May 1 is a day of seduction.
Without fail, it arrives cloudless and sunny, warm and fragrant, casting off the vestiges of a cruel winter. Fear? Toss it out the window. Success is an open road looking for someone to tear it up.
I remember feeling that way 10 years ago, before the Nishisakawick Creek coughed up its sedge to form an island where its mouth meets the Delaware River. Back then there were a few scant sycamore trees that jutted up from the river, catching dead leaves and twigs in the rapid flow. There were no signs that the island would one day block the creek’s entrance, forcing the river to flow up instead of down. Had I seen it, I tell myself, I would have known.
But the truth is, we never really know life’s irony until it stares back at us from the page. And this story is no different. May 1, 2008, I started out on a morning of hope, launching a new business with my mother and father as partners. Sure, we had failed as a family unit. They’d divorced some 30 years earlier. But we’d learned from our failures. Time is a great healer, afterall. We were no longer mother, father and child, but adults who had experience in the world. Our business venture was destined to succeed.
As I made my way down River Road that morning, fire police detoured traffic onto Dark Hollow Road where I’d normally turn anyway. A sign, I was sure, that I was on a guided path. “A tree down,” I thought before losing myself in other mind chatter.
My mother would arrive late, complaining about a power outage that kept her from drying her hair. We huddled, vowing to knuckle down, make calls, do whatever it took to make this venture work.
Uneven road ahead
Only now do I see the irony. Yes, a tree did come down, ill-timed, crushing my stepfather’s car and killing him instantly. Nine months later, my father would be diagnosed with lung cancer. Our fledgling business venture would be buried along with him. My sister’s crazy outburst at his funeral wasn’t inconsolable grief, but a softball-sized tumor lodged in her brain.
I’d pay only scant attention to the thickness I felt, like a jelly fish, in my right breast while showering at my father’s house after his death. “Perimenopause,” I thought, before my mind wandered to the mold in the grout lines and whether I could adequately clean them or would need a professional before I could put the house up for sale.
By then, a large tree trunk had lodged between the river sycamores and on a sun-baked August day if you looked real hard you could just about see the sedge that was starting to mound at their base, not even enough ground to stand on.
Running in place
The next May 1 I was in Jacksonville, Fla. helping my sister navigate a life, post-cancer, that had taken a chunk of her brain and part of her mind, leaving her at times manic and at times depressed. It would be another beautiful, cloudless day. She would come and watch me run a 9K race, sitting on a curb, throwing up in the gutter from the mega doses of steroids she was on to reduce the swelling caused by the brain radiation. My mother was there. A new venture. Not of our choosing. One that had us chaffing life’s bit.
By the next May 1st I was bald and scarred, recovering from chemo and surgery. It was cloudless and sunny and my neighbor would insist on me joining her for a long walk with her dog along the river. The river sycamores were getting thicker, their trunks bent over nearly parallel to the fast flowing river. A piece of opaque, ragged plastic got caught in one of them, rattling in the wind like a sail.
Rising from the ashes
The next May 1st, cloudless again, the plastic gone and with it wind from my own sails. I’d buried my sister nine months earlier and felt bewildered by the world I was now living in. By now, the sedge had settled, forming two islands just off the river banks. Enough ground to walk on with a sedge sandbar starting to fill in between the two shorelines where marshy grass grew. By summer, the marsh choked the creek flow, pushing the river northward along one of the islands.
I made friends with the kids who moved next door and we’d spend summers exploring the islands, looking for fossils, feathers and bones, making up stories about where they’d come from or how they’d landed there. Taking picnic lunches, throwing sticks for the dogs and swimming.
We built a bridge across the north flowing river so we could get to the island without getting our feet wet. Stone pile sculptures magically appeared, as did a stick hut where we could hide out from the strong, summer sun.
Finding a new flow
Three more May 1sts passed, all cloudless, sunny and warm. My hair grew back, and so did the cancer. The new drugs I was on fought it back until the river flowed north again that summer. By then, people were finding their way to sedge island to fish, leaving trash and the rotting spoils of their catch. Scrubby shrubs filled in between the sycamores. The kids were now older and we stopped our treks to the island, except for the dogs who still liked to walk its perimeter while chasing sticks.
Last May 1st was dark and overcast, and yet my mood was buoyant. I’d just come home from a writing retreat with plans to sign up for summer triathlons, eat healthy and start writing projects anew. I’d moved my treatment from a community hospital to a research setting. The new regimen was working and my options for future treatments, endless. I’d weathered the emotional move from one oncologist to another. The river flowed north, but I was used to it.
Here I am today, another May 1st. Sunny, cloudless, warm. Tonight I’ll go to dinner with my husband and my mother. We’ll talk about my stepfather, our losses and the ones we still have yet to endure. The sycamores on sedge island are now about 15-foot tall, standing nearly upright. A bore infected the aged ash trees along the river bank. Their rugged bark looks starkly naked against the backdrop of the maples now budding. On my way back from the river, I walked past pear trees in bloom. The pleasant fragrance caught me off guard. My throat tightened and tears welled up.
Life has turned upside-down. An author whose book on resilience got me through my darkest hour is now under indictment for enslaving a woman and taking photos of her. His words which once soothed now ring hollow. My family as I knew it has gone. Others have abandoned me, replaced by new friendships with deeper roots.
Yesterday I ran a half marathon with my other sister, her husband and my husband. We went out for lunch afterwards and my niece and nephew fought over who would sit next to me. This summer, I’ll take them to sedge island. We’ll look for artifacts and make up stories and I’ll show them how, defying all logic, the river runs north, but still it flows.
This post is dedicated to Stephen R. Hance, 1948-2008, who believed in me always. Pictured here, with my late sister Tracy Johnson Pollick. They always remind me that no matter what direction life takes, go with it, because even when a river flows up, it will eventually find its way down.