Moving forward. That is my mantra as I hike uphill on Catalina Island. Off the coast of southern California, I struggle under both the weight of my pack and my sadness while the hot sun beats down. In the months after my husband’s death, I made it my mission to visit places special to our relationship, in order to give homage to both him and our past. Catalina Island was where we got engaged. We watched the sunset, and Anthony laughingly asked, since neither of us was much on ceremony. Months later, I was moving to Asheville, North Carolina to join him. The following summer, we were married in Hawaii. Less than seven years later, in April of 2018, he was dead, suddenly. The autopsy report reads “coronary artery insufficiency”. My heart read it as an end, a catastrophe.
We met in the summer of 2007. Introduced by a mutual friend, even though we lived on opposite sides of the country, we set up a backpacking trip on California’s Lost Coast. Remote and stunning, we hiked the miles together, and cemented the connection that had been brewing for months over the phone. Three years of long distance later, and I made the decision to leave San Diego.
A love of the outdoors connected us, but Anthony spent his career outside – fighting fire with the US Forest Service. I was a high school English teacher and wanted to spend weekends in the woods. For a long time, we spent time outside together. Then, he wanted it less and less, and I wanted it more and more. I began running longer, focusing on trail running, and started competing in endurance horse riding and ride and tie. Endlessly supportive, Anthony cheered me on, often from the sidelines, but did not have a desire to join me on the trails as much anymore. I went out, found my people, and he listened to my stories afterwards. We operated in this evolving relationship with the outdoors for years. I figured he’d eventually cycle back and we’d find the time again to be together outside.
Then, suddenly, he was dead. While packing for his grandfather’s funeral. Papa had died just a few days before, and we were to fly to New Hampshire that afternoon for the service. I was at work, supposed to meet Anthony and his mother at the airport for our flight after I got out. He never showed to pick up his mother and wasn’t answering his phone. When she went to our house, she found him dead. I will never forget her voice on the phone, and she doesn’t remember that call at all. Grief is funny that way, we all recall things differently and our minds tend to block things out – sometimes forever – in order to survive. I remember every moment of that day, in excruciating detail.
As soon as I started telling people, they flocked to me. My parents. My sister. But also, my running, riding, and hiking community. Three of my friends took me into the woods that night. We walked and they talked, and I focused on the trail, staring at the leaves, and the water, as we hiked his favorite trail in Bent Creek. Friends I knew through horses, who live three hours away, showed up at my door to spend the first night after with me so I wouldn’t be alone. Three days after he died, I met up with my normal Monday night running crew for our group run. Granted, we all cried as we ran, but we ran all the same. It was exactly what I needed. When one of his cousins arrived in town for the memorial service, I took him running on our favorite trails. My sister had already signed up for the inaugural Hellbender 100 that my running club was supporting the following week, and though she was willing to forgo her entry, I told her that crewing and pacing her would be a great distraction. She persevered through the night to finish the race, carrying a pin with Anthony’s photo on it as motivation, and we ran the last twenty miles together.
I have heard others refer to the process of grieving as moving on. I prefer moving forward. Just as I move down the trail, and we move through our lives, I move forward to the future. Anthony will always be a part of my life. Every time I see a reference to Star Wars, I will think of him. Ditto for firefighters. His oldest friends are still a part of my life. I cannot move on from them. As a widow at age 40, I hopefully have many more lives to live (as Thoreau would say) and do not want to spend the rest of this one dwelling heavily on a tragedy. This is a part of my life, but I do not want it to define me anymore than it already does. To simply enjoy the trail, or a sunset, or a beautiful day does Anthony’s memory more service than focusing on sadness or anger and missing the loveliness of the wilderness.
I will remember with laughter and joy, not sadness, the time I made him run a trail race through Red Rock Canyon, after a busy fire season when he had no time to train. Or when I talked him into a trail ride in Hawaii, and he kept asserting that his horse, Skippy, refused to listen to him. The group would be standing together, and he and his horse would be wandering off into a gully. We survived the subway in Tokyo and a sketchy boat ride in American Samoa together, though very different, both adventures of the best sort. He told me “books don’t expire” when I wanted to buy a new one in a Florida bookstore, but already had many, many stacks to read at home. He certainly wasn’t perfect, none of us are, but I will carry him with me forever. He will influence my future decisions, but will not hold me back from loving another.
The summer after his death, I deposited ashes and memories in some of our shared spaces outdoors. Little pieces of him reside in some of the most beautiful landscapes. At every spot, I said goodbye, and spoke my intentions and reckonings to the grand skies and whispering trees. In the largest grove of Aspens in the world, I cried and asked myself how I could move forward. I eventually realized – I already was. Through the woods, the water, and the fields, I was already finding my peace and my way. Watching the sunset in Bears Ears, I tried to breathe out my anger and unanswered questions, and felt a lessening, a lightness that wasn’t there before. My sadness shifted from missing him, to regret that he couldn’t experience these places anymore. That he would never see these vistas again. I already felt like I lived for moments like this, but since his death, that feeling has more immediacy. I am grateful for every single adventure outdoors. My feet continue to carry me to places of wonder and joy, and that is the best legacy I can leave. I must live, and love – both others and the world – and move forward.