Walking down the valley, the sun is angled and warm. There are three of us, though just there is where he – strong and confident – had swung you – small and happy – over the stream. And there is where that photo was taken, with you in his backpack, bowl cut on your head. The path is in better shape than last time. A dry summer and fresh gravel have limited the holes and ruts and gulleys to just a few examples, to provide a feeling of authenticity. The hills rise sharply on our right, alternately covered in thick, swelling succulents; blackberry bushes bursting with fruit and covered in thorns; bare, layer-cake rock; and rusty red poison oak. The meadow stretches to the left, leaps the little stream bed with its mohawk of brush, and joins the other hillside a discrete distance away.
The sky is flawless cyan. The sun golden like dry grass. It was too confusing, too much, to come. Mom, almost to herself and full of gratitude, says “He taught me to love the outdoors. I never would have gone backpacking without him.” And so, one step (or two) removed was born your love of traipsing through the forest, across the fields, along the shore. A love that I share, that gets us together off the couch and refills my soul.
Small brown birds cling to swaying spent grass seed heads, announcing their presence to the world. They sing to the three of us and to the other couple that strides purposefully by.
We decide to take the high road. We’ll come back along the stream. The gravel crunches under our shoes. The path rises. You side step a reaching branch of poison oak. We laugh that it’s coming to get you, the humor a little flat as we remember the time when it did.
The meadow gives way to marsh as the stream throws its shoulders back in one last display of calm power before it loses itself in the sea. Water grasses wave like soft hair in the wind that is whipping its way in from the ocean. There's a bench before the sand, overlooking the beach and tucked behind a rock out of the wind. Mom circles to sit and waves us two on.
We are careful to not fill our shoes with the sand that oozes up around the pebbles, each step polishing the already polished bits of rock. The wind is now clawing eagerly at my hair. I surrender, taking out the rubber band and letting it tangle and curl and blow wild in front of my face when I turn to look back at the hills. Ahead is the sea, fog sitting regally on the horizon, hiding islands and monsters alike. I think this is how it must be to look into the future. To see so far across clear blue topped with wind-frothed white only to be foiled by the fog. I can’t see into the fog. I can't see below the blue.
I put my thumb through your belt loop, tuck my fingertips into your back pocket. The worn edge of your wallet is there to be nudged aside as I reach for your warmth against the wind. We face the wind. We face the endless ocean, knowing that somewhere out there, where the great cargo ships and tankers dock again, it does end.
Mom is on her bench. It is as if we realize this with the same thought and turn together, taking one more look at the arch that fell into the sea since the last time he was with us here. We make our way back, noticing the bits of driftwood and commenting on the sea creatures that died in the millions to give the upturned rocks their red-purple hue. She rises, call her dignity back from where it had been diving and turning with the gulls, pushes up her sleeves.
We start back, the sea wind pushing us along the trail. No one says “I wish he had come,” though we do. No one says “Someday each of us will stop setting our soles to the path as well,” though we only with it to be inconceivable. No one says “Where are our children to carry and teach?” though the question is never far from my thoughts, never far from the body that is healthy by empty; a great mystery of the universe to only be asked with grace, and only in hushed voices.
The birds are still singing in the grasses. The stream is still hidden in its bushes. A family of quail scurries away from our jovial – truly, despite everything, we are happy to be here on this day and moving – pageant as we take the low road with our backs to the sea. You, leading, are strong and square-shouldered. I have always loved the set of your shoulders. Mom and I trail a bit behind. She is watching with a mother’s pride, me a wife’s love and foreknowledge of loss beyond the fog.
Not fear, though it could become that left unpruned and wild. Just knowledge. Knowledge that the breaths we have spent to move us along this path are nonrefundable. This afternoon of bluest blues and tawny golds and russet reds will live on only inside us. Only on the scribbled pages of my journal. Until we forget the hummingbird that flitted by near the parking lot.
Coming home, he returned our hugs. With a smile, glad we’re home and safe from our adventure. He knows the valley well. He's happy to talk about the state of the trails and the song of the finches, especially with you, his oldest son. We tell our stories of this walk. We tell stories of walks past. The stories connect the past – with its blessedly selective memory for good moments – to the present. We will tell stories when today becomes our past; I find faith to believe it won’t be as lonely as I had feared for that moment standing in the wind with my hand in your pocket on the edge of the land.
We tell stories and remember. And the breaths are well spent.