Sunday before Labor Day at ten of six I embark on a journey south under moonlight. I’ve always wanted to take a trip in the country under a full moon. The Natchez Trace stretches out before me in curves, over hills — asphalt, grass, a treeline. The road narrows ahead, and an occasional leaf drops in front of me. I don’t see another car for the first fifty minutes. I watch the sky lighten and the morning clouds burn away. A coyote crosses the road, then another, a deer, bands of wild turkeys, vultures on the center line, a hawk flying toward me then lifting. The rising sun helps to clarify the world around me. It filters through the trees and throws its light across the road and lays stripes against the tree trunks. Against the texture of blue-green pine needles, the hardwoods are paling, thinning, and there is a smattering of yellow. Dogwoods are turning red. Sycamores look like succotash. They signal the change to come. Soon winds will whip the dropping leaves across the roadway and into the fields, and there will be cold air and earthy colors, then icy rain and barrenness — the end of the living season.

Bagworms hang on branches, some out over the roadway in my path, snuffing out the life of the tree. I don’t want to experience this ugly invader on my journey through pristine woods, but I am forced to look at these obstacles in my path.


Most of my life has been spent on the bank watching the river flow. The rest of my life, I have been knocked about by strong currents, thrown into the rocks. I want to get into the water and manage the flow.

I have a new Heritage Featherlite 9.5. Yellow.

Saturday before Labor Day I christen my new kayak in the Narrows of the Harpeth out near Pegram. At the Narrows you can park in one spot for the put in and take out because here the river makes a five-mile loop and the put in is barely four hundred yards from the take out, yet it’s a three-hour paddle. We launched from a steep ramp and stairs, and there I was. Alone, with a Werner paddle, yellow to match the boat. It’s one thing to be in a canoe with another person paddling. There’s a backup, I could take a break, I could rest and depend. Now every paddle, every obstacle, every strainer, every ripple is mine. We hit rippled water from the get-go. I angle my boat into the V and move with the current, then I hit an eddy and get pushed to the bank. I maneuver, I keep the boat straight, I get the feel of her. She’s a glider, she feels good in the water, she’s easy, I’m in love. The Harpeth River has a gentle flow here at 79 cfs with occasional ripples that bounce and carry me faster. I paddle in circles for practice, in shallow places I get pushed onto rocks, and I get carried toward other canoes and toward the bank, and I learn to rock my hips and keep my upper body still, to paddle in a rainbow, paddle deep, paddle hard, to keep on paddling even when it looks like the flow alone can take me through.


I follow the Natchez Trace to Tupelo, then take Highway 6 west to Oxford. Mama has been at the Missisippi State Home for Veterans for six days. For now, she needs heavy pain medication and management. She is still able to socialize and walk around and visit with others.

One year ago Mama was mowing her own yard and weed-eating and taking care of her flowerbeds. Then her pain hit. She has gone to doctor after doctor, from Cleveland to Memphis, and even a chiropractor, and no one was able to find the source of her pain. Actually, doctors don’t look for the source any more. They don’t even touch patients. You go in and tell them where you think your pain is and they give you medicine for that. So Mama presented with colon pain. She was tested and treated. No one thought to look further. I took Mama in and made her pull up her shirt and point to the pain. The doctor said, “Well, that’s not your colon.” So he X-rayed her hip, and her hip wasn’t fractured.

A simple rule I’ve learned over the years is that if you are in pain 24 hours a day and cannot sleep because of it and you are overdosing on Ibuprofen for some measure of relief that never comes, you have cancer.

Come to find out Mama has lung cancer that has metastasized to the bones and to the space between the lungs, and she probably has adrenal cancer, as well. And it might be in her brain. Her pain is getting stronger. She can’t stand any clothes touching the bones in her low back and thoracic area or against her ribs in front. She has cut into the waistband of all her pants to allow for more room. She said a chaplain told her she has three or four months. No one has told me that.

I am unable to cope with her impending death because I cannot get past the fact that she is in a nursing home. She was in pain, she was overdosing, she was unsafe at home, she needed 24-hour care, she got her diagnosis, and she got put in another town 120 miles away, in strange surroundings, among strangers. No one will visit her here, except close family, maybe once a week. No one from her hometown, or from the church where she’s been a member for sixty-three years. My head tells me she’s getting the care she needs.

My heart tells me she needs to be home. Home, where she can look out the front window and see Iva Lou’s old house and two big trees in the front yard, even though Iva Lou is in North Cleveland Cemetery. Home, where she can spend her days wandering about the wegelias, the roses, the hydrangeas, the crepe myrtles and pampus grass. The Carolina jasmine and the daylillies. Home, where she can spend her last nights in the front bedroom where she has slept for sixty years. Home, where she can get peace, comfort, and closure. And die in the same room my father did.

We’ve decided to take her home before the end. She hopes it is soon enough. So do I.


I just took a journey through grief after the loss of my husband. I’d been through the rough waters, the rapids, the rushing whitewater pulling me up the river; I didn’t know where I was going, but I got there. I had just arrived in calm waters. I was beginning to laugh and experience life again and to want more out of life. The kayak was a gift to myself, to a new and different, wild and crazy life.

Now this with Mama. And the familiar journey begins again. I recognize that tingling in the backs of my arms, the heaviness of my legs as I try to put one foot in front of the other and walk, the shallow breaths I am forced to take, and the head pointed down, chin on collar bone — the posture of grief. My pain centers in my neck, and I am drawn to the bottle of Ibuprofen, and it doesn’t help much.


Once again, I am swept away by the current. I need to remember to paddle.


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