There are two days with sunny forecasts sandwiched between days of possible rain. I decide to finally go out to the almost coastal town of Tokeland on the Willapa Bay that I’ve been dreaming of doing for the past year, never making the plan. I’ve wanted to go ostensibly to get the best-ever Shrimp ‘n Grits at the quirky historic hotel (which was closed several of the months I dreamed of going), but the main attraction is the autumn drive on my favorite road: Washington State Route 6.
The kink in the plan: shrimp and grits is no longer on the lunch menu, so I will have to wait until four o’clock to get it. What to do in the meantime? I have no desire to go to the wide sand driveable beach. The extensive Willapa Wildlife Refuge system trails are an hour out of my way—and then back. (You may be wondering here why I don’t just wait until afternoon and go straight on to Tokeland. Because I love early morning.) I stew about it for days, finally deciding to go to the refuge then back to Tokeland on the other side of the bay.
The day arrives, and even though it’s still dark when I wake up, I can tell the weather has not held up to promise. I click on my light and check the forecast on my phone: no sun at all. I switch to Tokeland: partly sunny all day! I wait until almost eight o’clock to leave, then with my extra-hot latte, I drive under overcast skies and occasional mist.
I’m listening to Katy Butler‘s newer book (2019), The Art of Dying Well: a practical Guide to a Good End of Life. Her earlier book, Knocking on Heaven’s Door: the Path to a Better Way of Death, was my guide in the years I lived with my mother. I recently asked Katy to blurb my memoir. Though she declined, telling me she was taking a sabbatical from death and dying, she asked if I had read her new book. I didn’t know about it. It’s even better than the first; I wish I had had it in my arsenal.
Listening, I realize I did a whole lot right with my mother and with navigating the medical system that doesn’t value natural death, or geriatric medicine. In fact, I found myself thinking every few minutes, my memoir could illustrate this book: the things I did well, the frustrations I had, the times I wish I could have done better. And there are plenty of that last. I don’t think anyone can navigate either parenting or elder care without regrets. They are (arguably) the hardest jobs in the world—particularly emotionally. The trick is to forgive ourselves and let it go.
The overcast sky drops down into fog, with glimpses of lighter sky and patches of blue in the distance over the Willapa Hills before plunging back into fog. Katy’s voice goes on in my head, our loved one seems to rally, then return to the slow decline.
I leave the fog behind for good as I enter the wetlands, crossing slough after river after slough. I pass through the tiny towns, slowing from fifty-five to twenty-five and quickly back to fifty-five.
I stop for the same photos I take every time I drive this road: the Willapa River, the same spot on the Willapa Hills rail trail (that follows Hwy 6 from Chehalis to Raymond), the Holy Family Catholic Church. I am completely in love with this drive. It’s the only place I go that isn’t destination driven. Unless shrimp and grits with bacon counts.
I hang a left and head south on US Highway 101 in Raymond on the Willapa through South Bend and on toward the closest of the refuge trails at Teal Slough. (Willapa is my favorite of place names in this region of fabulous place names, so I use it here as often as possible!)
Alone in the parking lot, I don rubber boots for the mud and start out the boardwalk through the slough. I remember, now, I read this is an “art trail”; I had completely forgotten! One of the first of its kind, students from the University of Washington Public Arts Program created it. (You can read about it here.) It’s awesome!
I cut off the main trail onto the “Cutthroat Climb,”climbing steps steeply up through the fir and hemlock forest—reading the “flip board” questions with answers of coyote, bobcat, cougar, black bear—and then, of course, steeply back down. I see no one, neither two-legged, nor four.
Back on the main trail loop, I come upon a beautiful fir needle and leaf strewn labyrinth! I am so loving this. I stand at the entrance, sun shining through the stand of evergreens, then step onto the brick path.
Katy writes navigating the medical system as you walk with an elder is like walking a labyrinth: you keep coming to dead ends. There are no dead ends in a labyrinth though. A maze is perhaps a better analogy. I did, however, compare a labyrinth to the journey with my mother in my memoir, and I think of it now as I wind around, approaching the center and then moving away again, never quite getting there. My mother’s final destination was the center; I was trying to find my way out and back into the world. Sometimes we would meet, passing close by each other, and then move apart again unable to find connection. I held her hand. Our fingers slipped apart. “I forgive you. Please forgive me. I love you.”
I arrive at the Tokeland Hotel with nearly two delicious hours to sit and write by the fire and walk in the sunlight. This clapboard building oozes with charm.
I get my (crazy expensive, who knew?) dinner-to-go and head for home, back over the sloughs and creeks and rivers. The trees that were yellow in the morning fog, are pure gold in the sinking sun, with an extra pop as the clouds turn black behind them.
I reach the end of my audio book on the way home. Katy says every fragile human should have access to palliative care, not just those with a particular diagnosis that includes imminent death. Change, she says, must come from the bottom up. We must keep making our voice heard. “Keep telling your stories.” This, I realize with a start, is why I wrote my book. This is my motivation for getting it out into the world. Our stories are important. Our stories drive change. What is your story? Who will you share it with?