I woke around 4:30am and the sky was already starting to become light.
My final days with Dad were often like that – rise early and go for a walk in the fields and forests, walk to Dad’s house and have breakfast with the family. We would sometimes go out together, two of us, while Dad slept after lunch. He slept a lot. I’d go for a walk in the evening, after Dad went back to sleep, when the sun was setting at around 9:00pm, then walk back to the flat where I was staying, by the railway station.
But this particular morning I woke earlier than usual, and decided to walk from Mödling to Baden, through the woods. I caught the train to reach the village, and walked the 20 or so kilometres between the towns in a few hours. The day was very warm – around 31ºC, but the cool of the forest was like cold water. That walk strikes me as emblematic of everything that grief is.
The Train Ride
The train is fast, silent and everyone on board is quiet, and contemplative. Outside the fields streak by, and I feel my destination rushing towards me. I am still, and it races towards me. Nothing I do will change this, sometimes we are simply passengers.
Finding the Trailhead
I didn’t know Mödling at all. It was a place I’d been to once, in a car, 20 years previously. I used Google maps to find my way. Grief gives that feeling of disconnection from reality. I wander around and see people in their familiar places, doing their familiar routines while I try to look normal, in control and with a plan. I found the trail head up a steep hill, and it seems the journey is beginning.
That first hill
It was steeper than it looked. It was harder than it looked. It was beautiful but new to my eyes. Every experience is beautiful, if you try to see its beauty. Every place is beautiful, if your mindset is in the right place. You struggle because the hill is steep, but your eye sees the beauty of the world. The day after Dad died, I saw the beauty in my new baby’s eyes, swirling like green storm clouds. I felt the softness of my wife hair as she comforted me, as though it was the first time. The world is no less beautiful simply because I am wearied by it’s topography.
Walking with others
I saw very few people that day, a handful at the start of the walk. In Austria, the convention is to always greet everyone you see with the phrase Grüß Gott, meaning ‘May God greet you.’ That’s why I’m walking, hoping to be greeted by God. I have lots of questions to ask him about my father, who art on his death bed. I walk this path and consider that many thousands of feet have also walked this path over the years. I’m sure Dad walked here many times. The handful of people I see are all at the start of the walk – in the first 20 minutes. But I’m never alone on the path – I can feel their tread, see the milestones they saw, touch the smooth bark and rock, for the same handholds. Thirty kilometres away, my father is slowly dying, but I tread in the path he helped make only a few decades ago. It’s like we walk together.
Places fading and changing
Limestone caves are everywhere, and as I walk uphill in a woodland of pale shimmering foliage. There is a ruin of a building set into the entrance of a cavern, blocked off, and I realise this must have been a ticket office to tours of the cave system, closed, gated and nearly forgotten. I sit quietly and behind the stillness of the forest, I can hear them, lining up, excited to venture down those ladders into the waiting dark. Only time is separating us all from each other. Time not cancer, heart disease, war, famine and distance. Time feeds my grief and then with time, my grief will fade, and become an emptiness, like a space on the wall where a picture once hung.
Acceptance from Habit
There’s a point in any long walk where I start to think it would have been easier to stay at home. And soon after that is a point where my mind shifts from focussing on the grade of the hill, the sweat beading my brow, the thirst, the weight of my pack. Those things fade, and the mind becomes the trail, becomes the trees, becomes the sounds and smells. Living with grief will go from an unbearable truth to a disquieting normalcy. WE can get used to anything
A beautiful view alone
I reach a little tower called the Anniger Turm. It looks like the inspiration for a chessboard Rook. There is a spiral metal staircase inside and at the top I see so much. I see the Schneeberg to my right. I see Mödling smearing into the haze of Vienna to the left. The beginning of the steppe and Hungary ahead, the cool forest that leads to the alps if I turn around. I am alone here and all I want to do is share this moment. But some things we do alone, because that’s the way things are. My grief is a lonely journey as well. Even this blog is a very solitary thing, but I can try and make out the view of my journey for myself alone.
Returning to the Town
Eventually I make my way into the Composer Gardens in Baden, and from there 10 minutes will take me to the train station and then I’ll go visit Dad. After several hours of silence and pure physicality, it’s strange to return to being near people at the shop where I buy an Almdudler to drink, strange to hear my voice, strange to feel solid concrete paths instead of the yielding layers of fallen leaves and soil. I could no more stay trapped in the numbness of grief every day than I could live in the forest forever and expect to thrive. I walk to the train station, and feel the beauty of that old town, the comfort of centuries of tradition.
Grieving, like hiking a trail, is not something we are going to be good at right away. It is not a straightforward activity, like a walk to the store would be. Both will test you on a very personal level, and make you wonder about what kind of a person you are, what kind of a world it is that you live in. Both will entail some degree of hardship – one sought after, the other often feared. Yet both are a process for growth and an opportunity to reassess what we value in this world. And that is a good thing.