All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.

—From The Buddha’s Five Remembrances, presented by Thich Nhat Hanh

Today’s hike begins as a detective caper. Can we, Patrick and Barbara—two long-married 75-year-olds—find and walk the zigzag trail we climbed thirty-five years ago in Oakland’s Redwood Park, where the younger Patrick, unbeknownst to the younger Barbara, planned to propose marriage—but didn’t?

The forest ranger we consult, the dog walkers to whom we explain our quest, respond with delight. Seeking advice on how to locate our trail, we describe what we remember—narrow, steep, heavily wooded, many switchbacks—and share our story: the two of us in the prime of life, charging up and down, pressing through tight passages between trees, hunting for a sunny nook for a picnic, Patrick hauling a heavy wicker basket where he had hidden a bottle of champagne.

On this day, with our pup Tony in tow, we head out on the soft needle duff beneath rising redwoods. While I’ve become an ardent daily walker, since those courting days it’s been hard to pry Patrick away from his books, writing, and cooking to get out on a trail. But here we are. The search feels fun to both of us, maybe a little more riveting for me. Primed with expectation, I feel particularly alive. I hurry ahead, glancing back every few minutes at Patrick carefully forging forward. I try to curb impatience but finally burst out, “Couldn’t you pick up the pace a bit?”

In my rush, I trip on a tree root, lose my balance, and hurtle to the ground, scraping my forearm and elbow. Patrick catches up, making sure I’m OK, and I hasten on.

The price of my “exuberance”! I’ve continued to defend this view of myself, even as evidence has mounted for contrary assessment. My lickety-split pace, in which I’ve taken pride, isn’t necessarily a wonderful choice. It is, I’ve come to suspect, a way of avoiding what is truly going on. Hurrying has consequences: not just injuring the body but also distracting the mind.

After the slip, I remind myself:

I am of the nature to grow old.

Recently I’ve been practicing the Buddha’s five remembrances, reciting them in early morning meditation and reflecting on them throughout the day.

I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.

I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.

I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.

All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.

My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

These five verses from the Upajjhatthana Sutta (Anguttara Nikaya 5.57) are meant to be memorized and recited as constant reminders. By regularly repeating the truths of inconstancy, I hope to absorb them in the whistle of breath at my nostrils, the throb of my pulse and beat of my heart. But why does the practice of the remembrances feel so urgent for me? The specter of separation from all I love is especially charged. I know this. My dad left when I was 3, touching off years of yearning for stable connection. As life has gone on and as family and friends have disappeared through deaths and feuds, that yearning has continued—sometimes as a low hum in the background, but now with my advancing age it is much more often in the foreground. Fighting impermanence, I constantly feel betrayed by life. Maybe if I can accept the truths of change, this sense of ongoing betrayal will release.

The Soto Zen teacher Yvonne Rand introduced me to the remembrances long ago in a yearlong seminar on death. But it wasn’t until the pandemic that I began to take on the practice with discipline. Increasingly, the reminders repeat themselves back to me at unexpected moments during my waking hours, and at night in dreams.

Fighting impermanence, I constantly feel betrayed by life. Maybe if I can accept the truths of change, this sense of ongoing betrayal will release.

There is no way to escape old age, ill health, death, separation from all that we love. . . . No way to escape. Yet there are plenty of ways to escape believing that these apply to me. Despite a few falls—one off a ten-foot ladder and one down the back stairs—I’ve continued to trick myself as I’ve hurried along, particularly when it comes to old age: surely that is one thing I can put off. But Patrick, with three eye surgeries, digestive ills, and now arthritis, has often noted, drolly, “We’re falling apart.”  I’ve hotly disagreed. “We are not!” Well, maybe it’s true for him, but certainly not for me. Yet just a few days ago the dentist told me I’m soon to lose yet another tooth, while I still haven’t gotten the implant to hide a gaping hole from the last extraction.  In this same week, my bone density scan reveals bone loss and my eye exam, cataracts—both to alarming degrees even I can’t deny.

The vibrating hoot of a train far below echoes up through city streets and canyons, into this forest.  I hear it now as a warning toll:

No way to escape ill health, growing old, death.

So as Patrick and I go on our search, I am also tuning my senses to the fundamental truths of impermanence.

We hike along the Redwood Creek bed, dry in our time of draught. That summer long ago on the almost-proposal walk, it flowed with the wash and rustle of living water.

Interrupting my memories, today’s Patrick observes, “During the last thirty-five years, these trees probably grew 50 feet.” We crane our necks to view the tops of the trees, 100 feet above us. “They must have sprung from the roots of the giants felled by loggers in the 1850s.”

A political science professor before he took up law, Patrick draws on constant reading in history and politics. When we met in college on the East Coast, I thought of him as the nerdy roommate of a boyfriend. It took twenty years until, finally at 40, I paid attention. There Patrick was—brilliant, absolutely trustworthy, loving, and playful.

“I keep thinking about the original redwoods,” says Patrick. “They became Oakland, Berkeley, much of San Francisco.” He unpacks the moment by expanding it into broad history, seeing through the smallest event to the world, and how and why it turns. Maybe that’s his version of impermanence practice.

Prompted by his observations, my attention widens, and I ache for the trees that were felled, those great redwoods reaching up into the sky.

All of the nature to change.

“This couldn’t be the route we took, could it?”  I return us to our mini-story. “Too many rocks. Too much space between trees. Remember how we couldn’t find a cranny to sit and eat?”

“It was definitely steeper,” says Patrick, “Of course, I was hauling that basket!” He cocks his head, his version of a wink.

That day we had hiked for hours, looking for a place to sit. Finally we broke through dense forest into sunshine: the perfect picnic spot! But we found ourselves, hours after setting out, back in the parking lot where we had started. We both collapsed on a log and devoured our sandwiches. Patrick never did break out the champagne.

Today, hiking on now in silence, we arrive at a fork. One path is gentle, circling back the way we came, gradually going further up the hill. The other goes vertically up. The steep trail looks familiar to both of us. I say, “Let’s head up!” But then I remember my broken bones in recent years—both heels when I fell off the ladder and a shattered kneecap when I tumbled down the stairs. I think of the warning from the recent bone density test: high risk for fracture. I shake my head. “Can’t do.”

There is no way to escape growing old.

We take the easier slope to our car. As we complete this hike, I sense my humped shoulders—resistance to the way it is, resentment at what I can’t do.

Illustration by Tom Haugomat

Not to be daunted, a week later we enter Redwood Park through a different gate and set out on our second sleuthing adventure. Surely we were wrong. There must be a trail that calls to us but doesn’t look dangerous.

We loop around on a new path, breathe in the spicy smell. Light trembles through branches. My thoughts coast to raising Caitlin with Patrick. Each weekday evening when Caitlin was little, at some much-anticipated moment she and I would hear the key turning in the lock, the front door flying open, and Patrick’s voice booming from the landing: “Hello Hello.” Patrick would stride into the living room, handsome in his lawyer’s suit and tie, and Caitlin would race to him. “Daddy!” I would run up too for a welcome hug.

I don’t know when that stopped—the hello hello, with such energy and hope. But it lapsed and never resumed, and I keep wishing it were back. These days—three years into his retirement and a year into Covid—when Patrick comes in the door he’s quiet, his shoulders sloped.

But is it really his enthusiasm that I am wishing for? Or am I struggling with my own fear that nothing hopeful can be expected anymore, that some essential life energy is over?

All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change.

On the trail, recalling those happy hello hellos, an unarticulated longing becomes clear: if we can find that lost route through the redwoods and retrace our steps, we’ll miraculously turn back into the dreamy 40-year-old couple. Right here, my two quests collide. The first—a drive to magically reverse time, to recover our younger selves—clashes with the second—an intention to get real, to know that we are old, that we are of the nature to get ill, and that we are always dying.

As we hike farther, the forest turns increasingly dense, the path darkening. My thoughts grow somber.  That’s happened a lot lately, taking me over unexpectedly as I’ve grappled with the remembrances.

There is no way to escape being separated from all that is dear to me.

Each time this verse sounds in my head, I rush along the trail, just as, I’m guessing, the threat of separation has always kept me fleeing.

A few times lately I’ve been overtaken by fear; everything has suddenly turned hazy and my body has gone numb. I’ve leaped to my feet and run from lamp to lamp, from wall switch to wall switch, flipping on lights. Has the house dimmed? Or is it my eyes? Maybe all my systems are shutting down? This panicked feeling is familiar to me; it came up most intensely forty-five years ago when my father was dying, leaving once again.

Some nights now awake in bed, a chilling scenario returns to me.  Patrick dies, leaving me on my own. This feels unbearable. Before we were together, my moods swung up-and-down-crazy, and often I popped off, angry. Once he and I settled together, his anchor kept me more stable. I don’t know how well I could be grounded on my own.

Slowing down on the trail, I call back to Patrick, “Hey Babe, one of us is going to die first.”

He laughs, as he often does when something painful comes up.

I insist, “No, really. Do you ever wonder how that would be?”

“Well, aren’t I supposed to die first? Wasn’t that why we did all that will stuff …?”

“What if it was me who died first?”

Silence. Finally he says, “Our home would be very sad.” A pause. “And quiet.”

We both start walking again, me already picking up my pace. Then he calls toward me, “I guess I’d have to start walking Tony.”

I laugh, behind my cheekbones a prickling of tears.

Even as you keep teasing, Mr. P., I’ll keep practicing, teaching myself to take in what is true: old age, sickness, death. Just a few days ago, I sat in the dental chair facing a monitor. On the screen I saw a skull—teeth protruding,  hollow cheeks, empty cranium, nose hole, eye sockets. A  gap where there must have been a molar on the lower mandible. Disconnect, then recognition. Oh my God, that’s my skull.  I turn to the endodontist, raise a brow, “Wow. A memento mori moment.” And he, catching my dark humor, “Yes, that’s you in thirty years!” A generous estimate.

I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.

The skull is mine, yet it could be anyone’s. A shock of truth, like Dorian Gray staring at the image of his debauched nature revealed in his portrait; but this screen is everybody’s portrait. A precious opportunity in the dental chair: to look at an X-ray or mirror and recognize one’s impersonal nature. A moment of release. From what? From seeing my self at the center—that’s how it feels.

A harmonic chord hums through the forest—a train calling from across the city below. I imagine linked cars, clattering in a continuous series along tracks by the Bay. Vague images return to me from last night’s dream—rattling sound, skidding feel. In months of practicing the remembrances, dream visitors have insinuated themselves into my sleep. In an underworld descent, I’ve met my father, dead forty-five years, and an old friend, Allen, dead five years. These were men dear to me, each with a professorial air. Patrick is in their lineage.

Now, beneath these dense trees, the gloom feels unrelenting. Last night’s dream coalesces: I am alone in a runaway railroad car, unhooked from all others and careening off the tracks, hurtling backward in free fall. Sliding wildly back and forth between shuddering walls of the car, I am totally unmoored.

As I walk, I try to contact the dream’s tone. Panic? Not quite. There’s an element of exhilaration. How can that be? The feeling is terror, but not only terror. It’s terror along with amazement that I am conscious in the midst of it.

I take a deep inhalation. I ground my feet, as if I too have roots reaching into the soil. I have an inkling that if I can know the terror through and through, I can find a measure of peace within it.

As we begin another descent, I hear the faint sound of lilting water, the creek, still streaming  through one glade. I feel the sweetness of the memories from our early life together. I also feel the fear and pain of loss. But that’s not all. I know that I will never retrieve and hike the trail of many years ago. And much to my surprise, I’m OK with that.

I look far back toward Patrick, barely seeing him behind me, stepping carefully forward.  Steady. Even though Patrick suffers from weak ankles and aching knees, his calves are strong and muscled like his father’s, his brother’s, his sister’s—all now deceased. Patrick simply keeps going. He measures his steps to accommodate arthritic joints, uneven vision, aches of the heart.

So often I’ve jumped ahead, balked, or blurted out. Have I sabotaged my own longings for connection? Sadness seeps up from my chest, through my neck, behind my cheeks.

There is no way to escape being separated from all that is dear to me.

My actions are the ground on which I stand.

I stop on the trail and turn around, head back toward Patrick, then resume walking—for now—together. I cock my head and meet his eye. Foot to trail. That’s all we’ve got.

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