When Death Happens, Nature Welcomes You.
The death of my beloved grandmother forced me to recognize and deal with my fears.
Since my grandmother’s death, I’ve found myself wanting to immerse myself in nature for many reasons.
First, I want to escape my daily routine — to get out of my head, which has become a very manic place— and second, because I want to be surrounded by life. To hear the conversations amongst birds and prairies dogs. To watch the deer, and the bighorn sheep, and the elk scavenge for food, mate or relish the sun. To see the leaves turn from a morbid brown to a thunderous green. To watch the Western flowers burst from beds of dirt and parched grass.
This want has brought me all over the valleys and peaks of Colorado as of late, with trips to Rocky Mountain National Park, the Flatirons of Boulder, the mesas of Golden and the red rocks of Colorado Springs.
Leading up to now, my view had mostly been of hospital walls. My grandmother — my dear, beautiful second mother — had been ailing back home in Upstate New York, and I wanted to see her as much as I could. A broken hip in August of last year had led to many close calls as she convalesced in ICU and rehab. It was a painful, anxious time. The three of us — my grandmother, mother and I — were (are?) extremely close, and this was unfamiliar terrain. Though 90 years of age, my grandmother had always been a remarkably strong and healthy woman, but during that time we feared our matriarch would fall.
But Grandma — Nan, her name was Nan — persevered for seven months in the hospital, though never regaining her ability to walk. And while we knew she couldn’t possibly live for ever, a part of us thought that maybe she would. She was Nan after all.
The woman raised during The Great Depression.
The woman who owned and operated her own business for decades.
The woman who barely cried.
The woman who wouldn’t take ibuprofen for pain.
The woman whose last words were “I need to get my hair done.”
The woman who was our rock.
But then she died.
And it hurt.
It still hurts and will forever hurt in a way that great loss often does, where words will never adequately convey the severity and sadness of it all.
So that’s the third reason I find myself in nature, trying to keep my mind off of her — and fourth, trying to focus on what is front of me. Because if I think about my past, and what I’ve lost, then I will cease to find joy.
Two weekends ago, a small group of us decided to indulge in the bevy of natural wonders Colorado Springs has to offer. At Garden of the Gods, we darted through the stretching red obelisks, and at Red Rocks Canyon, we strolled a vacant quarry imaging it was ancient ruins.
It was at Red Rocks Canyon, while everyone was turned away, that I decided to scramble a wall of rock. The spontaneous decision was driven by fear, or lack there of. Like many of us, I take chances within the context of what I’m comfortable with, but I never push beyond. This time was different. I needed to break away from my self-made constraints, the constraints we adults continue to layer onto ourselves as we age. I don’t want to fall. I don’t want to get hurt. I don’t know if my body can handle this. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die.
I also did not want to let nature — this big, unruly omnipresent thing that I both marvel at and kneel to — to dictate our dalliance. I was in charge this time, and not even the power of nature, whom some consider a god in its own right, was going to stop me.
My boyfriend snickered. “Whoa. Whatchya doing up there?” With slight sarcasm I mock shouted, “I want to feel alive!”
But the truth was, I did want to feel alive. I wanted to feel something other than the status quo, the banality of safety, the commonality of contemporary, technology-driven life. After experiencing the death of someone so important to me, I needed something other than sadness, fear, stagnance, the opposite of living.
After those words left my lips, I unexpectedly found myself back in the hallway of the hospital, trying to help my grandmother walk. I was holding the waist of her pants with a death grip while my mother followed behind with a wheel chair. Grandma was mustering what little strength she had to put one foot in front of the other. Terror and pride battled within me; I so worried of dropping my now brittle grandmother, but it brought me hope to see her walking again, an act we take for granted. As I watched her legs, weak from multiple surgeries and 91 years of existence, they suddenly started moving — fast. She was running. My grandmother was running.
“Grandma! What are you doing?”
“I don’t know!” she laughed.
She ran about ten feet before proclaiming her fatigue and need to sit back in the wheelchair. Mom and I huddled around her, the three of us hugging and giggling.
While standing on that rock I understood in that moment, on that day, my grandmother had wanted to feel alive one last time. She had wanted to break free from her fears. She was 91, she couldn’t walk, her mind was failing her, as was her body, but dammit — she was still in control of the ship that was her body and mind, and she could change course if she wanted to — even if it was for only a couple of minutes. She would die six weeks later.
This thought of my beautiful, resilient grandmother attempting to face fear at the end of her life nearly made me collapse to the ground below, which made me lose any modicum of fearlessness I had on that rock. Holy f*ck, I thought. My grandmother is dead, I’m halfway up a rock and I have no idea how the hell to get down.
I finally mustered the strength to find my way down, all while fighting the image of my grandmother laughing and carefree during the most challenging, confusing and terrifying period of her life.
“Is everything ok?” my boyfriend asked.
I smiled, my sunglasses thankfully cloaking the tears brimming in my eyes.
No, nothing is ok, I thought.
But I’m finding my way —through the death of my grandmother, through my fears, through this unfair, sometimes cruel, most oftentimes beautiful thing called human life — one trip into nature at a time.