SACRED GROUND

 
10/20/95

Early morning. : We have tied his green canoe to the custom rack of his red truck, the rack that he had made as a present to himself this past summer for completing chemotherapy. The rest of our boat equipment jumps and jostles in the camper as we head north on Highway 89 toward our canyons and rivers of Utah. This place, this home as we call it, where we have loved and lived in the shadows of iron red sandstone,with juniper grey-green as thought on mesas blue as smoke. This is where we run to remove ourselves of the disease that is burning through his body like napalm, running home. Timeless land where we hope to breathe and where there are no fearful words like cancer.

A week ago Black Friday the 13th, we read the oncologist's face as he wordlessly told us about the metasizing of tumor growth. Ugly blunt terrible words. We sat in the windowless cubicle of the Cancer Center and let the icy waves of shock roll over us, buffeting us, maytagging us, rolling us in the keeper hole of non-comprehension. He would die, we were told. When, we didn't know. Maybe a year. Maybe more...or less.

Now the fractured yellow light of sunrise splays over the black highway and we are riding in silence towards the old place we always go to heal. The cottonwoods will flame gold into the sky. The wrinkled red canyons will hold us cupped in their warm hands.  (click on picture for large view)

11 a.m. : We back down the boat ramp at Sand Island and unload. I rig my little craft while he loads up the canoe. He is struggling--breathing short and heavy, face grey under his summer tan. I ignore his orders to pass him the packed rocket boxes and ice chest and instead try to wrestle them down the concrete apron myself. This earns a terse exchange from him, his teeth clenched. "I'm your husband", he sternly tells me, "and I will still load the heavy stuff". I am ashamed that I unthinkingly robbed him of what he has always done on past trips. I must try to stop protecting him. Other boaters, people we have floated with in the past, are nearby, rigging for their own trip. They watch him knowing what he battles. I did not think about this, about how he wants to continue on, how he wants to be seen. How he refuses to let this disease victimize him.

1:30 p.m. : We float , the pewter river swirling around us and the canyon wren's call falling scales silver from cliffs above. The swallows dart and dip and we move slowly in silence towards the canyon. The cobalt blue bowl of the sky curls around us cloudless but I sense a grey veil of sadness and loss everywhere. I long to push it away, but there is nothing to feel, nothing to touch, nothing to tear or rip apart and let the light through, nothing.

Later. The sunlight stretches long and thin over the river currents. We have said little to each other. We listen to the liquid sound of water, timeless endless flow, and meeting each other's eyes words are not necessary. Words are useless because we know all there is to know. That love is, and we have that. That it is everything for us and always will be.

I turn away from him, and reach behind me to dig in my personal box. I don't know what I'm after...chapstick-lotion-gum, I don't know. When I turn back around, he has drifted yards away from me, turning and turning. His back is to me and he moves slow motion further down river, further and further away. The skin on my neck prickles. My heart suddenly begins to pound and I fight the urge to blindly paddle after him, grab him, pull his boat to mine and not let go.

5 p.m. :We make camp on a cobble and sand beach. The tamarisk are pumpkin colored in this autumn place and waft back and forth in the evening air like feathers. We build a fire. He is chilled through. He stiffly stands from his chair and goes to bed early. I help him lie down in the tent. He is in pain, doesn't say a word, just struggles to lie prone. Finally he is as comfortable as can be, and I zip the tent and go back to the fire. I stare into the flames and repeat in my head "Please don't let him die . . . . please don't let him die. "

I see two sticks in a perfect calvary cross pattern glowing orange. Mesmerized I watch the fire blacken them. Please don't let him die, I hear myself think, and the crossed sticks crumble into ash and fall into oblivion.

10 a.m. October 21: We have broken camp and are back on the river. The sun is burning fiercely above our heads and I wish, I wish it would burn the aberrant cells running rampant in his body, burn them to white hot nothingness and give us back our life. Give him back his life. We are entering the mouth of the Canyon now. Instead of swallowing us, it gently takes us in, the current of the river moves faster and I lead through the little rapids. Last year he would have done this. Now our roles have changed. "You have the eye for reading water, babe", he tells me, "and now you pick the path." And I do. We both have perfect slick green runs.

Timeless. The beige beaches, the lemon colored cottonwoods, the desert bighorn sheep with incongrously curly horns that stare at us from shore, all have no past or future. Just the present, just this trip, nothing more. We must be the only two people in this world. We see no one else, pass no one else, hear nothing but the dip and liquid splash of our paddles into the river, the white noise of rapids, the gurgle of eddylines.

2 p.m. We reach 8 foot and pull over into the left eddy to scout. We clamor out of our boats. The clay attached to the shore clings to our wet booties and we slip and slide over the rocks to the edge of the rapid. The run is always the same---hug the right wall, move between the rocks, negotiate the S curve at the bottom, pull out in the eddy. Don't get separated. Stick together. Play safe and have fun. We thought, till now, in our innocence, that we had played safe. We thought we were having fun. The last year we ran this rapid someone had, in celebration of upcoming Hallow'een, placed a jack o'lantern on one of the rocks in the middle of the rapid. Cruising past it first, I thought I might be hallucinating, till he asked me if I saw it. Later that night we tipped a beer in honor of the crazy boater with a twisted sense of humor. This year, however, there is no grinning jack o lantern, no beer tipping. Just terse running of this rapid, me with clenched teeth refusing to hover over him, to look back, refusing to think what would happen if he flipped and in his pain couldn't swim himself to shore. Refusing to believe that the unthinkable-his leaving me-might be happening.

4 p.m. : Ledge Camp. We have run the last small rapid on this upper stretch, have set up the tent, opened up our cans of soup for dinner, and are sitting on a flat rock together. I am leaning against him in the circle of his arms. He has them wrapped around me, his chin resting on top of my head. We still don't speak much. There is nothing to say. We are home, we are where we most want to be, we are together. We watch the cliff above us flare into reds and vermillion and ocher and then slowly fade to grey. The air chills. We move to the fire, towards night, and the bats click and tick around our heads, and the river murmurs voices under it's rocky bed.

7 a.m. October 22. : The wind is howling fiercely this morning. Sand spills from the air above like snow, into our coffee, our boats, our eyes, everywhere. We break camp as fast as we can. He is hurting but won't say much about it. He swallows pills and pulls his canoe into the water. The bottom of the boat makes a grating noise against the shore. I follow. The wind is horrible, blowing upstream, a solid invisible wall of noise that stops us dead in the water. Laboriously we paddle, inching along. He is tiring, I know it. I begin to think: how to get us out of here? I know of a road that comes down to the river just past Sulphur Spring. If we have to, I'll line the boats down shore and I'll walk to the road. I'll hike out to the highway, get the truck, come back for him and the gear. I remember not so long ago when he would have been worrying about what to do. Now he is just gripping his paddle, battling to finish this trip, this possible last trip together even though neither of us will ever allow the words"last trip" to escape our mouths. Not long ago he was planning on protecting me while we camped on the edge of the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, another wind howling through the tops of the ponderosa pines at midnight and threatening to break the tops out of them. We lay sleepless in the tent all night. He told me if he heard the telltale crack that meant breaking tree trunks he was prepared to throw himself on top of me to keep me from getting crushed. That was just two years ago. Now I do the same, figuring only in my head ways to protect him. He must not know I'm doing this. He won't.

11 a.m. : Finally, as we inch, panting, along the long straight stretch of river before the 45 degree turn at the Hat, the wind gods favor us. The gale abruptly changes direction and blows downstream, pushing us down river. We begin to sail. We make the take out in record time. Blessings come in surprising packages, and a downstream breeze for him was a rescue mission.

As I float by an old cattle fence on river right, I again see a pattern of a cross. Two boards, reinforcing the fence line, jump out at me. A sign? A warning ? Who knows. All I know is that I can't let him go, can't lose him, no. But I remember this cross for a long, long time.

12 p.m. : We de-rig at the take out. This man, my husband, this strapping burly bulging biceps man approaches another river party and asks them for help in getting the canoe on top of the truck. "I have a back problem," is all he tells them. They oblige. River folks don't ask questions. They lend a hand. That's all.

1 p.m. : And we are, now, warm and dry and fed, thanks to the San Juan Inn. I drive. He looks out the window. We clutch each other's hand, and I check the horizon and see Monument Valley impassively moving nearer us, sandstone ships in a sky ocean. There is a translucent sliver of moon curving gracefully over Owl Rock. The land undulates under the truck tires. And he and I move through sacred ground.