Rereading this article five years later, and more than a year into this pandemic, I marvel at the life we once led. Will I ever be able to act so freely from my heart? Fifteen months of Covid, and the moment seems well-nigh miraculous.
My husband and I had just returned to Sedona, a place we both love and whose trails we have spent many months and untold miles hiking. It was early February, unseasonably warm even for this mountain town. We were hiking Broken Arrow on the way to Chicken Point which has a breath-taking overlook and a cozy spot for lunch tucked in among the red rocks.
As it was early in the season; the trails were pretty empty. Hiking for over an hour already, we’d not encountered another person. We took a water break along the trail and while we were resting, another hiker came up to chat. We went through the usual run of questions — exchanging where we were from, how long we planned to stay, what trails we’d done and the inevitable and grateful exclamations of how gorgeous red rock country is and how fortunate we were to be in this special place. All pretty standard fare for such brief exchanges.
This hiker was alone, in his early forties perhaps. He was a big burly kind of guy; in Sedona for the day, having just attended a work conference in Phoenix. He had a few hours to hike before his flight back home to somewhere in the Midwest. Just as he was about to start off again he stopped and said, “My wife died four months ago. I miss her so much.” And then he broke down sobbing.
In a single moment a casual conversation on the trail, like dozens we had had before, veered onto another path. My husband and I were both a bit stunned. This big muscled guy, shaved head, in a white T-shirt and a pack slung over one shoulder began to tell us about losing beloved wife of twenty plus years. They were high school sweethearts. They had two teen-aged boys, one off to college in the fall. She had been battling breast cancer for over a dozen years. I did the math and realized she had been ill most of their sons’ lives.
“I feel so guilty for wanting her to die at the end,” he said through choked cries. “Just so she would stop suffering. Am I a monster for praying for that? She fought so hard. I love her so much. I’m so lost now.” This stranger, who was no longer a stranger but a fellow human raw with grief. A moment opened and I took a chance.
“May I give you a hug?” I asked. At that, this big burly man fell onto me, utterly spent and vulnerable. I wrapped my arms around him and held him. The moment felt totally awkward and completely right. Then he stood back, regrouped, and we all introduced ourselves properly. He mumbled something about the grieving process. I said something about how crucial it is to give himself the time and permission to grieve, that there is no timetable when processing such a life-altering devastation.
I shared that I was Jewish and had benefited from the structure of reciting Kaddish daily for the traditional eleven-month period of mourning. Having gone through the process when my mother died, I understood the wisdom of following the timetable as our sages laid it out. I urged him to find a community, within his church or elsewhere in his circle, where he might continue to find a place and the support to grieve.
He walked on and we followed soon after, making it to Chicken Point and our little niche in the rocks for lunch. We didn’t see our friend until we climbed back down and ran into him on the plateau below. I was astonished to see how much lighter he seemed. He was smiling and came up to us, arms wide, and hugged us each once again with thanks for listening and being there. We wished him a safe flight back home. We’ll never know what happened to our friend and remain grateful that our paths crossed, as did our hearts.
Debra Darvick originally published this piece in 2016 at pictureaconversation.com.