It’s 1:25 in the afternoon December 10th. It’s 35 degrees out on a brisk, sunny, New York day, and it’s windy as well, a howling wind coming in from the southwest. It feels like winter, though the winter solstice is still eleven days hence. The sun looks less than warming, and seemingly hanging too low in the sky to bring much warmth even if it wanted to, though it still has an angry glare that makes the best of men and women avert their gazes and bury their heads in their coats and keep moving.
Into this did I venture, wearing less than would normally be recommended. A light denim jacket and a sweatshirt, along with a knit hat and all the other accouterments that remind people they are no longer in the garden of Eden. The black sneakers I wear are a bit threadbare, though comfortable, and the dungarees I wear show the signs of long wear and tear. Along with all that I had on my headphones. I knew where I was going and wanted the company that my music would provide. Metallica is always a good walking companion.
The first few minutes were nice, though my fingers would have said otherwise, had they the capacity for speech. The wind was brisk, yet the cold was invigorating, it put a spring in my step, and not just because I wasted to move faster. I didn’t. That wasn’t the point.
After navigating a few turns on various side streets and the passage of several cars, expensive looking imports mostly, with the occasional gas guzzling SUV mixed in, I got to the beginning of my walking objective. The Park. The particular part of the park I was going to is called Royal Oak, a place I used to hang out in when I was a teenager, generally drunk, high and looking for…something. Attention probably. A bad place to go to get it, but when your 15 and out of your head thinking isn’t exactly your strong suit.
But I digress…
I get to the park, and for the first time in a long time, I am back in my element. I know these trees, these paths are part of me, and I am part of them. The myriad leaves which cover the numerous paths do no obscure the way, they reveal it, show the right way to go. I take the left path because it is less traveled and less likely to have people on it. I am trying to avoid people now. I want to walk alone, uninhibited by people and things, stress and worries that come with being a human being, and relax in my world.
I walk a bit and the leaves get a bit muddy as the path begins to turn right and i see head high plants that look vaguely like stalks of wheat, blowing lazily in the breeze, the wind not blowing quite as hard for the moment, the wind and the wheat-grass pointing me in the direction of a spot that I know well. A point where 3 paths converge, a relatively small place. A piece of concrete buried under leaves sits a little off center. This is where the parties used to be, as I recall.
I stop. Look up. A tree, one of many gets my attention. It looks like it’s been split about 40 feet up it’s trunk, whether by lightning or wind I do not know, but from that point the tree has seemingly grown fingers, 5 of them, that grow out from the central trunk of the tree, and continue their ascent, those 5 oddly disfigured fingers extended with fingertips almost touching. I look at this tree and I think, what time has done to you it does to everyone. I’m wishing I could look as good when I turn 200 years old.
I pick up a stone.
I stand in place and look at the tree, it’s top swaying slightly in the wind, along with all the others around it, and just watch.Watch the trees sway in rhythm with the wind. Watch the clouds roll by.Watching the world roll past. I pray a little prayer for my wife and myself, and another for the world we share. I look up and notice that there are still a few hearty leaves holding on for dear life. They won’t last long, I wonder how long I will. The wind whips up again. Time to move on.
There is brush, and it is so thick in places as to be impassable and blocks one or two of the less traveled paths. It is surprisingly still somewhat green, even though winter is less than 2 weeks away, and we have already seen our first snowfall of the year, earlier than usual.
With Metallica blaring in my ears, a sound that to my mind both accentuates the goodness and starkness of this place, I move past my old haunts and walk quietly through the woods, each time turning to my left. I know where I’m headed. I move to a path well worn by runners, so well worn the ground is both dry and barren of leaves, about the only ground you could say that about. About 100 yards down this path there is a break in the path to the right, and a steep downhill path. A very steep downhill path.
I take a moment to look around and gaze at the forest surrounding me, the lake below me to my right and the stream to my left, then it is time to attack that steep path.
A very,VERY, steep downhill path. The moment I begin, gravity tries to take me down faster than I want to. I resist, not wanting to roll down 100+feet of hill with rocks and trees and 1,000 other things strewn in the way. I’ve had fun. That’s not it. I find myself walking down the hill kinda angled sideways, leading at times with my left side and others with my right with very short steps. And the wind gets more ferocious as I walk down the wall of this mini-valley. I’m not surprised by it, nor am I surprised as my left knee begins to ache. It complains about the hard walking and the constant abuse, my feet and ankles join the chorus as the angle of descent gets steeper. I tell them to shut up and keep moving.
As I get to the bottom of hill I am moved to just look up for a minute or two at the hill, but I am interrupted by a happy couple walking towards me, looking kind of bemused at me. Not wanting to talk to anyone, I take to the asphalt path and walk in the direction of the stream that is next to the path. The water is moving a little sluggishly, and looks a little bit like it’s getting ready to freeze up.
I pick up another stone.
I stand and watch the few ducks swimming around here where the stream feeds into a second lake, but only momentarily. We see each other every day, as I run in this part of the park regularly. I walk over a small footbridge, past the remains of a few trees that have fallen into the lake, and more of the wheat-grass, while the wind whips up in my face, howling as I make the turn to the cemetery.
Walking up the park entrance to the cemetery, I walk past the gravestones of countless people I have never known and never could have.
This section of the graveyard is filled with people who died well before I was even born. It gives you humility, walking past that. Costello. O’Hannan. Swiediz. Brennan. All born and lived their lives and died before I set foot on this earth. I say a prayer for them, and all those who’s names I do not see. Someone should, and since I’m here, why not me?
I saw an American flag that had come dislodged out of the ground laying on the side of the road. Not knowing which marker to place it with, I brought it with me, thinking I could make better use of it than the road could.
I walk past all the myriad dead, noticing how short some of the lives were. Husband buried next to wife, wife died in her 30’s, husband made it to his 40’s. A child buried alongside his parents, dead at 10 years of age, almost a century ago. I walk past newer ones, more recent deaths, and pray for them as well. And get to my destination. The gravestone of my grandmother and grandfather on my mother’s side, and her two brothers as well. I kneel in the wet grass, say an “Our Father” a “Hail Mary” bless myself, get up, grunting only a little, say a prayer for them, then a prayer for the family extended, one and all, for strength for my wife and I to get through these tough times, and prayer for those who are doing worse than I.
I walk to the gravestone, placed the stones I had picked up on the path on the marker, next to the others that were there. I decided to place them all in a neat little pile, and think to myself about the symbolism of placing stones there. Figuring it is better to give the flag a home with my loved ones, rather than some random strangers loved ones, I placed the American flag I found blown about by the wind in the ground in front of the marker, saluted and left.
Barely noticing the cold, with the wind, my thoughts, and metallica my constant companions, I made my way home.