Walk in the Woods

Submitted into Contest #209 in response to: Write a story about someone going on a life-changing journey.... view prompt


Creative Nonfiction

A Walk in the Woods

         I took a walk in the woods to clear my mind. And I came out on the other side better than I was before.

         This wasn’t just any walk. This walk would grab hold of my grief and bury it underneath the solid ground. And though people are never truly the same after they grieve, I feel they are something new. Something with life experiences, new outlooks, new perspectives. The air was cold, the wind sharp. My nose was runny, my face frozen. But I walked anyway, hoping to find a way to untangle the troubled mess inside my heart. And it’s funny how as I ventured into the biting cold, I felt as though I could finally breathe again, for the first time in a long time.

         I listened to every detail of the woods around me. I wanted to soak it all in. I wanted to marvel at the way nature takes her time through life. She is in no rush. And here, in the winter wonderland, the woods seemed to be sleeping soundly. I breathed out and saw the cloud of my breath—a reminder that my heart was still beating. A reminder that I was wide awake. I stopped and listened to the sound of the story nature was trying to tell. Silence, a few birds chirping here and there, steady snowfall. Which stories would I tell?

         I could tell you a lot about my walk in the woods that day. I could tell you about the frozen pond I discovered—the one I decided to rest by for a while. I could tell you about the different shapes and sizes of the trees—how they seemed to be sound asleep beside me. I could tell you about the colors in the sky. Yes, I think I’ll start with that. Let’s start with the sky.

         Do you know how the sky looks as the sun has nearly set? How the orange glow from its powerful beginnings has faded? How we are left with deep blue, kissed with streaks of pale pink, white, and light orange? That sky has a way of always meeting me exactly where I am, as I am. That sky always has a way of comforting me. But as I walked through the woods that day, I was met with something different: gray as far as the eye could see. Not a splash of color, not a pop of sunlight. Grayness, dimness, darkness. It was gloomy. It’s funny how the sky and I were one that day.

         I could tell you a lot about the life I have lived for twenty two years. I could tell you about the moments I’m most proud of or my happiest days. And while those are good and lovely and necessary to share because they provide hope for others around you, I feel my heart beating with the grayness of the sky—I feel it beating with a different kind of story locked inside. But how do I share it?

         As I walked, I encountered a red cardinal. I slowed my pace and admired his beauty. The red of his feathers popped against the pure white snow. Red cardinals are special to me. They remind me of my grandpa. I have been told that the presence of a red cardinal is the presence of your loved ones visiting you from heaven. Every time I see one, I stop and stare. I try to have a conversation—I try to see if it is really him. Usually, the beautiful bird flutters his wings and flies away before I can find the words to say. And I am left with the thoughts in my head that have no place to escape.

         I remember being in my dorm room my freshman year of college when I got the call. I was sitting on my bed when a name popped up on my phone: Dad. I didn’t expect anything out of the ordinary as I picked up the phone and answered, but what happened next was something I will never forget.

         “Grandpa Ronnie died this morning.”

         My breath caught in my chest, and soon after, the tears began to flow. I was shocked.

         My parents traveled to Columbia a few weeks later to pick me up. They came up to my dorm room to help bring my bags down to the car. I said goodbye to the boy I loved and headed down the stairs to the car waiting out front. I loaded my bags in the back and hugged my two brothers who were there to greet me. We set out on a day’s drive to Wisconsin. Even though this was only a few years ago, I find it interesting how I cannot remember a single thing we talked about on the way there. Maybe we didn’t talk at all.

         Silence, much like the woods I traveled while my heart was breaking. Funny how silence is sometimes all we can offer when our hearts hurt too much to say anything.

They say silence in the hours of grief is not a therapeutic tool, but rather, it is the limit of empathy. Silence is found when we reach the end of our words—when we have nothing left to say to those around us whose hearts are grieving. I find it so intriguing that we, as humans, are given so many words but still run into moments when there are simply no words left to say. Sometimes silence speaks louder. Sometimes it says, “I don’t know what you need to hear to feel whole again, but I do know that I am able to sit here for a while as a friend while you grieve.” And that, to me, is more powerful than all the words in the world.

         The funeral was at a golf course—my grandpa’s favorite place to be. There was no coffin. He wanted to be cremated. We celebrated his life that day, but the celebration was not absent of tears. A flurry of emotions.

         I remember walking out onto the perfectly mowed grass of the golf course greens. I remember exactly how I felt in that moment: peace. There’s something about escaping the chaos and sitting in the stillness of nature for a little while. It does wonders for the soul. And as I sat there on that beautiful grass, I took note of the sky. The sun had just barely set, and I was left looking out at the deep blue with splashes of pale pink. In that moment, I knew my grandpa and I were looking at the same sky. And I knew, in some strange and mysterious way, that he was sitting right there on that green with me. The silence we shared as we admired the sky in its fleeting beauty is a moment that will always be special to me.

         And I am pulled back into the woods, where the sky is gray, and my shoulders are heavy with the grief that still lingers around me. How do I let that weight go?

         Maybe I would bury my grief in the ground. I would give it to someone else for a little while. Maybe I would let the soil take it and the story that comes with it. I would let it decompose with the rest of the dead things. Maybe I would allow it to wash away with the rain and become so drenched that the story wouldn’t even be recognizable. And I would allow all this, because the fences that guard my heart would rather those stories die in the very places where they were born. But the dreamer in me hesitates to give them back to nature so easily.

         I listened as the snow crunched beneath my feet. Every blade of grass was frozen solid, and a piece of me felt guilty for crushing them so easily. The sound of the crunch beneath my feet was deafening. I did not wish to wake the beauty of nature that was sleeping. But part of me wished I could sleep too. I wished, in that moment, that I could hibernate with the rest of the forest creatures. I wished I could sleep and escape the bitterness of reality. Maybe I would come out better in the spring when the woods were alive again with sounds and colors and sunlight. Yes, I wanted to sleep. I wanted to sleep and forget about the weight of the words inside of me.

         But I did not have that luxury.

My dad always tells me stories about my grandpa to keep him alive in our hearts. One morning as I was making my coffee, my dad watched me intently before he said, “you know, your grandpa always loved his coffee with half and half, just like you.” In that moment, I remember wishing I could be with him now as I have grown older and have discovered the joys of coffee. The dark, nutty aroma in the morning, the low rumble of the coffee pot brewing. I would love to share a morning with him, sitting at the kitchen table sipping coffee and asking him all the questions I have about my life and where it’s going. I miss his wisdom, wit, and humor. But I think he would be happy to know that he lives on in his son and his wife. My dad and my Grandma Barbie have been there waiting to catch me when I fall, just as he would have been. And when I join him in heaven, I can’t wait to grab a cup of coffee and catch up.

         The sky that met me in the woods as I walked that day was new to me. I walked alone, feeling heavy with grief and weary with the journey. But what I once viewed as a gray sky—both dreary and gloomy—I now viewed as a new beginning. A clean slate. The blanket of gray that seemed to wrap the entire world in its embrace was covering me in a fresh start. One color, no clouds, no sunshine: a chance to start over. A chance to welcome the sun as someone new. A chance to welcome new skies as new companions.

         All things are given back to nature eventually. The fun, easy stories, and the dreadfully hard ones, too. And one day, when my grandma gets the courage, she will let go of my grandpa’s ashes. She will spread them out across the land he loved so much. And nature will meet him there, bringing him back to the dust from which he came. As much as some stories hurt, I know they must be written. But maybe the real freedom comes from writing them and eventually giving them back to nature. Maybe it comes from letting them decompose under the soil. And when the trees and the squirrels and the many forest creatures awake, I hope I will walk that same path again a little less weary than I was before. When the sun shines again, I will be met with that old, familiar sky. But this time, I will not be the same as I once was. I will be stronger. I will be better.

         I will be new.

         I walked home a little lighter that day. I hope the stories in my head find their home among the wild things. I will not try to dig up what nature has rightfully buried. I will not try to take back what nature has claimed as her own.

July 28, 2023 21:01

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Herman W Clarke
09:27 Aug 06, 2023

This is great! Like the other comment, I thought the descriptions and emotions here were really, really well done. Good job!


Taylor Petska
21:07 Aug 12, 2023

Thank you so much for your kind words!


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Lily Rama
16:23 Aug 05, 2023

Amazing. The descriptions were beautiful and vivid, the emotions raw and real. I felt as if I was the narrator telling the story, and it made me cry. The sentence in the beginning about burying grief in the ground really got me. This is an excellent representation of the after effects of a loss and the process of grief. Phenomenal job, Taylor!


Taylor Petska
21:07 Aug 12, 2023

Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. I greatly appreciate it!


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