Upon our arrival in the canyon, with an evening chill following our footsteps down the steep grade, he confided that he might be suffering from Alzheimer’s. His eyes brimmed over, even as he laughed at the realization’s awkward profundity. I tried to comfort him, to hug him — as his trip leader and as a stranger. He pushed me away. He wanted to be alone with his mind and his fate. I had simply caught him at a weak moment.
We were in a remote reach of the canyon, miles from a road, a trailhead, a cell signal, a familiar voice or touch. Divorced from comfort and home. We were living on the canyon’s terms, with its flood-rushing river. And he, in turn, would also live by the terms of a mind — a self — rushing headlong into the unknown.
But he refused to leave.
Before embarrassment usurped candor, he told me how his wife had noted some strange behavior, but he hadn’t believed her. That his mother had suffered from Alzheimer’s, a dark misery for a once-sharp woman. That he never thought it would come on so fast. He pointed at his water bottles on the ground. He was sure he had filled them before the hike, and now they were empty. Had he actually forgotten to fill them? It didn’t occur to him that he had consumed the water on the walk in.
The plastic bottles, the mundane source of his realization, caused him to cry anew. And then the door into his heart abruptly closed. The remainder of the week found me wondering at the interior life of an inscrutable man. Which were the quirks that comprised his being in this world? And which were signs of its slow withdrawal? What could be chalked up to the man, and what was derived from his sudden absence? Unable to know, I simply observed: the strength of his work ethic, his disregard for group conventions, his occasional and brilliant wit, his confusion at meal times.
I once witnessed him standing alone, empty-handed, swaying, staring at the ground. There is no sight lonelier than that of a man again witnessing his own departure — and bearing its hollow emptiness.
Though the mind can be our worst enemy, it is at times our only comfort. Oblivion with a heartbeat seems a cruel existence. And perhaps crueler is the life of the loved one who bears a husband’s passing but continues to see his face, feel his touch, smell his scent, hear his voice — grief renewed and impermanence reaffirmed every day.
In contrast, our week together found us working in a landscape of memory, a place that has not yet forgotten. A long-ago cowboy chipped out our route of descent from the canyon wall. The man chiseled his name into the sandstone and constructed a small cabin overlooking the river. The building still stands, now holding only rusted bedsprings, mouse droppings and memories of ghosts.
Up-canyon from the cowboy cabin is a millennia-old wall of pictures, including bighorn sheep, turkey tracks, human figures and concentric circles. A wavy line — a seeming horizon — extends 50 yards across the rock face. Above it appears a celestial body with a tail, perhaps denoting the passage of Halley’s comet long ago.
The long-departed still tell a story in this place. The desert holds remembrances and present reality with equal grace.
However, cabins crumble and carvings fade, as do our bodies and minds. Succession, loss and the slow entropy of forgetting, while painfully poignant, make room for the next surge of stories and songs. And if we are fortunate, a heart or two will hold the spark of our memory long after the embers of our life are reduced to smoke. Remembrance becomes the greatest gift from — and for — the departing and the departed. Whether writ on a canyon wall, heralded by an empty water bottle, or carried silently in the depths of one’s soul.
Jen Jackson lives in Moab, Utah, where she writes to as an act of memory and presence in the midst of this all-too-fleeting existence.