“You gotta walk that lonesome valley/You gotta walk it by yourself.”
Long before time jerked me toward middle age with such haste it snatched my breath away, I looked forward to balmy evenings on our front porch. Sitting on weathered benches, my family and I faced the dirt road running past our house. Beyond the road where the heavens met a faraway hill, the setting sun fired the western sky with red and gold, intermingled with a veil of lavender-gray. We humans don’t get all bright days; we must take the gray, too, and we did.
We gathered on that concrete porch where morning glories wound themselves around twine my grandfather had strung from the bottom banister to the upper porch. Light and shadow danced at our feet until the sun sank behind the hill and the morning glories went to sleep by closing their petals like pulling down a blind for the night. During that magical time between the last of daylight and the first of darkness, we often sang hymns, and sometimes the adults told stories. I listened and began to understand the art of narrative. Now, as a woman with a shorter future than past, I find the sight of a country road or morning glories climbing on a rusted fence can transport me back to childhood. The sounds of someone singing a hymn or telling a tall tale can once more place me on a weathered bench with the ghosts of loved ones who have been gone for a lifetime.
Despite my bruise-tender youth, one song affected me deeply. I still remember the words. I knew neither the songwriter nor the singer; it didn't matter. The lyrics had a message for all humans. We sang in unison, “You gotta walk that lonesome valley/You gotta walk it by yourself.” Little did I know then that when I would approach the end of my own journey, those words would echo once more in my writing.
You see, we humans are a tough lot. We live with the knowledge that we were born to die. That’s a lot to have thrown at us, a lot to cope with, but we cope. We do it partly by avoiding the grim-gray subject of death. Instead of facing death in this country, we shove the subject back into a dim corner. After all, death is a heartbreaking, dreary business, and we don’t do it well. Subsequently, most people in their final hours bid the world goodbye in a cold hospital environment where they are hooked up to IVs. The last sounds they hear are the beeps of technology.
On August 24, 2015, when I went to bed, I had a book and two dogs to keep me company. Lying in another bed in another place, Bill, my husband, was surrounded by kind hospice workers. In his room were Risa, our loving daughter, and her husband, Don, who, like Bill was a former Marine. As such, he remained by Bill’s side, because that’s what Marines do when one of their buddies is in trouble. Still, Bill was more alone than he had ever been. He was in a deep coma, a word from Greek, koma, meaning a deep sleep. What he still knew, if anything, no one could say. As he lay there, totally unresponsive, with his eyes open, he stared into a place that forever remains a mystery to the entire human race.
When I turned out the bedside lamp on that Monday night, I was a married woman, and I offered up a silent prayer for my husband, as well as for our son and daughter. Being a weak, fumbling human, I asked for help, too. Dealing with death as a topic is one thing; dealing with death itself is quite another.
The following morning, I saw Pam, our daughter-in-law, approach the kitchen door. I was ready to leave, for we were going to see Bill at Hospice Hubbard House. When she walked into the kitchen, she hugged me. I knew my husband was gone. A hospice worker had called and told her that if I wanted to see Bill before he was transported to Marshall Medical School she would be sure he was still there.
I said, “No, he has already left.” Woody Guthrie had it right. Bill had to walk that lonesome valley of death all alone.
My husband had said, “I just want this to be over. I want it to end.” He was ready.
Years earlier, a philosophy professor stood in front of the classroom where he displayed his narrow knowledge and hid his wide ignorance as all professors must do. He said something that has stuck in my mind like a thumbtack in cork. He said we don’t die until our mind tells us it’s time. I don’t know if he was right, but Bill knew it was time. I take some comfort in that.
Remembering when I sang Guthrie’s song in the mellow light of evening and remembering when Bill began his lonesome walk, I think time is cyclical. Like reading some novels, we end at the beginning.
About the Author
A retired English professor, Dolly Withrow is the author of four books, including The Confident Writer, a grammar-based college textbook. She was a professional columnist for three newspapers and read her essays on West Virginia Public Radio. She also taught for University of Iowa’s Summer Writing Festival and has won national and state writing awards.