains unblemished, invaded by tiny colonies of fungus, giving up the greens of chlorophyll to reveal the xanthophylls and carotenes of oranges, reds and yellows underneath.

Soon, those too will fade, and death is brown and gray, the color of mold and decay. Autumn is one of those several times the bell tower plays a special melody; we should take notice. We only get so many performances in a short lifetime, after all.

Via Electric Church

Retired Business Closed
Retired Business Closed

I found myself filling time pleasantly in a gentle mist between errands and home patients on Monday. Walking back up to pick the car after repairs at Harvey’s, the old Via Electric building seem stark and imposing, now padlocked, but an active electrical parts and repair shop when we moved here.

lichensIn earlier incarnations, it was obviously a church. You might be able to tell if you click the image for an enlarged version, the door under the porch on the right has in its three panes: RETIRED. BUSINESS. CLOSED.

That only added to the derelict melancholy of the composition. And of the day. In that frame of mind, I wandered around the Jacksonville Burying Grounds (cemetery named for the original town now called Floyd) and took pictures of tombstone lichens–a wonderful metaphor of life after death, and if I had a tombstone for my mayonaisse jar of ashes, I’d insist it be of the kind of rough stone that gives lichens a toe-hold and hope some odd photographer would come along a hundred years from now to admire them in their gray-green and orange crustiness.

In-sights and Old Eyeballs

Just sit back and enjoy the show
Just sit back and enjoy the show

I don’t remember having any symptoms before a routine office visit to the local optometrist back in 1995 when he detected early signs of a detached retina. Within a week, I was having laser surgery to weld the retina in place to solve the problem.

Every time I see our local optometrist in Floyd (Mondays and Tuesdays in a permanent office in what was originally a suite at the Pine Tavern) he asks “are you seeing any floaters or flashes of light?” and I’ve always been able to say NO.

Until yesterday. At first I thought a gnat had just passed in front of my eye, and I brushed it away. Then a cobweb must have caught on my eye lashes, I thought, and brushed it away. It was occasional. Then frequent. Then constant. And I began to think this was not a good thing.

No flashes of light or blurred vision. That, it turns out, would have ramped up the urgency of this episode considerably.

Long story short, after I got home yesterday afternoon from a tiring morning, I didn’t think I could risk waiting until next week for an appraisal of my new and growing floaters (more strings and webs than spots and specks) so I got back in the car for the 45 minute drive down Bent Mountain to Roanoke and the optometrist worked me in.

Many stinging eye drops and an hour later: Nothing to worry about, he said, much to my surprise and relief.

“For folks who are 60 about 60% of them will have this issue, at 70, about 70%. The vitreous humor has some strands in it, in your case right over the optic nerve. It may resorb, or your brain in time may just learn to not attend to the wavy lines you see today.”

Even so, I think it might be wise to see the Ophthalmologist Ann saw in Blacksburg when she had that strange episode of double vision a few years back. Then, if something urgent were needed in the future, I’d already have a file with the specialist.

So, for my age peers, when the spiders, bugs, webs and broken shadowy shards appear in front of your aging eyes, just sit back and enjoy the show. It’s what we do for entertainment in our golden years, I suppose. Live and learn.

Old Friends and Seamless Reunions

A Cherry tree has overtaken an old farm utensil in an abandoned field
A Cherry tree has overtaken an old farm utensil in an abandoned field

The short piece below is from What We Hold In Our Hands: a Slow Road Reader. The “friend” it speaks of I had not seen since the early 80s. He was just here, and it was as if we’d had our last conversation over coffee a week ago instead of 25 years ago. I’ll hope to tell you more soon.

One summer not long after college, a good friend and I were backpacking through the sunken canyons of the Bankhead Wilderness in Alabama.

We laid out our sleeping bags that afternoon in the humid shade in a half-cave of sandstone, looking out on the Sipsey River close below us. A summer shower sent sheets of warm rain sweeping over the narrow swath of forest between rocky rims. The sound of it hissed softly like the surf in a seashell.

Lying on my back with my hands clasped behind my head, a serene and wordless five minutes passed. I blinked away a speck of sand, and then another. A few minutes later, my friend reached up and wiped at his eyes. He turned to me with an amused chuckle in an instant of mutual comprehension. In that twinkling we grasped the cosmic scale of single grains of sand falling from the massive roof of our seemingly immutable stone shelter.

So this is what becomes of mountains, we said, and laughed, the irony of the moment appreciated.

Later that afternoon, we sat on a ferny boulder above the river. Deep in its warm green waters small fish held their place, barely, against the current.

“They use up a lot of energy just to keep from being swept to the sea” I remarked.

“We all do, Fred. We all do” my friend said.

And as we sat quietly watching, listening to the remnants of the last shower still dripping from the tulip poplars, the sandy bottom of mountain bits beneath those bright fish washed, speck by grain and foot by foot, towards a distant Gulf Coast beach.