The story is complete! Thank you to the writers who contributed to this collaborative community story writing program. Each writer’s section is indicated in the beginning of their section.




Donna

My heart is aging. Like the rest of my body, it is slowing down, not allowing me to do as much as I was able to accomplish ten years ago, five years ago, even two years ago. Yet my brain tells me I am still that middle-aged youngster who climbed the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and survived “Dead Woman’s Pass” at age 62; who paraglided off a mountain in Alaska at age 73; who paddled down the Allegheny River for 35 miles in a single kayak at 75 years young.

My heart room tells me to slow down. My brain room says there are still many unimaginable places to go, people to visit. Sitting here watching the birds flitter about outside my den window, I want to sit back, take a few really deep yoga/meditation breaths and look into that yet unexplored room in my heart. How do I merge and reconcile what my brain, my body and heart are telling me.  I want to imagine the unimaginable. What is the next adventure for me and my aging heart? I’m looking forward to where my exploration leads me. Hmmm! I am imagining…..

It is bitter cold. Snow pelting. Gusty winds. Facemasks in place.  What possessed us to hike in this weather? My mountain climbing, backpacking son walks at my slower pace, not mentioning that he used to scurry to keep up with me. Now he waits as I catch my breath; helps me over fallen trees.  In between steps we stop for deep quiet conversation. A bluebird perches on my shoulder as we talk. We watch eight deer frolicking.  I’ll remember today forever and not worry about my heart slowing down. What other adventure can I begin? Ah! Yes!  I know, I think I will …

Aparna

……I think I will explore my inner sanctum more deeply. I’ve stretched the limits of my physical self by soaring aloft, like a bird, traversing brutal treks and navigating turbulent waters. Now, the soul awaits discovery by plumbing into the depths of my consciousness.

But, first I will dance in celebration of all my momentous achievements.

As I wait for the traffic light to turn green, my mind runs through the copious collection of records I’ve garnered over the years. Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Brahms, Mahler and the brilliant saxophonist, Kenny G among others. The moment, however, calls for something more exuberant and peppy, like Abba or BoneyM.

I’m virtually swaying to “Dancing Queen,” when I step through the front door, inserting the LP record that instantly lightens the heaviness around the living room. The pale blue walls practically gleam like the ocean. The song pulsates with waves of joy rippling  through the cluttered room.   

I recall our family, my wife Marcie, our twin boys Alex and Caleb dancing every Friday evening to disco music. It was a family tradition we fostered until the boys flew home to their respective nests. Marcie and I continued, however, until her passing a few years ago. 

Oh! How I miss her! Her sparkle ignited even the dullest of objects and personalities, her effervescence matchless among peers. Marcie smelled of chamomile and sandalwood, the scented candles she produced. She barely sold two or three a month, but she made plenty just to keep her mind active and her soul sated, she’d say with her smile that lit every part of my being. While the twins and I quietly mocked her futile efforts, she prodded on, convinced she was doing God’s work. I would give anything to have my Marcie back, if only just to dance like my queen! 

I felt a flutter graze past me! When I spun around I found a blue hummingbird with orange streaks on it’s feathers foraging seeds from the bird house Marcie had erected for her “winged companions.” She kept a running dialogue with them, while she persevered on her precious candles.

Ruth, our next door neighbour, along with a few others, bought the candles for a dollar each from the church for a charity fundraiser last Christmas. I bequeathed the entire lot from the basement which was Marcie’s sacred corner. I kept the three she had made a week before her transition. Alex took the lime green. Caleb grabbed the shocking red, while I was content with the pure white.

The song ended, plunging me into an eerie silence. The record had flipped from one song to the other, while I was lost in memories of Marcie. I was no longer interested in the music or the dancing. Instead, I found myself seated on the sofa ruminating deeply about my life. 

Yes, I had indeed achieved a lot working for a top IT firm and retired more than comfortably. I spent most of my post professional life conquering mountains, visiting Egypt, Machu Picchu, seeing the Northern Lights and ticking off items on my bucket list. Marcie wasn’t interested in traveling and was happy being at home, taking care of the boys and making candles. 

A year before she left this world, she had adopted Scallop, a kitten from the litter her friend Ruth’s cat had produced. Scallop was so tiny, she fit in the palm of Marcie’s dainty little hand. It was too early to bring him home, I had said, but Ruth had insisted. The tom cat was harassing the babies and had made a direct bee line for the waif one morning. It’s mother, too, had for some reason rejected little Scallop. The poor thing was wilting like a weed on an icy knoll. Besides, the kitten had sustained numerous injuries. Part of his left ear had been badly chewed off.

Marcie’s nurturing, however, fattened the kitten who’s white fur was now as fluffy as a big snowflake. I was wary of the cat, at first. But, with the twins and grandchildren living far away, Scallop filled a void, quickly becoming the centre of our world. 

It was hard to reconcile my turbulent emotions when Caleb’s young son Carson approached me, 

“Can I take Scallop home, grandpa,” he asked, his innocent eyes, beseeching. 

I was torn. I had already lost the love of my life and losing Scallop would be devastating. 

However, it was around the time that I was leaving for my adventure on the Allegheny river, essentially  hurtling 35 miles down in my kayak. Scallop would be safer and happier at Caleb’s. 

I acquiesced, rather grudgingly. It was the right thing, I told myself. People come and go, as do animals I philosophized. I hugged Carson tightly that evening and stroked Scallop’s soft fur as he slept soundly on my lap. It was our way of saying goodbye. I never thought I’d miss Scallop as much as I did Marcie. He was like our third child and seeing him leave sent a wrench through my heart.

That evening, I felt lost. Forlorn. I went downstairs to visit his favourite haunts, which was mostly where Marcie spent most of her time in the basement. It was deathly quiet. And cold. Her candle making paraphernalia had all been discarded. A faint smell of sandalwood lingered in the air. This was her tranquil oasis. A room for her meditations. I perused her library which was packed with books about candle making, bees, cats and classics, like the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Shakespeare, Marlowe and contemporary authors such Sue Monk Kidd, Diane Setterfield and numerous others. An entire section was brimming with books about yoga, meditation and mindfulness. Hmm! I could picture Marcie as a meditator, but never really saw her meditate. Ruth and she spent hours down here connecting with their respective spirits. 

 As I was about to make my way upstairs to cook dinner, I was startled by a book that fell out of the shelf. It was “An Autobiography of a Yogi by Yogananda.” Was it divine timing? A perfect start to my inward journey, perhaps? I picked it up to take it upstairs to the bedroom, when I noticed a piece of paper sticking out from one of the pages. It was an envelope addressed to Marcie covered with love signs and kisses all over. It read, 

To my beautiful Marcie, 

Love you to the moon and back!

Yours forever,

Ruth

Priscilla 

…My body crumbled to the floor like a bag of bones. I wept. My aging heart, now racing faster than when I took flight at Denali National Park and rime ice formed on my glider and face. In some of the most unforgiving of conditions, I thought that forty-day trek was the hardest thing I would ever do. Then I buried my Marcie and realized I had never known despair. Now my heart’s room quaked and shuddered. There were no words for how I felt now.

I howled louder there on the basement floor. “Why!” I shouted over and over. Refusing to believe this was anyone’s fault but my own. I was too selfish. I sought the adventure, the adrenaline rush and only too late did I find out I needed to provide that thrill and spark for my beloved.  

Now certain of my own betrayal, I clenched my fists and rose to my feet with a newfound energy. I filled my pack with the essentials and loaded the kayak into the back of my Wagoneer.  I hastily readied home for my next adventure. My last adventure. 

The drive to Tidioute was the slowest two-hour drive I had ever driven. I made every effort to push all thoughts out of my head listening to Die Mainacht on repeat for the first 45 minutes then silence for the rest of the drive. It was still dark when I arrived at Bonnie Brae Boat Launch so I attempted to get some rest before daylight. 

I felt an immediate sense of peace as soon as I pushed off. I felt I could finally reflect on recent revelations and meditate on my life. The serene wilderness and liquid glass were exactly what I needed. I lingered, extending the trip from three days to five. I always planned my trips with the unexpected in mind, so I had plenty of food and called Caleb to have him pick me up in a couple of days. 

On the fourth day, I set up camp on one of the small islands. Relaxing in my hammock, I admired a bald eagle as it dove for a walleye. The beauty of the sunset framed by great mountains and towering trees engender my realization of my most disconcerting faults. I had always held Marcie so high on a pedestal, perhaps even saw her as too fragile to know the life I craved. I thought my actions all those years were faithful, bold, noble. It was here I realized my adventure was my mistress. In the sky, on the water, in the wilderness, I felt most like myself.

As was arranged Caleb was waiting in the Wagoneer at the boat dock in Oil City. He helped me load the kayak and my pack. I was feeling the wear of rowing on my aging bones. My heart and mind, feeling the mend already. “Thank you, Son. I croak having not spoken out loud in almost a week. “Always happy to help Dad,” Caleb responded with a smile. “What is your next adventure Dad?” Caleb eagerly inquired? “Maybe I can join you next time.” I hesitated thinking of his young son Carson, how his family was young and unharmed by regrets. 

It was late summer when we started our new family tradition. Caleb and Alex with their wives and children began taking weekend hikes and camping in the wilderness of the Allegheny Mountains. In early fall we biked The Great Allegheny Passage. My two grown sons were as gleeful as youngsters as we boarded the train to ride back to the trailhead. It was the winter when I felt myself creeping slower and slower. As my son released Carson’s hand to help me navigate the rugged snow-covered terrain, I questioned my sanity and his. Was this my aging body’s way of telling my stubborn brain it is time to pull back from these adventures? Would my aging heart let me settle into the garden, spending my days sunning in a cozy Adirondack chair? The racing palpitations told my mind not likely and I felt my strength regain and finished our climb.

During the weekdays, my sons and their families went to their homes and lived their lives working and going to school. I spent much of my time looking out my den window as the seasons alter the world outside. I sit, and feel very much the same man that climbed the Inca Trail and traversed glaciers to fly over Denali Nature Preserve. I am still the man that loved his wife and mourned her every day. Mourned what we should have built but never did.

I take my daily walk up to the Sewickley Cemetery. I sit on a bench near my Marcie talking about the boys, village gossip, and admiring the unceasing beauty of sunset behind the trees. No matter how daunting or relaxing the setting, the sunset always manages to take my breath away.

As dusk sets in I start my walk home. My wide stride shortens to a shuffle as I maneuver down the steep slope of the mountain. The air is crisp and clean as the village lights begin to illuminate the busy streets and eateries. The church bells toll. It is six-o-clock and I feel a gentle rumble inside as delicious smells waft in the air.

I step off the curb to cross the street looking up after assuring my feet are placed securely. I squint to identify a heap of brocade and galoshes piled on the sidewalk in front of me. My pace quickens, my heart quickens faster. My bones creak as I kneel beside what now looks like a woman. Frail, gasping for air, trembling. “It’s Ruth! Hurry! Call an ambulance!” I call out “Help me!”

I wrap her in my coat and hold her tight until help arrives. Her pale skin pearling with sweat, her azure lips whisper over and over barely audible over the emerging sounds of the emergency.

“I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry…”

Dana

The words “I’m so sorry” make me realize that I’m crying too. I feel faint, like I too am going to pass out, my heart racing fast as a jackrabbit’s. My world starts to spin as everything turns black.

I find myself closer to the ground than I can ever recall.  I look up, and realize that my vision looks different, more blurred, less colorful. I see hands above me and think that I am watching myself die. Instead, I feel a strange tingling all over my body.

“What are you doing? Why are you touching my back?”  I tried to yell this, but all I hear are the meows of a cat.

Wait, why am I suddenly having the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of a cat? Am I having a stroke?

“Now bring me the food I want—kitty treats!”

What is going on? I notice the room has a computer, so being an IT professional, I decide to try and move myself closer to it to type out who I am and figure out what is going on.

“Oh human, I’m updating the kitty blog, so I can take over the world and you’ll never know! It looks like a bunch of random letters and numbers to you, but it’s really a secret code being sent out to all felines that the time to activate cat-dragon mode is now. Time to bring out the teeth, the paws, the claws, the cuteness, and make the humans bow down to us even more, to gain even more control over them! Meow haha!”

“No! Stop walking on my computer!” A familiar voice yells, but I can’t place it. 

What is going on? Where are these thoughts coming from?

I look down at my hands, but I see the white furry paws of Scallop instead. What has happened to me?

Larry

The path back to reality is always difficult, and the dual blows of Marcie and Scallop have left me in a horrible state.  But as I crawl into bed, the differences in the two seems to weave their memories into my own story. Love and loss are strange things:  One can be joyous and the other debilitatingly horrible, and then the reverse is also true.

The morning shines bright, and my memory is clearer now.  I remember the pills the doctor gave me and immediately realize that taking them with wine is not a good idea.  The exhaustion of the kayak trip, the loss of two loved ones, the finding of a best friend injured has put me into a dark, precarious place, one that I am certainly not prepared for.

“Today is the first day of the rest of my life!”  I am up and feeling good; much better than expected, and ready to find my next big adventure.  I’ve traveled the world, but I want to find a lost corner of my own country and spend time living as they live.  I am packing the Waggoneer and heading West, to a place I have never dreamed of.

My first direction is west, since I live in the East.  Through Ohio, then Indiana, across the Mississippi at St. Louis where I join famous Route 66.  My goal is to follow the original “Mother Road” westward until I find an interesting place to stop.  I plan to stay nightly in old fashioned Motor Courts, run-down motels, and tourist cabins.  I have vowed to eschew any chain restaurants and fast-food places.  I am making this adventure as much like a trip in the1950’s, the decade of my birth, as possible.

Through Missouri and into Oklahoma the Wagoneer groans and wheezes a little, but the ratti-tat-tat of the tar strips on the old asphalt is a percussion section I can hum with.  We roll through Chelsea, Tulsa, Stroud, Chandler, and Luther with Oklahoma City on the horizon.

I have not been driving more than 300 miles per day, and I am well past 200 this hot evening when I cross the Canadian County line between Bethany and Yukon.  The next town on Old Route 66 is miles away but in this table-flat country, I can see the grain elevators in the next county–long before any mileage signs.  In this part of the country, the new Interstates by-pass the small towns completely, depressing the economies and the people.  But these small towns have struggled to keep up their tiny business districts and are a wealth of nostalgia just waiting for my writer’s notebooks.

Yukon is a surprising little town, framed on the East by the grain elevators and on the West by the cemetery.  Between the two town landmarks are 3 blocks of 1920’s single-story stores and businesses.  I drive slowly through town both because I have to, and because I want to.

Just before reaching the town limit, I pull into the Yukon Motor Court, an often-painted, low series of single-room cottages around a cracked, weathered parking lot.  As I enter the office door, the smells of stale cigarette smoke and fried Okra hit my olfactories like an overweight Mac-Truck hauling steel.  Out of the back room shuffles a woman who appears to be at least 50% Native American.  Her name tag reads, Ronda Comingdeer, and her smile says, “Welcome to Yukon!”.

“How many nights?”, she asks.

“Two or Three”.

“It’s $19.95 a night, and I need a credit card imprint now or a $50.00 dollar deposit”.

“That’s fine, ” I reply, handing her my AMX card, “By the way, is there anything going on in town this weekend? ”

She beams as someone who has just been given the starring role in the school play. 

“Why, yes siree” she responds in a sing-songy way.  “We have the 4-H and the FFA rodeo this weekend, it should be a lot of fun”.

As I quietly complete the registration form, with my Pennsylvania tag number, she lets out a low whistle…”You’re a long way from home aren’t you, mister?.

“Yes, I guess so”.

As she hands me the cabin key, I ask about restaurants. 

She responds with a wink, “The best in town is Jackie & Sox’s place back down on Main Street, right next to the feed and grain store.  But, you’d better skedaddle because we roll up the sidewalks at 7:00 sharp.”

I drop the key in my pocket and head back down Main Street to Jackie’s.  It is easy to find; not because it is large, but because Johnnie’s Feed and Grain is.

As I walk through the door, the most amazing aromas fill my nostrils, and a bright world of chrome bar stools and orange linoleum flooring around a bright green lunch counter meets my eyes.

In the middle of this visual festival of color is a creature that can only be described as heart stopping.  I assume it is Jackie.  She is in her early 60’s, but she hasn’t wasted a second of her life not looking like a million dollars.  Levi jeans, so tight they appear to be painted on, with tiny iron-pressed seams down each leg are matched with a blue denim shirt with white pearl snaps.  Her coal black hair and red bandana complete her trousseaux.  Weaving around her Tony Lama alligator boots is a totally white cat.

I stop short and stammer a weak, “Hi”.

“Hi, I’m Jackie and this is Sox The Cat, and we are here to make your supper,” she said in that characteristic Oklahoma drawl.

As Jackie walks behind the lunch counter and into the kitchen, I’m thinking, “I wonder if Jackie and Sox might be up for a new ‘BIG’ adventure in life, the 4-H and FFA rodeo with a Pennsylvania stranger?”