Dining with the Dead

Here we are. Lunch. On a Sunday afternoon. I picked a spot next to two headstones. Two dead people. Why? Because I’m like that. I thought that would be the right kind of company and I wanted to process some things that are. They are a couple, I’m pretty sure. George and Eva Gragg. She died on November 3, 1940 but her headstone says, ‘absent, not dead’ which is why I knew I could talk to her.

 I don’t mean to be intense, but I know I put that out there. My German blood, my convicted tone, my desire to be alone. I could see how people on this same journey could perceive me to be a certain kind of asshole. I want my space. I want to camp alone and walk alone. Yet, it’s not because of a negative response to togetherness. I believe in community, I know that we need each other, and I came here to celebrate the animal that I am.

 Yesterday evening I came to a lovely picnic table full of sweet people dining together, in front of a shelter. It was 6pm. “Just in time for dinner” a familiar hiker on the corner of the bench said. I ate my Luna bar standing at the head of the table in solidarity, but I told them I was moving on. Sometimes, it feels like choosing to be alone can land like rejection on listening ears. That’s not what I mean, but it’s also not mine. I’m not responsible for how anyone else feels, and I’ve come too far not to be myself. I do have some sharp edges and I don’t want to hurt anyone with them, but I have soft ones, too. And I’m doing the best I can.

 Just around the bend, after saying goodbye to that group of hikers, I found a woman on the ground. Her pack was below her, splayed on a steep angle, with gear scattered. She had her shoes off and a smile on, glancing back at me over her shoulder with her feet on her pack.

 I’ve been trained for this. I heard my teachers voice “Don’t just do something, stand there” and I recited that in my head to access the head space. “Hi” I said, in the calm tone I’ve learned from wilderness emergency medicine. “Are you ok?”

 “I’m fine.” She was chipper, if anything, “I’m just waiting for the pain meds to kick in and then I’ll walk on.” She told me the story of the ankle injury, well, me, and the man behind me, who came to her almost immediately after I did. He knew how to offer up the same kind of support. I don’t think I’ll ever see him again, but we made a good care provider team.

 I tested her sensory and motion in her injured ankle, he asked smart questions, and we both offered care. Care actually. Where we listen and we comfort and we ignore her refusal for the help she could use. I got her up on the trail, and put all of her things together next to her. We practice-walked a bit and she could do it, it had only been 15 minutes since she popped 4 ibuprofen.

 Now, while dining with the dead (or absent, rather), there are two things that stuck with me. My shift is the first one. I do want myself, I do protect my journey of much-needed time alone, but I am deeply glad to give people what I’ve got when it’s needed. Perhaps there is this hard-working jerk in me, that’s proud to be lonely, and maybe I run with that a bit excessively. It’s good to see that I can access true patience and care when the situation calls for it.

 The second thing that stuck with me, is how underserving we can convince ourselves that we are. That woman insisted that she needed to walk herself out of there, on her own. I saw that she could, and gave in because I wasn’t going to insist a fourth time, but still, the next day, I’m processing some gravity. If I could do it over, I would look that woman deep in the eyes and say, “You’re worth it.” That might have made the difference. 

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