After I had been walking for a while completely engulfed in the wood, I came around a bend in the path and before me lay the river, serene and beautiful with the morning fog hovering about, and there was no sound except for birdsong and the rustling of leaves in the breeze. I felt suddenly deconstructed, and my colors began to bleed into the scene in front of me to be carried off in the current. It seemed right to believe that everything I saw in front of me has been created for me, a gift of a munificent God. I had forgotten what that was like, to be comfortable, to be at ease with the planet on which I lived. I used to come here as a kid, every time the yelling started at home, or when somebody with a vigilante hankering was looking for me. It was a place to lay low, but it was more than a just somewhere to hide -- it was a sanctuary, holy ground, even if I would not have used those words back then.
The river and the wood looked very much the same as it did thirty years ago, and perhaps much the same as it had for hundreds of years before that. The river channel may have meandered a bit, and there may have been some changing of the guard in the largest and oldest of the trees, but little else. My best hiding places would be gone, presumably. There were spots where the vines and shrubs formed cloisters, pockets of space in the undergrowth, where someone could go undetected from passersby. I knew where the best of them were back then, the largest ones in the densest part of the thicket, with a canopy substantial enough that I could stay dry in all but the hardest of rains. Those rooms were probably overgrown and gone, but I was certain there were others I could find if I were but willing to get down and crawl around a bit. I wasn't surprised by how little had changed here, but I was surprised that it was allowed to remain. I had thought surely it would have been cleared and tamed to someone's purposes, yet there it was.
"I had forgotten how pretty this place was," said my wife as she emerged from the trees. She had gotten a little behind when she had stopped to take a burr out from between the dog's toes.
"Yeah, I was just thinking the same thing." We both stood quietly drinking in the scene, and even the dog seemed content to find a spot to lie down and relax.
"Last time I was here was when we went skinny-dipping over by the rope swing, remember?"
"Oh yeah," I said, although I hadn't thought about it in years, another one of those forgotten pieces of the past. It hadn't been the first time I'd seen a girl naked, but it was the first time it wasn't a prurient experience, something I did not then believe possible for a seventeen-year-old, and still believe to be the most uncommon of male experiences. I do not know if she somehow managed to scheme the encounter, or if it was the contrivance of this place, yet something that should have been lascivious was made pure, the carnal elevated to the sublime.
"You doing okay?" She knew the answer to that question, but she had asked it to try to prompt me to open up, to vent. I gave a nod in response that apparently appeared as insincere as it felt.
"The doctor said ..."
"I know, I know."
It had been an unusually warm April day twenty years ago, temperatures reaching into the upper eighties. We had gone for a walk along the same paths as we had gone on today, and we stood in a spot very near to where we were standing now. It was difficult to be precise about location after all those years. If the rope swing out over the water had still been there I could have been sure, but the tree on which the rope had hung was gone. It may have been the one that fell out into the river and whose trunk now lay mostly submerged in the channel, roiling the surface with an upwelling of the current churning over it. Perhaps it could be one still standing with just the rope removed, or the limbs over the water lost to a storm. But near the spot where we stood, we stood back then, and emboldened by the privacy of the wood, I kissed her. She lingered with her lips near mine, and then she smiled.
"Let's go swimming," I had said, and then darted toward the water, dropping articles of clothing as I went.
"You're insane," she said, but followed to the water's edge and then stripped off her panties and bra. It was a glorious and stunning sight, and in a moment of adolescent coup d'oeil, like a seasoned commander in the field, I knew immediately what I needed to be about. I headed for the rope, grabbed it, and quickly backed up the bank. As I stood for just a moment reveling in the feeling of her gaze on my nakedness, my thoughts were becoming increasingly manifest in the growing sensitivity of my body. With misguided bravado, I launched myself into the air, and as I reached the furthest point in the swing arc and my body became momentarily weightless, I let go of the rope and dropped into the water.
"I've got all the head stuff in place, you know. I know the numbers. On a cognitive level, I know this is a beatable disease." I looked at how smoothly the water flowed in the river, it calmness belying the strength of the current. "But the truth is I'm scared."
"I understand. I'm terrified."
Cancer is a largely treatable disease, but it is a snake in the grass. Even the name rattles and hisses at you. If you are the one so unfortunate as to step on the snake, people tend run away in fear, as if snake bite was contagious. In the back of my mind was the tale of my Uncle Stanley. The doctors opened him up and instantly knew it was too late to intervene. They sewed him up and informed the family there was nothing they could do. Uncle Bernie died with red, swollen tumors all over his body. Both of my grandmothers died of cancer before I was born. But that was then. I knew the numbers.
"Jesus," I screamed when my head had come up out of the water. I was not cursing, I was earnestly crying out, hoping that God would deliver me from the frozen hell into which I had thrown myself. The river in April was still in the grips of winter and had the chill of the early runoff of the mountain snows. The swelling desire I had felt shriveled in the frigid water. I could just touch the bottom with my toes, and I began to scramble as fast as I could toward shore, forgetting entirely that I could swim. At that moment, I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned to my left, and she threw her arms around my neck, pulled herself toward me, wrapped her legs around me, then kissed me deeply. I could feel her lips, her breasts, her hips against me, smooth and slippery, but not warm. I was so cold that I would have been incapable of responding sexually to our embrace even if had been intended as such. Yet while it was not erotic, I was keenly aware and surprised by its intimacy, by the novelty and risk it represented. I was aware of the vulnerability of being naked and the beauty of being nude.
My father had kissed me when I was leaving for deployment in the Persian Gulf. As I moved to hug him goodbye, he took my face in his hands and kissed me hard on the lips. I was taken aback by the emotion. There was fear in the kiss, a grasping for a last touch with no certainty of there ever being another chance. There was also a commissioning, a father's relinquishing of a charge into the world, complete with the pride of accomplishment and an apology for any shortcoming.
In a culture that moves so quickly and so easily from bar to bed, there is little opportunity for physical passion divorced from sexuality, there is little opportunity to explore a life not on the make. I admit that I had forgotten that, even at sixteen. I could not look at a girl without trying to figure out if she would have sex with me. Even the truth I had glimpsed in the frigid waters that April I soon forgot. I would go on to marry that girl, although not before there were others, and when I did, it was a selfish act -- I wanted sole possession of her, and while I was passionate about my feelings, greed is not the same as love.
"Why did you do it?"
"Why did you follow me into the water that day? I mean I jumped in because I was stupid and addled by testosterone, but you've always been smarter than that."
"I knew even then that I loved you."
"You couldn't have just told me that?"
"I don't know that I would have been able to put it into words then, but I wanted to show you that I had the strength to do whatever was necessary to be with you, to be us."
"Want to do it again?"
"Because what we've become is smarter than that, and I like what we've become."
I smiled. In the cascade of bad news and ominous test results of the past several weeks, I had forgotten to think about how much she meant to me, about how much she had always meant to me. When I had jumped into that river years ago, it was so damn cold that I had difficulty controlling my muscles, my thrashing about was spasmodic. The thought crossed my mind that I could drown. I do not think it an exaggeration to say that her touch saved me, distracted me from the cold enough to allow me to wade out of the river.
"You are going to be fine. Tomorrow, you'll go in there, and they'll cut you open and empty everything out and put just the good stuff back. You'll be fine. That's the way it works."
"They may even find the car keys I lost last year."
She moved to me and put her arms around me. I held her tight. I could feel her head against my chest. I felt her vulnerability wash over me.
"Here," I said, disengaging from her embrace. "Let's do this." I took off my clothes, not in the frenzied shedding of my youth, but in a more deliberate, more reverent manner.
"What are you doing?" She smiled even as she brushed away a tear that had run down her cheek.
When I was naked, I moved down to the edge of the water and looked out over the river. The dog had gotten up and joined me, his tail wagging. After a moment, my wife, completely naked as well, stood next to me and held my hand.
"In a few years," I said. "We'll come back here, get naked and stand by the river. I'll be scarred, diminished in bits, and probably no wiser than I am at this moment. And then, in many more years, when we're old, we'll come back again, and scandalize everyone by getting naked and standing as prunes against the current."
My wife laughed.
"Or not," I said. "It's taken me a while, you know?"
"To understand what love is."
"And now you know?"
I sighed. "It takes me a long time to see the things that are right in front of me. I think that's because I forget to look."
"Ah, well now, that's different." I turned to face her and held both of her hands. "I have never forgotten to look at you, but I have to admit, I have never really seen how brave you are."
"I never gave you much to pin your hopes on. You could have done better."
"No. You are what I wanted, in the river that day and now."
"See? I didn't get that back then, and you took the gamble that some day I would."
"And now you do?"
"I think so."
She let go of my hands, turned and ran into the river. She instinctively covered her breasts with her hands and screamed when the water hit the small of her back, then laughed out loud. When she had gotten deep enough, she completely submerged, burst back to the surface and turned back to the shore. The dog was barking madly and racing about.
"I'm not doing this alone, am I?"
"No," I shouted and ran forward. Not alone. In the selfish haze of worry I had submerged myself in over the past several weeks, I had forgotten that I wasn't alone.