Favorite month never the same

On The Bay

Passage: April, a time of renewal and rebirth, will never be the same, because it now marks the death of a loved one. Kayaking the marshes provides a measure of peace.

May 14, 1999|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

BEFORE SHE DIED, ON a bright, fresh April morning two years ago, I considered April my favorite month.

Above and beneath the bay waters, and around its shores, April is so spirited and transformative, consumed with renewal and rebirth.

In Chesapeake shallows, sea grasses green and begin to blossom with shedding soft crabs. Along tidal rivers, maples bud, blushing red at the procreative frenzies of spawning perch and herring, shad and rock.

Ospreys and herons are on the nest and plucking fish from the warming water. Otters sport in the creeks, and the last wintering loon has set its course for northern lakes.

This, and all of spring's glory missed not a beat at my wife's passing, nor did I appreciate it any less. That is what made it hard.

So many April days were the kind that made you glad to be alive, and then you would think of her, so young, so dead. It was not the gloomy, rainy April days that were cruelest.

Early in that fateful April, I went off on a four-day kayak trip, paddling with friends through the heart of what some call "Maryland's Everglades," the sweeping tidal marshes of lower Dorchester County.

Kayaking can be almost a meditation. Stroking rhythmically with the double-bladed paddle, in touch through the slender hull with every nuance of current and waves, gliding silent, unnoticed, noticing everything.

The trip was a minor celebration. After more than a year of radiation and chemo, after a Christmas season living in the stem cell transplant ward away from the kids, the CT scan had said no more cancer.

It was no guarantee, but it seemed safe for me to leave. In the four days that followed, I do not recall thinking once about my wife. It had been a long siege.

Sunday night when I got back, she seemed very tired, and by Wednesday morning, she was gone.

The worst thing April does to me now -- and maybe forever -- is to recall the day I had to tell two teen-age kids their mother was going to die.

But April's nature is ultimately and inevitably restorative -- though not immediately. In April 1998, a year after the funeral, I determined to paddle the same route.

It would be a memorial of sorts -- or maybe just an escape. It has become one of the ways I cope -- paddling through April, through the marsh and beauty, through grief.

It's gained me a measure of peace, also some hard calluses on my hands, and three more kayaks and a canoe; also some treasured times with my daughter and son.

The great anniversary voyage never happened. I, who never get sick, got sicker than I've ever been in my life.

I spent a good deal of April in bed, attended by two kids who surely believed I, too, would die, to judge from their extreme solicitude.

The doctors never figured out what it was. I still only half believe the statistics correlating grieving and illness. But when I had a brief touch of flu this April, just before another attempt at paddling the Dorchester route, I nearly panicked.

It passed, and we shoved off April 9, two years to the day from when she died. It proved to be four days of wonderful companionship -- paddlers from grandparents to teen-agers; and April was at its most interesting.

The first day was so calm and warm that, half an hour from camp we were debating whether to set up tents first, or go swimming. It was about then we felt the first, cold breath of a huge thunderstorm approaching.

Racing into camp, we dug out, not swimsuits, but long underwear. Just before the storm hit, we built a huge bonfire, whipped to such intensity by 40 mph winds, even the rain sheeting down couldn't put a damper on it.

As lightning crackled and lighted the marsh, one of our crew braced into the storm, raised a toast to the elements and screamed: "This is just PERFECT!"

Unlike the trip two years before, Cheri was on my mind a lot this time, but in a good way. I was exactly where she, who only once in 23 years consented to go paddling, would have wanted me to be.

Neither April, nor life, is ever going to be quite the same, I know. But it can be pretty fine. The rest of the month turned into a roll for Abigail -- near-perfect SAT scores and her first date, an invite to the prom ("He's just a friend, Dad," I am required to report).

Even old dad has had a few dates now, and what do you know, she likes to paddle.

As for my favorite month, sorry April, you never will be again. But increasingly I'll be paddling through you to celebrate and remember, not to escape and forget.

Pub Date: 5/14/99

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