My paddle glides through tranquil waters, reflecting my image but obscuring what lies beneath. A fish jumps skyward then plunges into the swampy depths, startling me out of my trance. I look around. Everyone is still here, slinking through the Everglades.
The winter sun beats down, the heat caressing my pale skin. Although not alone the loneliness is inescapable. Sis is here, but it’s not the same. Hal is supposed to be the one sharing my room, sitting next to me at meals, making fun of my awkward paddle strokes. We planned the trip together, laughing over the prospect of sunburn, bug bites, alligators, and getting lost in the swamps. None of those things would happen of course, assuming liberal lathering of suntan lotion and bug spray, and heeding the admonition of guides. But it was fun bantering as we got excited about our Everglades adventure.
That evening three weeks ago Hal looked over the dinner spread before him and, apologizing, said he did not feel well and wanted to lie down. Halfway up the stairs he uttered a low moan, grabbed the banister and collapsed. I don’t recall running to him or snatching the phone, those first hours a jumble of flashing lights, loud voices, hospital waiting rooms, and the final awfulness.
I cannot remember the doctor’s exact words. I don’t know who caught me when my knees buckled. I suddenly felt nothing. As if the world stopped.
Chaos, discussions, preparations, hushed words and tears filled the following days. I didn’t sleep much. I remember bolting upright in the middle of the night realizing I was beginning a new unwelcome reality, then crumbling back into my pillow.
Nothing stands out, the funeral replaying on a blurry, foggy backdrop in my mind.
Family and friends disbursed back to their lives. The kids tried to console me. I felt a heavy weight pulling me down, my body hunched over, dragging one step at a time, my brain dormant.
I needed to cancel our trip.
“No,” the kids echoed each other, “you should go. Dad would want you to.”
“I can’t go alone. I don’t want to go.”
“We spoke to Aunt Mimi and she’d love to go. She’s never kayaked, but she’s in better shape than any of us. She’ll be fine.”
“Your sister wants to do this for you.”
I did not have the strength to argue.
Sis flew East and we drove through the Carolina mountains, Georgia highlands and the length of the state of Florida to our destination, Everglades City, an out-of-the-way, godforsaken place at the southern tip of the state, decades ago bypassed by Florida’s real estate and development boom.
The guide inches over to the side of the channel, a river by name but in appearance a narrow meandering creek. A dozen kayakers follow. Our leader distributes snack packs, trail mix and Cheetos. We relax, bare feet resting on top of kayaks, munching away, snapping pictures, talking in muted tones, unwilling to intrude on the peaceful atmosphere.
“It’s so quiet. Got a picture of the alligator snoozing over there. You okay?” Sis inquires as she slides next to me.
“It is beautiful. Hal would’ve loved it, so busy taking pictures we’d end up leaving him far behind.”
Sis laughs and paddles away.
Tomorrow we begin the long drive home. I will walk into the house lugging my bag of dirty laundry, greeted by a silence I will have to get used to. The nitty-gritty of closing Hal’s life will temporarily consume me, papers and phone calls and appointments consuming my days. Hal would be proud of my business-like, tearless ability to handle our affairs. I hate it.
We are on the move again, one gentle, measured stroke at a time, softly intruding into the life of myriad plants and animals, pushing the waters behind, pressing forward.
Once upon a time Meryl Schwartz Baer worked for a financial firm, eventually quitting and moving to the New Jersey shore. She boasts an extended family that make their way to her door at the shore during the summer. No one visits in winter, so she writes. Her pieces have appeared online, in print publications Angel Bumps, Feisty After 45 anthology, Pure Slush books, and she is an NSNC (National Society of Newspaper Columnists) winner. Check out her blog: Six Decades and Counting.
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