Like a sunflower grazing his cheek, Isabel woke Will up with a whisper.
“Time to get up, darling.”
The scent of lavender and lilies flooded his senses, even before opening his eyes. Despite his reluctance to get out of bed, he smiled at his wife’s Spanish accent. The way she said “darling” always got him. And she knew it.
Smiling, Will said, “Mmm, I love that you’re here.”
“I am. You’re stuck with me forever.”
He turned onto his back and noticed she was already dressed for a hike. She wore her khaki shorts, white tank top, dark blue fleece zip-up jacket, and a pair of gray hiking boots. She seemed to be wearing that every morning for the past few weeks.
Feeling like he was still in a dream, he said, “I remember when you first told me that. What a wonderful way to tell someone you want to be with them forever.”
“It is, and I do. Now, time to get up. You promised to take me.”
Sunlight beamed in between the blinds. Her aura alight, like white fire. It made her look like an angel. She was.
He mumbled, “It’s my birthday, let’s wait another week.”
He felt her grab his foot as she laughed and said, “It’s not til next week, and you’re turning 59, not 99. C’mon, you promised.”
The word “promise” is what got him up.
Isabel followed him as he made breakfast and filled his backpack. Sure to bring enough water, he filled two 25 ounce bottles and stuffed them into the side pockets.
With the pack bulging at the zipper, she said, “You’re ready for a trip up Mount Everest.”
He was slightly winded just from packing. Or perhaps it was anxiety. Will sat down again at the kitchen island and muttered, “Does it have to be today, Isa? I don’t know if I’m ready.”
Quietly, she said, “You can’t keep putting this off.”
After a deep breath, Will pulled the Chevy Bolt out onto the highway and drove toward Mechant Lake Mountain. A small range with the highest peak at just under 2000 meters. It offered a gently sloping path over four miles long for the casual hiker who preferred to avoid the trek directly up the face.
Clouds were forming far to the west. A storm, perhaps. But it wouldn’t arrive for a couple of hours.
Standing at the bottom, Will looked up at the mountain and said, “You know, I think my arthritis is acting up. Maybe we should postpone—“
Isa snorted and said, “Your arthritis is in your shoulder! Look, I’m proud of you for getting out of the house and all the way here. The hard part is over. Let’s go for a walk.”
Peering off to the west, Will said, “Storm clouds are coming. I really don’t want to get stuck in the rain. I could get hypothermia.”
As if assuaging the irrational fears of a child, she said, “Will, it’s 72 degrees. If you get hypothermia, I’ll personally carry you down the whole way.”
Frowning, he said, “That’s not funny.”
“Sorry. Come on, one step at a time.”
For the most part, the path to the top was like any other trail in the many forest preserves in the Midwest, except this one was on a constant incline. It was slight, but enough to rob you of your breath if you weren’t in good shape. Lush trees and bushes lined the path on either side.
The other way up the mountain was a straight climb up the face. There was no path, but plenty of rocks and landings to get a foothold.
Sliding one of the water bottles out of its holster, Will took a big drink and looked out at the beautiful scene below. They weren’t even that high yet, but he relished the familiar view.
“How many times do you think we’ve made this climb?” he asked.
“Over the past thirty years, I’d say at least a hundred. I wish I could have made it all the way to the top last time, though.”
Will nodded slightly and looked down. A lump formed in his throat, and he said, “I’m sorry I didn’t bring you back earlier.”
Sliding the water back into its pouch, Will pushed himself onward along the gentle path. He and Isa chatted about the countless hiking trips they’d had over the years, reminiscing about all the fun they had together.
An hour later, Will collapsed onto a small grass clearing next to a sign marking 500 meters. He lay on his back, letting the pack roll to the side.
“You’re not going to take a nap now, are you?” Isa joked.
Shaking his head, Will mumbled in between breaths, “No—just—resting—my eyes.”
Wiping the sweat from his brow, he sat up and saw his pretty wife sitting on a tree stump across from him. He marveled at how she looked like she barely broke a sweat. Her clothes were still clean and dry, while his were already smudged with mud and damp with sweat. But mostly, he was stunned by her beauty.
As he reached into his backpack for a protein bar, he asked, “You think David and Terra would ever come on one of these hikes?”
Her eyes lit up, and she said, “Of course! They used to love it when they were little. I’m glad you’re warming to the idea of coming back in the future.”
Will nodded and chuckled. “I’m trying.” After a moment, he added, “I really like our kids. I think we should keep them.”
Chuckling, Isa said, “I think we have to, hon. They’re in their thirties.”
While he ate his protein bar, Isa asked, “You almost ready?”
“I don’t know if I can make it all the way up. Look how long it’s taken me to get this far.”
“You can’t turn back now. You promised.”
Closing his eyes, he took another swig of water and stuffed the bottle back into its holster. A whiff of her perfume wafted to him and tugged at his heart. A vivid memory of their wedding day.
Without a word, he slipped the backpack onto his shoulders and continued.
From behind him, she said, “You’re not mad, are you?”
Will stopped walking. A lump formed in his throat as guilt fell over him like a wet blanket.
“Never. Please don’t ever think that. I’m just scared.”
He felt her put her hand on his cheek, and he put his own on top.
“My darling husband, what are you afraid of?”
A few tears trickled down his face, but he wiped them away quickly as he heard a group of hikers coming down the mountain just ahead.
Pretending to look down at the view, he turned his back to them until they passed by without so much as a look in their direction. Long wild grass swayed in a breeze. It sounded like angels sighing.
Knowing she was waiting for his answer, he whispered, “Everything.”
Isa didn’t push the issue.
It had been over a year since Will’s last hike. He was easily out of breath, even at a leisurely pace. But Isa hummed and sang behind him, keeping his resolve intact.
Every few minutes, Will placed his index finger on his wrist to feel his pulse. As they breached 1000 meters, he thought it felt too fast, and he started panting in short shallow breaths.
Stars danced in front of his eyes, and he tumbled to the hard pack.
Isa stopped singing. “Will? What’s wrong?”
“I think I’m dying, Isa. My heart—beating too fast.”
She knelt next to him. “You’re not dying. Just take a deep breath.”
His heart began to slow. The stars dissipated.
Rubbing his eyes, Will felt foolish as he sat cross-legged on the dirt and rocks.
“I’m sorry, Isa. It’s hard for me to accept—this.”
She nodded and said, “You don’t ever have to apologize to me.”
After a minute, Will pushed himself up. All of his muscles felt tight and used up. The protein bar helped a little. Grateful he packed a lot of food, he unwrapped a small turkey sandwich and scarfed it down in three bites. He also had a bag of his homemade trail mix and shoved a handful into his mouth.
Watching him closely, Isa asked, “Ready?”
After a deep sigh, he said, “Ok, let’s go.”
As the food turned to energy, Will felt physically better. But they passed a sign indicating they had just ascended to 1500 meters. A sense of impending doom swarmed him. It didn’t help that actual rain clouds had moved in over the mountain as well.
A light drizzle started, making the path slippery.
Once the drizzle turned into a steady downpour, Will opened the huge umbrella and found a group of tree stumps at a small clearing. He sat down, holding it over both of them.
Isa sat down and rolled her eyes. “You know I don’t need that, don’t you?”
She was quiet for a long time, just staring at him. Finally, she said, “You know, Will, you’re gonna have to stop this.”
“You can’t keep talking to me like this.”
He felt his mouth quiver and tears well up in his eyes. Like a child, he said, “Why not?”
She took his hand. He actually felt it. Softly, she said, “You have to accept that I’m gone.”
Unable to hold back any longer, Will dropped his head and wept into his lap.
Through his sobs, he said, “It should have been me. The world is much better with you in it.”
Comforting him with her hand on his back, and then around his shoulders, she said, “The world is better with you in it too. I’m sorry I got sick, hon.”
He looked up at her and said, “You never have to apologize to me about that. It’s the fucking cancer I’m mad at.”
Rocking him slowly, she whispered, “I know, darling.”
They waited a half hour for the rain to slow to a fine mist. Begrudgingly, he stood up and made his way back onto the path. He trod carefully through the slick mud and grass.
As they passed the sign for 1800 meters, he slowed even more. By now, the rain had completely stopped. He pushed the inevitable from his mind, but the mounting elevation seemed to manifest his eventuality.
The path ended at the bottom of ten stone steps that led to the very top of the mountain. There was a small flat area to rest or just take in the gorgeous view. Will’s hand trembled as he grabbed the railing and placed a foot on the first step.
From behind him, Isa asked, “What’s wrong?”
“This is it, my love. We’re at the top now.”
She wrapped her arms around him from behind and whispered, “I’m so proud of you. You’re doing good Just a little farther and then—”
Softly, “Yes you can. I’ll help you.”
The tears streamed down his cheeks once again. “I’m scared, Isa! Once I do this, that’s it, you’re gone! I don’t want you to be gone!”
“I know you’re scared, but you have to. Come on, one step at a time. Take my hand and I’ll get you the rest of the way.”
Will closed his eyes and felt her hand in his. He remembered the way her soft skin felt as he wrapped his fingers around hers. And how she never let go. She loved his hands wrapped around hers. And he loved it even more.
He pushed himself up on the first step, and she said, “There you go.”
With his head hanging low, Will forced himself the rest of the way. No trees grew at this elevation, and the view was breathtaking. He could see for miles in all directions. The only sound was a gentle breeze.
The clouds had thinned, and the sun broke through in a hazy glow from the west.
Will felt her hand squeeze his as she said, “You can do this.”
He went down on one knee and unzipped his backpack. Fighting back the tears welling up in his eyes, Will carefully removed the urn and hugged it tightly to his chest.
He sat down on the rocks, cradling the urn in his lap. Isa sat next to him and put her head on his shoulder. A desperate shudder ran through him as he tried to push away the pain.
With more tears leaking down his cheeks, he forced a fake laugh and said, “Hey, do you remember that time we went to Bear Creek Woods?”
“Oh yeah! And we got lost after missing the turn.”
Genuinely laughing now, he added, “That stupid worn out map, made us go six miles out of our way. And you had to pee so bad!”
Isa was giggling now too. “Yes! Oh my God, I couldn’t hold it, I had to pee in the woods. But then those two bikers rode by and saw me! I could’ve died!”
Will held his stomach, laughing uncontrollably now. “My legs…oh they were so sore the next day, I could barely walk!”
He felt her hanging onto him as she doubled over giggling madly.
She said, “And that guy who picked us up on our way back. What was he listening to on the radio?”
Nodding, Will snorted a loud laugh and said, “He was listening to some Christian sermon, kept yelling at us to be quiet, but you kept asking him if he had any water! He kicked us out before we got back to our car!”
They laughed hard for a while before their giggles quieted to a few chuckles.
Reality loomed like a dark cloud.
In her softest voice, “It’s time, Will.”
“I’m not ready.” Barely a whisper.
After another patient silence, Isa said, “Did you know that my favorite day in my entire life is that time we came up here with a blanket and a picnic basket, and we made love?”
Will closed his eyes, blinking back the tears. “I asked you to marry me. It’s my favorite day too.”
For the first time, he heard real sorrow in her voice as she said, “I promised you then that you’d be stuck with me forever.”
He looked over at her, exhausted. “I don’t know how to live without you. You’re my best friend. I’m supposed to be with you forever.”
Touched beyond words, she gently kissed his cheek with a tenderness that made him long for just one more day with her.
She said, “You’re my best friend too. You loved me better than anyone in the world could. My life was perfect because I got to live it with you.”
With his hand over his heart, he said, “It hurts so much, in here. Sometimes I feel like I might break. I don’t want you to go away.”
“I know, my sweet Will. But you have to find a way to keep living, like you promised the day I died.”
“I can’t. Let’s just go back down and do this another day.”
Isa turned his face toward hers. The lump in his throat felt like a golf ball. Tears streamed down his cheeks, and he was barely able to hold back uncontrollable sobs. His chest hitched and heaved.
She said, “You can do this.”
“I’m so scared. What if you start to fade away from me and I lose you?”
“You can never lose me. But, down there, our kids need you. Our grandchildren. I’ll always be with you wherever you are. You can do this. I’ll help you.”
Will forced himself up. With a quivering hand, he removed the top of the urn. As he worked up the courage, he felt her hand on his arm.
Finally, he held the urn up, and the wind kicked up. He poured her ashes out, and the wind lifted them up and spread them over the mountain. Fear gripped him as he watched them fly, as they scattered free.
Will collapsed onto the ground and wept as he held his face in his hands.
After a long time, he caught his breath, and his sobs slowed. His tears dried on his face, and all that remained was a hollow feeling. He put the urn back inside his pack, zipping it up.
The sun dipped in the sky, and the minutes slid away in silence.
“Will, it’s time to go.”
He could no longer see her, but he still heard her.
Trembling, he said, “I’m scared of living without you. I miss you so much.”
“You don’t have to. But you do have to live.”
Shrugging, he said, “I’m going to stay here.”
“William, you promised me the day I died that you would keep living. That is the promise you must keep to me. You’ve never broken a promise, and I’m not going to let you now. You mourned me, you cried for me, and I love you for that. But you will learn to live without me. I’ll always be close by, you don’t have be scared. But it’s time. Now get off your ass and get back down there.”
“How am I supposed to do that?”
“I’ll help you. One step at a time.”
Will took a deep breath and stood up. His joints were stiff and sore from sitting so long. Looking out at the view in the darkening light, he reached out his hand. She took it and led him.
Then, he went down the first step. And the next.
Back to life.