Quiet Day

November 29, 2021

Because the Thanksgiving weekend is a benchmark for retail success or failure, stores deploy Christmas inventories, decorations, lights, and artificial trees in October, some in September. Two days out, we crawled toward the holiday by getting groceries and stringing Christmas lights in the afternoon chill.

We worked this year to salvage some authentic sense of the season, just the two of us in our place in the burbs in this northwest corner of South Carolina. The big get-togethers of past years still are problematic. Nearly one-third of Americans are unvaccinated. Experts have found a new variant, omicron, probably coming our way.

The idea of Thanksgiving as a day for family togetherness and good cheer, big meals, football, acts of charity, is still on the books. It recalls the elegiac Feast of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony in 1621, the start of a tradition eventually recognized by Presidents and official proclamations. A little research reveals that nearly all of the Pilgrims present were men, most of the women who arrived at Plymouth died in the first year. The local Wampanoag tribesmen who showed up outnumbered the Pilgrims two-to-one.

Many are thankful for the precious things, family connections, good health, and such prosperity as we may enjoy. Good health is a special gift these days. Some don’t have those things, we know that by looking around. We see, in this time of abundance, people who suffer, who look to the rest of us for a reason to give thanks. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that 10.5 percent of U.S. households (13.8 million) were “food insecure” in 2020. Everywhere in America good people write checks for charity and show up at churches and soup kitchens to serve Thanksgiving meals.

Years, no—decades ago, at our little place near downtown Nashville, Sandy and I were in the habit of inviting someone in the neighborhood, usually someone we barely knew, for Thanksgiving dinner. We weren’t doing anything special. We had room at the table. The folks we invited weren’t especially in need, just at loose ends. We toasted the day and ate and talked about everything, past, present, future. We then said goodnight and “Happy Thanksgiving.” Those brief hours were un-self-consciously full of good cheer. In time we moved beyond that as the kids grew and relatives would drift over. Now it seems so long ago. It is.

The power of Thanksgiving is, or should be, its sublime transcendence. We give thanks, those who do, most directly through prayer, which ought to seem self-evident. Give thanks for this or that—to whom, or what? The impulse to thank the Lord on some particular autumn day came from churchgoers, who understood that no matter how strong their faith, they still had to hunt game and work their rude acreages, as the Wampanoags taught them, to ward off starvation. Yet it was faith that brought them to that Massachusetts wilderness.

The years sped by, we stumbled into the mid-1980s and landed in New Jersey. Life got complicated. It seems, maybe only in my hazy memory, that the cataclysms of those years in business, politics, technology, everything else, distracted us about Thanksgiving, or distracted me. We bought our first computer in 1987 for $4,000, heavy as an anchor with a tiny fraction of the power of your cell phone. Just after Thanksgiving I visited a half-dozen stores looking for a Cabbage Patch doll. The relief I felt when I found one, at a J.C. Penney’s just as the place opened—indescribable.  

After one year in Jersey we landed in Virginia. Thanksgivings and Christmases then blurred together for us and for the world around us. The kids grew up and left home, the Thanksgiving ritual became a frantic scramble, one or two of them getting home, the others creating their own holidays. Retail Thanksgiving loomed. One year we all made it to our son Michael’s and daughter-in-law Caroline’s place near Philly. On Black Friday Sandy and the girls rose at 3:00 AM and headed for the mall. They were home with packages by dawn.

Around then we started seeing those news stories of long midnight lines outside Walmart and the other “big box” stores that led to fistfights over bargain-priced flat-screen TVs and video games, then riots and arrests. The spirit of the Pilgrims retreated to the high-school history books, maybe not even there. You can find something about it on Wikipedia.

We wondered last week about Thanksgiving 2021. We were looking at a quiet one. We called a few restaurants about reservations—all booked, we waited too long. We looked at the ads of local grocery stores describing their take-home Thanksgiving dinners: pick this “side,” or that one to go with a turkey breast, then show up at the store Wednesday to pick up your boxes of dinner for reheating at home. We passed.

I had a thought. An older guy, though probably younger than me, lives by himself up the street. He often sits in a lawn chair on his driveway next to one of those store-bought firepits, chain-smoking and waving at cars and pedestrians. We stopped by on a walk weeks ago and introduced ourselves. “I’m Steve,” he said, inhaling, with a faint smile. “Nice to meet you. My wife passed on in February.” A dozen butts littered the driveway.

I tried to guess what he thought about while he sat there, smoking and waving. Family? Childhood? How he landed in this town? He’s bounced around, Columbia, Charleston, a few other places. He said he has a brother in Missouri. He’s got some health problems, which I guessed have something to do with the smoking. We hung around for a while listening to his stories, then said so long. The next evening he was out there again. We waved, he waved.

I wondered if Steve would be free for Thanksgiving dinner at our place. He seemed to have time on his hands. I walked up the block and stopped in front of his house. His lawn chair was in its usual spot. I rang the doorbell and waited. A dog barked just inside the door. Then somewhere else in the house a second dog barked, a hollow, faraway sound. No answer at the door.

I waited, then rang again, then stepped over and peered through a window at the kitchen, barely visible in the late-afternoon light. The counters were cluttered with miscellaneous stuff, bottles, boxes, utensils. The dogs barked again. A woman walked out of the house next door. “Have you seen Steve?” I called. “No. Haven’t seen him in a few days,” she answered. “He’s usually sitting in that chair on the driveway.” I nodded. “Probably too cold for that,” I said. I waited a few more moments. He could be at his brother’s, I guessed. I turned and looked at the door, then headed home.

The Finish

November 22, 2021

The Foothills Trail extends 76 miles across the northern tier of South Carolina, rising into North Carolina for one-third of its length. The end-points are Table Rock State Park in the east, due north of our place in Greer, and Oconee State Park on the western end, a half-dozen miles from the Georgia line. No towns, villages, or hamlets in either state are within ten miles of the trailheads. A few set-back houses and one retirement community lie along U.S. 11, the primary South Carolina access. Cell-phone service doesn’t exist. The midpoint of the trail is the middle of nowhere. 

I knew I had to run or hike all of it.

No, I didn’t. But the eastern terminus at Table Rock is only 35 miles from home, so I thought I would try. By August I had covered 47 miles, climbing rocky peaks, gawking at wilderness waterfalls, crossing rushing mountain streams. I scratched out sections from Table Rock to Sassafras Mountain and Chimneytop Gap to a place called Laurel Valley, off U.S. 178, for 15 miles. I then skipped ahead to cover the western 32 miles from an access point at Bad Creek, just south of North Carolina’s famous Whitewater Falls, the highest waterfall east of the Mississippi, to Oconee. These sections are reachable because they touch remote spots that allow parking along the few rural roads the trail crosses in Greenville, Pickens, and Oconee counties.

Because the trail is linear, covering it meant backtracking to wherever I parked. So every four-mile segment of trail covered meant eight miles of running/hiking. Eight miles of trail meant 16 miles. And so on. I got out of that routine in August when Sandy dumped me 20 miles from Oconee, the western terminus, then waited there for me. I showed up eight hours later and jumped in the lake. 

The middle stretch of about 30 miles, from Bad Creek to Laurel Valley, is nearly untouched mountain wilderness with no parking access. Hikers cross it by camping along the way.

For an old guy recalling a string of 31 (50 kilometer) and 50-mile trail runs ended in 2018 by a three-year medical detour, camping isn’t the thing. Neither is crossing the Bad Creek-Laurel Valley stretch alone; some vestigial sanity remains after all those doctor’s visits.

In September I contacted the South Carolina Ultramarathon Club asking for a volunteer to go along. No takers. Then Alex Papadopoulous, a longtime Virginia friend and an elite trail runner, stepped up. He’s the man for the job: among finishes in dozens of ultrarunning events, he’s completed the Hawaii Ultrarunning Team (HURT) 100-mile race 13 times. In September he finished a six-day 236-mile run in Wales. He flew down last week to haul me over the final 30 miles.

On Thursday Sandy humored us by dropping us at Bad Creek. In 6:30 AM darkness we took a photo, then headed up the short spur to the trail. Sandy climbed back in the van for a nap before heading to Laurel Valley for the pickup at some future time, which we all knew would be after dark.

The trail begins with exhilarating descents, then crosses into North Carolina. After the bridge over the thundering Thompson River we paid the fun back with a stiff half-mile climb, then zigzagged a gentle descent on fire roads and trails through swampy, jungle-like forest. The autumn foliage gave the trail a glistening edge, we kicked the ankle-deep fallen leaves.

We slogged, Alex staying with my snail pace, as we passed camps at Hilliard Falls and Bear Creek, moving north toward giant Lake Jocassee. We crossed Horsepasture River and Bear Gap, heading for the big turn to the south at Toxaway River, which like all these wild rivers, feeds the lake.

I kept track of the time, knowing the hours were slipping by faster than our progress. We rode a steep downhill to Toxaway, finally seeing the emerald-blue lake gleaming through the trees. At the north end of the lake the trail is accessible by boat. On the east side, the trail turns sharply south and upward, and upward again for an agonizing 600 feet to Heartbreak Ridge. We regained our pace on the downside, then alternately followed fire road and trail down to spectacular Laurel Falls, a faint sign of the end.

Now I was on familiar ground. I had been to the falls two months earlier, exploring the route west from Laurel Valley. We were eight miles from the finish, daylight was fading. Around 5:30 we lit our headlamps. The trail twisted through darkness, crossing a half-dozen bridges spanning Laurel Creek. We passed the four-mile point, then struggled (I struggled) up three switchbacks to a spot called Flat Rock, in all good humor. I gulped water and chewed beef jerky, scrounging for another spark of energy. I recalled the trail begins to level out past Flat Rock. I paused, sucking my breath. My mind cleared, I refocused, and tuned again to the mission. The golden leaves covering the trail gleamed in our headlamps as we kicked toward the finish.

The trail wound down through the blackness south of Flat Rock Mountain, we tapdanced over and around hidden rocks and roots, taking a recovering descent followed by another climb, passing the two-mile point. I had this last stretch memorized.  I led us down, around, down, around, sidestepping the leaf-covered stairs built on steep stretches for climbers, not runners.

We reached the bottom of the mountain with a half-mile left and climbed again, more steps, more descents, until the trail wrapped around the mountain once more. We rounded the last turn and saw the dozen-step ladder that dropped us to the trailhead parking lot. We bumped fists and looked around, then trotted down the quarter-mile gravel road, where Sandy sat, waiting and worrying. It was 9:00 PM, a finishing time of thirteen hours, 55 minutes. Alex drove. I stared out at the darkness.

Scan Day

November 15, 2021

“I’ll see you in three months, after the next scan,” the doc said. “But things are looking good.”

I was hoping for a six-month stretchout for the CT scans. This latest one was the 17th over three years, and they are getting old. Maybe he’ll go to six after the next one. But three or six, the drill is always the same.

The scan event was on the Marine Corps’ 246th birthday, the day before Veterans Day, which I wanted to celebrate some other way. First things first. A covid-symptoms interrogation at the hospital door, then check-in. “You’re getting a CT?” the receptionist asks. “Name and birthdate?” 

She handed me one of those radio-receiver discs restaurants use to keep track of people who have to wait for a table. Same principle. The disc blinks and buzzes when they’re ready for you.

All the patients are staring at their cell phones, aware the wait could be—whatever. Hospitals are short-staffed, but never short on patients.  A sign is posted outside: “Now Hiring Nurses and CNAs—Signing Bonus!” I brought a book and thumbed to my page. But soon my disc buzzed. “Name and birthdate,” the woman at the desk asked. Sitting beside her was the woman to whom I had just given the information.

She led me to a tiny office. We did the questions about current/recent health, shots, prescriptions (none). She pointed at a waiting room. A nurse asked for my name and birthdate. She swabbed my arm, jabbed me, and hooked up the IV tube. She handed me the two cups of water mixed with a solution that enhances the contrast dye. I waited in the outer office for an hour for the solution to work.

Done with that, a technician called me into the procedure room. “I’m Lauren,” she said with a smile. She pointed to the platform next to the scanner. I climbed aboard. She pumped the contrast into the IV, I felt a jolting chill, then sudden heat as it rushed into my bloodstream.

She started the scanner and slid me inside. I stared at inner core of the machine, spinning and flashing. “Hold your breath,” the machine ordered. Then “Breathe.” We did this three or four times, the CT scanner and I, working as a team. That was it. Lauren flipped a switch, I jumped up, thanked her, and headed for the parking lot.

The report was ready later that day. I keyed on the impression line: “no evidence of new recurrent or new metastatic disease.” That’s the upbeat story. Two days later, at the Prisma Cancer Institute, though, the oncologist looked at the fine print. He held up the report and pointed at page 1: “left paramediastinal bronchiectasis and fibrosis appears unchanged.” He nodded. “That’s always going to be there,” he said.

Two years ago the primary care and the pulmonary-critical care doctors in Virginia talked about bronchiectasis, a lung condition caused by 33 sessions of radiation bombing my chest, or “mediastinum,” the area between the lungs occupied by the heart, windpipe, and esophagus—the food tube—and thymus, which is where my real problem began. It pushed the kidney procedure, the “nephrectomy” out by a year. Another 30 sessions this year didn’t help.

He delivered the message, all systems look good, that is, “unchanged,” but this thing is not over. I recall my son, the medical physicist, telling me in 2018 that they never get every cell.

That done, we relaxed and talked about other things. Because it seemed like an obvious topic, I said I just got the covid booster. He asked about side effects, and said he hoped he’d get lucky because his second shot knocked him back for a few days.

Lake Jocassee, South Carolina

I didn’t ask him what he thought of the school board in this fairly good-size town announcing that local schools would not serve as vaccination sites for children, although the vaccine now is approved for ages 5 through 11. Parents will have to hunt for it at pediatricians’ offices or drugstores.

A few days ago the South Carolina School Board cut ties with the National School Board Association over a letter the NSBA sent to President Biden seeking a federal investigation of reports of attacks on and threats of violence against its members over covid measures like masks. The SCSB said the letter “did not represent the values we have in South Carolina.”

Meanwhile, new cases are up 11 percent this week in South Carolina.

We moved away from all that, he refocused on the report, bullet point by bullet point. Heart, liver, pancreas, the rest look okay, apart from 72 years of wear and tear. I always like the note: “left kidney: absent,” as if it was out of town the day of the scan. The report frequently uses “appears” in citing normal conditions. Is it the TV weather-reporter shtick, the “chance of showers” routine that allows escape from ever being wrong?

He extended his hand, I took it, gratified we’re not bumping fists, which like my scan routine, has gotten old. “See you in three months. But call me if anything comes up,” he said. “Happy Holidays!” he yelled as he headed out the door. I yelled “Thanks” and ran for the exit.

The cancer patients in the waiting room, some of them in wheelchairs with family members, all of them with thick masks, didn’t notice me pass. Their minds are elsewhere, on symptoms, treatments, prescriptions, bills, as mine was when I was a daily visitor there. Some of these folks will not be having happy holidays. Yet it is a place of hope and courage. I know if I studied their faces I’d recognize some of them again in three months, still showing courage, still filled with hope.


November 8, 2021

When we look beyond our schedules: our jobs, chores, our laptops and cellphones, and pause, we may stumble on the sublime harmony of the universe, which is God’s presence. Some get there often, even daily, others every so often. But we all know the signposts, the beacons, that are unmistakable and undeniable. On two consecutive days this past week, our family observed two of them: the fifth birthday of our younger grandson, followed the next day by the anniversary of my father’s passing 37 years ago, four days before his 60th birthday.

The boy, Patrick, celebrated joyously. He anticipated the “full hand” (five fingers) birthday, with grandparents, gifts, pizza, cake, the works. The next day my sisters and brother and I recalled our dad, who left us so suddenly at the end of his workday in New York City, not far from where he grew up.

Patrick does not know that he came into the world the day before his great grandfather left it 32 years earlier. Eventually we’ll tell him and his older brother more about the man who, three generations ago, in a different world, created a path to goodness for him, a straight road to a life of strength, dignity, integrity, and faith. We siblings know it and remember.

Joe Walsh grew up an only child with his parents, my grandparents, in the Bronx borough of New York, attended the local Catholic school a few blocks away then Fordham Prep, where he played football. He went on to Fordham University for a while. After Pearl Harbor he joined the Army Air Corps and served around Nome, Alaska, during the Attu-Kiska campaign, when the Japanese tried to seize the Aleutians. After the war he returned to New York, married our mom, Patricia, and went to work for New York Bell Telephone. They, and soon we, after I was born, lived in a small apartment in lower Manhattan called Stuyvesant Town, which I read somewhere was marketed for the postwar boom, to returning vets and young couples. We have photos.

With their first two kids they made the huge decision to leave New York and moved to the burbs in northern Jersey, to what must have seemed like another planet. That was the era of the Levittown-type explosion of suburbia, subdivisions crammed next to subdivisions stretching out from the cities, transforming the boondocks. The family roots remained in New York, the culture that shaped our parents’ lives: the Bronx, Queens, Manhattan, family connections, neighborhood, church, work. From there the years sped by. And here we are.

Sandy and I were in Nashville when he passed, the first three kids were little, Kathleen had not arrived. We drove the 15 or so hours to Jersey in a blur that has never completely dissipated. Like all families experiencing the early death of a parent, we lived with the sadness that we would not have him as he grew old, that our kids would never know him as we did.

He grew up and lived through adulthood, marriage, and parenthood in a world that paid homage to traditions, the traditions of family, work, church, and the obligations and responsibilities they create. Since he stayed with Bell after the move to Jersey he rose every workday before dawn for the long bus trip to the city, like hundreds of thousands of other suburban fathers. He persevered, as fathers do, seeking good for his family, which meant the best education he and  Pat could manage for us. For many painful hours on Saturdays he drilled me at math, which was effortless for him. I stared blankly at the long-division formulas he sketched on graphing paper with mechanical lead pencils.

I scraped through. I wanted to go to the public high school with my friends but ended up at the austere all-boys Catholic school. For him, the front and center mission always was the best education he could afford. Education, and the quality of schools, helped drive Sandy and me in 1986 from what was then sleepy, small-town Nashville to industrial, congested, high-cost New Jersey. Schools matter.       

Joe Walsh, center, his dad, Edward A. Walsh, left

The world changed in the Sixties for the worse, as Vietnam, civil rights violence, and assassinations tore the country apart. The cultural revolution, as some saw it, distorted and ridiculed the values and priorities of the Greatest Generation. The sad stories, now dated, have been told many times of young people who in those years broke with their parents, swamped by anger, aimlessness, despair.

He did not change. The values he lived and taught were immutable and eternal. We took them with us through the hard times, to college, the military, marriage. He let us live our own lives. He mellowed—maybe not the right word—but I felt he was pleased, quietly, with his handiwork as we became adults. He and Mom came to Nashville, went with us to a cabin by a lake, he and I rented a boat and went fishing miles from the nearest town, as we had out on Long Island when I was a kid. He went for walks with Laura, then four, and with Michael, who was two.

He loved us in the old-fashioned way a father loves his family, love always limned with the seriousness that grows from acceptance of responsibility—duty, maybe, in the timeless subtlety of Thomas Aquinas who wrote in his Summa that love, simply, is the desire for good for another. The love of a father is always there, light on emotion and melodrama, rock-hard, unchanging. What else? What else matters?

The other day, Saturday, he would have turned 97. Not that that was likely. Time we know is relentless. Now Patrick, at the far end of that graceful curve of family symmetry, will establish his own milestones for eternity. The “full hand” will shortly become six, seven, and so on, the experiences and achievements will accumulate as he moves forward, growing in grace and wisdom, as the prayer goes.

The special connection, two days on the calendar, but really, for all of his life, will remain. He’ll never outgrow the unique closeness to a man in heaven who looks down and smiles on him, his brother, all of us. Even as the birthdays add up, he’ll carry forever his own link with the family past, a mysterious link to love and faith, hope and goodness.