“What if it was the last time you’d ever see the lake and your camp, would you want to know?”
Our neighbor and longtime friend, Ed, used to pose this question annually. It would be “closing up” time, and we’d be sitting around a stick fire, toasting the end of another great summer season with one or more adult beverages. His favorite movie, “On Golden Pond,” made him raise this question each time he watched it, which he did every winter when he began to get homesick for his place in Rangeley. He always came to the conclusion that, no, he wouldn’t want to know, and Tom and I would agree. Even if we got as old as Norman Thayer in the movie and, heaven forbid, fell ill right on our front porches, we would still want to think there would be one more summer on the lake.
Ed died suddenly one May, just as he was getting ready for his first trip back up here for the season. In his late fifties, active, and in seemingly good health, I don’t imagine he knew as he stood on his dock the previous October that he’d never make it back. Not consciously, anyway.
In years past, come Columbus Day, I’d look down the lake one last time and remember Ed. The Subaru would be packed with canned goods, dogs and dirty laundry to take “home,” and I’d walk as slowly as possible back up the path to start my trip down the mountain until May. I’d say a final goodbye out loud to my camp like it lived and breathed, already looking forward to the day, seven months later, when I’d fling the door open and yell: “I’m baaack!”
Things are different this year now that I’m a full-timer. I won’t have that going away feeling, wondering how my cabin will make it through without me, and I without it. I won’t get that silly conflicted sensation when I speak of “home” and know that, half of the year, my soul is rooted somewhere other than where my physical body must reside. Still, with the leaves turned and the summer folks gone, I find myself thinking back to Ed, to cycles, to seasons come and gone, to wondering: Is this the last day I’ll go outside without a jacket? Is this the last morning my mums will still be yellow when I wake up?
It’s a natural turning, I remind myself, to be reflective and a tad melancholy. As my landmark first-time year of permanency stretches past summer, it’s OK to look back on all my last-time journeys, too. And, I believe, it’s healthy and healing to not forget Ed’s big question. Not to deliberate and brood, mind you, but simply to honor it and not let it float out of my stream of consciousness.
In this season of closing up, of settling in and hunkering down, I’m allowing myself to ponder beginnings and endings. Like many people, I have a legacy of lasts, of losing loved ones, my livelihood, and sometimes even my sense of humor. I have spent repeated “last” Christmases and birthdays with terminally sick relatives, while missing just as many last celebrations with others taken in the wink of an eye. Would knowing – somehow being able to determine exactly – my last times with them changed how I spent those precious final moments? No. My answer, I’m thankful to say, is no. I would have laughed, cried, hugged and loved just the same.
But what has changed through these experiences is my certainty that, as the universe moves in mysterious ways on its eternal timetable, I am left with choices. I can ebb and flow with it, or try to resist. I can assume “life sucks and then you die” or I can declare each new day a possibility. My choice – bolstered, I think, by my choice of lifestyle and surroundings – is to run headlong into life like an overgrown 8-year-old. My answer is to learn from my beagles, who don’t go on first and last walks, but barrel through the woods whenever and wherever we take them like it is the only time they are running free, the only time the ground smells so sweet.
Figure every time might be the last, that’s my strategy. And it’s a strategy that’s working wonders for grabbing the gusto out of everything from food to friendships, from adventures to everyday encounters. Take snorkeling, for example. I loved it so much when I first tried it in Cancun, I cried. “I finally found a water sport I love to do for hours, and it’s in the Caribbean ocean! This is the last time I’ll ever get to go!” That was 18 years, and 15 trips to seven different islands ago, and I still hover, transfixed for hours, figuring each colorful fish is the last one I’ll ever see.
When Big Mike, another longtime friend, came up to visit recently, we had a hard time remembering the last time we saw him. It was sometime, we guessed, before we got grey hair and eating healthy became a worthy topic of conversation. No matter, though, we just took up right where we left off in college. Tom took him fishing for the last days of the season at Upper Dam. We told the same old jokes and laughed like we’d never heard them before. And the lobster we brought back to the cabin after showing off the peak foliage was the best any of us had ever had.