In the absence of the aspen

posted in: The ride | 3

In June, the quaking aspen was the first tree I really took notice of. It shimmered on the roadside, its leaves trembling as the wind swept through it like the chill that runs through your body at the first touch of cold–that uncontrollable shake that runs up your spine. The quaking aspen appears forever caught in that tremble, its round leaves moving like a thousand tiny tambourines. The aspen showers the roadside with vibration, with life, with motion.

I haven’t seen the quaking aspen since Montana. Its territory rises into Canada in the high plains of the Dakotas, before dipping back down and wrapping around the Great Lakes.  It spreads across New England. With any luck, we’ll be greeted by the quaking aspen in the next week, as we begin the long ride northeast towards the Atlantic coastline of Maine. I imagine it waving and trembling as we pass, its whole being shimmering and reflecting cool, oceanic winds.

In the absence of the aspen, there has been the weeping willow. The weeping willow is an ornament of the Midwest. It will dominate a front yard, a green mound both shiny and pale. It will be tucked away in an abandoned lot, surrounded by growth but still standing alone. It will be old and it will be young. The willow hasn’t lost its place in this landscape. It speaks to the people who live here. When cycling, the weeping willow draws me into its shade. I stretch in its rounded branches, pulled down towards the earth. It sweeps me with the passing winds. I am a weeping willow, my limbs bent in sorrow, my soul swaying in grief. I am ornamented on the road, my eyes forward and down, my legs circling rhythmically.

I think what bothers me most when a car passes too close is the quick and low value placed on my life. In those seconds before a vehicle passes, the driver decides. The driver decides if my life is worth three feet. If my life is worth the fifteen seconds it might take to wait for an approaching vehicle to pass. The answer comes in the whistling of wind and the roaring of an engine as it says, no, fifteen seconds is more valuable. No, the space in this lane is more valuable.

The day we called, I had to explain over the phone just what her life meant. We had to place a value, a quality, on that life. How can a driver, in the short time before it is upon us, make such a weighty decision, such a decision where fifteen seconds and three feet holds more value than a life? I still struggle with the finality of our choice, now months past. I still struggle with those days when we thought the pills might be working, when we thought our will might be strong enough, when we clung so fast to hope, when we clung so desperately to the smallest sliver of driftwood despite the unavoidable waterfall up ahead. I still struggle with the moment when the signs were undeniable. When it wasn’t just hot out, she wasn’t just panting, or tired. Still we clung, even when we could see the falling water in front of us, could hear nothing but the roaring of rapids.

I just can’t shake this sadness, this grief. It has been a constant presence since the high plains, muffled by the cycling of podcasts throughout the day. There is something about the loneliness of the fields, the openness of the sky, the monotony of the farmland. Jodi has been stronger than she should have to be on these days, dealing with my moodiness and quick frustration. In these far-reaching fields and open skies, it feels as though the world is too big to not have our dog in it.

At night, when the stars are only just beginning to orient, when dusk is just beginning to deepen, I lay there with teeth clenched and wet eyes. What percentage of sadness leaves the body in sweat? Whatever amount, it is too low. It is not enough. I want this cloud to dump its rain. I want this rain to soak the ground, to steam upon the ground, to cool the air and to add gloss to the leaves and sponge to the bark. I want this rain to clap, viciously and loudly with thunder, to rattle the sky, to roar against the sky with ferocity. I want this storm to bring life, not to hang there, heavy and humid, stalled and slowly evaporating.

Good God, how I love this. How I love being out here with my wife, my partner. How I love waving at the people in their yards, waving at the children as they play outside their homes, caught off-guard and intrigued by these two mirages passing on the road. How I love that we are so fortunate to have this experience, to share it with family, to make friends, and to laugh and to play, to push ourselves and believe in ourselves. How I love every day of this.

Follow Matt Keene:

Documentary Filmmaker

Adventurer. Journalist. Outdoor junkie.

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3 Responses

  1. Kathy

    With fullness of heart we love. With fullness of heart we mourn. With fullness of heart we give thanks for the love, the joy, the life, the memories, and the future. We carry it all with us, it shapes us, it defines us we sacrifice our “comfortable place” for those we love, always putting them first so they experience life with love, joy, and thankfulness. I hope your pain seeps into the ground with every raindrop, so the joy of loving becomes your comfort. Love and peace to you.

  2. Gayle Gardner

    Beautifully said, Matt. It brings back the intense grief and loss in my past. That never really is completely gone just gets layered under everyday life.

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