Karen and I begin our hikes talking, but after awhile I fall behind a bit, and lulled sometimes by the sound of a stream or the singing of the birds, I daydream. On a trail not long after we got to Tennessee, I thought about the month we had just spent with our daughter and granddaughter. We had a wonderful time with Tatiana, seeing her almost every day. We took long walks—to a creek to throw rocks, to playgrounds with swings and sliding boards, or just next door so she could scramble, over and over, up and down a neighbor’s steps. Tatiana and I got attached to one another, and it was difficult to leave. I cried more than once as we drove away. I kept thinking about the games we played and how her face lit up when she saw me. Last year when we visited, Karen sang a nonsense song while swaying her back and forth. “wee wee, wee wee, Tatiana’s going on the swing.” This visit, she started calling me “wee wee,” and that became my name. She’d call it out every time she saw me, and even began to use it to order me around, saying “wee wee” with an intonation that meant “get back here and pay attention to me.” Our daughter said that she twice called out my new name in her sleep at night. Her little chums at daycare shouted “wee wee” when we picked her up each morning.
When you are sixty-eight, with time’s eyes closing, and you’ve fallen in love with your grandchild, it is hard not to think about one life ending and another beginning. As Karen and I trekked along, I asked myself age-old questions. What have I done? What does it matter? Does anything matter? Will Tatiana’s life be different? Will she be happy? What slings and arrows will she face? Will she be resilient and strong? A melody ran through my head, and, reflecting my thoughts, I put these words to it:
I hope when you’re lost on a cold road at night,
a smiling old stranger can show you a light.
And when your own life’s near done, body all worn,
you’ll look at the night stars and know you’re reborn.
Then you’ll think of your grandchild, remember her face,
And hope that you’ve left her love’s endless embrace.
If you were to ask me what in my life stands out, it wouldn’t be work or achievements. Good teaching, some decent books, and a few acceptable essays. I seldom think about these things. I don’t own a copy of any but two of my books, and I’ll soon give those away. The petty squabbles, the striving, the back-stabbing, all have proven eminently forgettable.
What I do remember is my father taking me in his lap and comforting me after I spilled ink on a drawing he had been assigned in his drafting correspondence course. My mother tucking me in at night. My grandmother sending me books for Christmas. The first time I visited Karen at her apartment and met the kids. The funny things the four of them said around the dinner table. The pride I felt when they comforted strangers. The kindnesses friends and strangers have shown me. What we’ve given away, freely and without regrets. The places we’ve seen, and the hikes we’ve taken. The birds, flowers, rocks, oceans, streams. The pleasures we’ve shared. The triple-deep stars on a clear night in the mountains. Love’s endless embrace.