Mom was in the hospital. Again. Three different hospitals in the past 12 months. Cardiac issues with a pacemaker, gut issues with such significant weight loss she opted for palliative care. The step before Hospice. She wanted to die. We thought she wouldn’t live until my son’s wedding in October. But, thankfully she did.
She has been one of my best cheerleaders and supporters of my trail running and long-distance hiking. She forgets that she taught me about being an active outdoors-woman. She might not call herself an athlete, but before it became a “thing” in New Hampshire, she hiked many of the 4000 footers in the White Mountain range. She skied alpine and cross-country well into her 60s. She and my daughter shared a horse at my farm, and she rode horseback with me until she was 72. Age never defined her athleticism.
I visited her in the hospital, frail in a utilitarian room, with a bed facing the southwest and sun lighting on her blue-veined, thin legs, while Dad napped in a recliner chair with his feet up. She told me to go take a walk. Not sure if she was looking out for my mental health well-being, knowing I’d be caring for my dad for the next 24 hours straight, until one of my sisters could relieve me. A care-giver role she normally plays. Or, maybe she wanted to nap too, and share a private companionable moment with my dad.
She didn’t have to tell me twice though, so I stepped out into the sunny, but brisk November air and started walking around the parking lot. I wasn’t entirely dressed for a walk: I had only a fleece on over my shirt, and no hat or gloves. But I welcomed the chill. I had been at this hospital before with her, but, hadn’t ever really looked at the grounds. As any true trail-seeker does, I spied a path leading up from the other side of the parking lot, disappearing into the woods. I trotted over to it and sure enough, it climbed a small bank and then settled into a well-worn trail heading right and left. I turned left, away from the parking lot, away from the hospital.
The trail wasn’t marked with any sort of signs or symbols, and soon mini-side trails started breaking off right and left. I followed what looked the most interesting. At each intersection I looked behind me, saving the visual image in my mind to find my way back. Practicing a lesson my father had taught me as a child when we hiked as a family: always look behind you, so you know how to return.
I had on my old road runners, which I had demoted to daily use when I bought new road runners a couple of months ago. Not the best for jogging along the rooty, rocky trails of New Hampshire, but I did anyway. An easy trot, with just enough umph to keep me warm, and force me to take deep breaths. I jogged and hiked for about two miles, and turned around only because I didn’t want Mom to worry if I didn’t return as quickly as she thought I should. But, I wanted to keep going. I wanted to see what was around the next corner, where these trails wandered.
I recalled a different hospital, last summer with Mom again a patient, and remembered a similar scenario. During that hospital admission, I noticed cars parked at a trail head next to the giant parking lots. Note to self: “Come prepared to check out this trail next time I visit.” So, it did.
There was a map of the trail system at the trailhead. I snapped a picture of the map on my phone and took off at a jog, following the dirty, single-track path. The network of trails led me up to ledges that looked across the Connecticut River Valley. I sat on the warm granite for a few minutes and breathed in the vista of undulating green valleys and hillocks. Deep sigh. I retraced my steps and then followed a wide, well-worn connector trail that led down to a valley with a beaver pond and a campsite next to it. I spent three hours trotting through the woods, in child-like delight of discovering these places of beauty and refreshment right next to the hospital grounds.
It is curious to me to find these trail starting points on hospital grounds. If I was visiting a city I didn’t know I wouldn’t start a search for trails at a hospital! Yet, in another way it makes sense. Only well people can care for sick people. Well in mind and body. A caregiver can not give what they do not have. So maybe hospitals see the value of creating trail networks (or at least contributing to their maintenance) to offer employees resources for well-being.
I am a Registered Nurse. I am comfortable in a hospital setting, talking the jargon, deciphering the various beeping noises, seeing more naked skin of people than I’d like to. Being a nurse and being a daughter of a sick parent are two different roles though. Having a loved one in a hospital can suck the energy and strength out of anyone. For me, knowing there is a reprieve of green space nearby, acts as a reward system for me. If I can sit patiently bedside with Mom for a few hours, I get to run on the trails to restore my energy.
So, thank you, Mom. Not thanks for being in the hospital, but thanks for knowing who I am and that I need to be in the woods for balance and wholeness and strength to hang in there with you and Dad. I have always felt like I ran for ME. For my mental health and well-being. But Mom, in her 82 years of earned wisdom, knows I need to run for THEM. So that I can continue to be strong and present in this aging and dying process with them.