Noticing what's been missing

We take so much for granted. And because we do, often we don't notice someone has been missing until suddenly they reappear.

This morning, Finn and I head out for a run at Cougar Mountain. The rain has abated briefly. Fog is rolling in. The wind is vigorous and gusting. So much so, I worry a tree - or a limb - might blow down on us. There are several newly downed trees across the trails. It's one of those times when I do a quick but serious risk/benefit analysis: I just have Finn for company...what if one of us gets hurt? I decide to do a short run. There are lots of other cars in the parking lot, so if something bad does happen, we won't go unnoticed for long. We won't stray too far from the car.

We see canine and human friends in the lot as we start, and meet new canine and human friends as we're running. It's a delightful morning for Finn and me to be on our own, but not alone. I love the sound of strong winds howling through the tree tops; big gusts really get my attention. Twice we run near towering trees emitting an eerie screetching sound high above us as the wind forces their limbs and trunks to rub together. I pick up my pace, thinking the force of one tree scraping against another could cause one or both to fall. Small birds flit through the shrubs close to the ground, taunting Finn to give chase. Both Finn and I have all our senses alert.

Finn and me enjoying a Saturday morning trail run.
Near the parking lot at the end of our run, I see a familiar man and his Australian cattle dog heading into the forest. Finn and I have seen these two numerous times at Cougar over the past three years, and we often stop for a quick hello and exchange of pleasantries. In fact, I saw him and his dog here a week ago, but because I was running with friends, I didn't stop. As my friends and I ran past them, I smiled and said, "Long time no see!" How long, though, I couldn't have said. I just knew at that moment that this man and his dog had been gone, and now they were back.

Today, because it is just me and Finn, I stop to chat. The dogs quickly get reacquainted. But because it's been so long since I've seen them, I can't remember his dog's name. I always remember dogs' names when I see them regularly. I'm much better at dog names than people names. So I ask, while the dog smiles at me and wags her tail nubbin. The man reminds me that her name is Sydney, and his is Kevin. They're hiking rather than running, Kevin carrying an umbrella in case it rains.

Without any prompting other than the fact I'd forgotten Sydney's name, Kevin explains why I haven't seen them much lately. "I had cancer," he said, "but it's gone now." He's smiling as he shares this momentous news with me, a near stranger.

After my initial shock, I return his smile and hold my right hand up for a high five. Kevin switches his umbrella to his left hand, them meets my right hand with his own. "Congratulations!" I tell him.

Kevin explains that he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, stage 3, but they removed the tumor and he went through chemo and radiation. This all happened last April. "My doctor said I came through it so well because I'm fit, and exercise," he said. I heartily agree that surely gave him an advantage. 

We talk some more about his surgery and recovery, his family stepping in to help him, including a nephew who stayed with Sydney while he was in the hospital. He was off work for a couple of months. Now, he can hike and even run, although recently he tripped while running - "I've never tripped in all the years I've run trails" - which tweaked his back, so he's being careful. 

"I just thought I'd share that with you," Kevin says as we prepare to head our separate ways along the trail. 

Back in my car - Finn toweled off and savoring his treats in the back - I reflect on that surprising conversation. I feel oddly jubilant. His joy at being alive is infectious. I realize that Kevin and I are kindred souls, spending time in the woods with just our dogs for company. We don't know each other, but we understand each other.That's why he wanted to share with me his amazing story: "I had cancer, but now it's gone." A few words, packing enormous meaning.

I'm happy they're back and will continue to be a regular presence at Cougar. I'm happy for Kevin for beating his cancer, for Sydney having Kevin healthy and by her side again, and selfishly for myself because I enjoy seeing friendly faces like theirs when I'm running trails on my own.

It took last week's chance encounter for me to notice what - or who - had been missing: a man and his dog with whom Finn and I have enjoyed a nodding acquaintance, becoming a regular feature of our time in the forest these past few years. Today, taking the time to listen, I learned why.

What a powerful lesson in gratitude: for the good health we have and are able to enjoy, for however long we can, and for the friendship of fellow travelers along the way.

Rebecca Wallick1 Comment