Robert and Angie Martin have been married thirty-four years. He freely admits that his life revolves around her.
“You lied to me!”
“I didn’t say it would be easy. I said I was sure you could do it.”
“Why do I let you talk me into these things?”
“You’re doin’ great!”
Splicing epithets into heavy breathing, Angie struggled with her maiden voyage to Blood Mountain. She bitched in equal measure about the steep climb and his treachery.
Her complaints ceased when they reached the top. A huge granite boulder dwarfed the adjacent hiker shelter, and they climbed up to the top for the view. She connected to the magic he always felt on a summit. He knew where the treasures were, but he let her discover them for herself.
“Look at the trees!”
A palette of yellow, orange, rust, and crimson vaulted from the ridges far below. The crisp October sky magnified the colors, reducing miles to yards. Angie reached out to touch the chromatic branches. She drew back her hand, laughing. “My eyes are playing tricks on me.”
She fixed her gaze on the southern horizon. The long range view, free of haze and smog, extended seventy –five miles. Glass and concrete towers, lit by the sun, shimmered against the immense blue curtain.
“Bobby, that’s Atlanta!” She was the only one who ever called him Bobby. His parents had insisted from birth that he be Robert.
“Babe, you can almost count the cars on Peachtree.”
“And Stone Mountain!” The granite hulk, silhouetted against the azure expanse, rose to the east of the skyline. “Funny. It’s not so big from here.”
Robert pointed to an isolated, double humped peak to the west of the city.
“Know what that is?”
“With binoculars, you could spot the Confederate cannon on the ridge. Now, turn around and look to the north.”
She pirouetted on the rock. “What’s the high one over there? With the tower.”
“Brasstown Bald. Highest point in Georgia. Four thousand seven hundred and eighty-four feet.”
“Looks four thousand seven hundred eighty three to me.” She poked him in the stomach, further mocking his penchant for precision.
He reached over her shoulder and pulled a small microfiber towel out of her day pack. “You’ll see better if you wipe the sarcasm off your glasses.”
They sat on the rock and ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. He put his arm around her and squeezed her tightly. They kissed like teenagers on a first date.
Angie smiled. “I’m glad I came. But I won’t make a habit of this.”
Robert’s lifelong dream is to hike the Appalachian Trail. Before he starts, Angie dies of breast cancer.
She whispered in his ear, “You on top, lazy bones.”
He slid his hand up her left side to guide her over. His fingers pressed against her breast, near the armpit. She let out a muted cry.
“A twinge. Where you poked me.”
Angie grasped his hand, and led it to the spot. She pressed his fingers into her flesh. She winced again. He felt a lump.
Their eyes met. For the first time ever she was really scared. Her fear was a contagion. It jerked aside the curtain of his present happiness and revealed a dark and empty window.
His recollections fast-forwarded. The doctors’ visits, the MRI, the diagnosis, the phone calls to Mandy, Rob, and her parents. Surgery, radiation, and chemo. The doctor’s pessimism, his own growing despair. All the questions that began with why.
Why didn’t it show up on the mammogram six months ago? Why did she miss it on her self-exam? Why isn’t it responding to treatment? Why is it so virulent? Why can’t I do anything to help? Why her? Why her?
The doctors offered no answers. Preoccupied with his own fears and
frustrations, he left Mandy and Rob to deal with their mother’s deteriorating condition. He was also at a loss with Angie. Every word he spoke, every effort he made was pitifully unequal to the task. Nothing had ever come between them, but now she had a new mate. A deathly apparition stood beside her, and they were speeding away without him.
After the terminal diagnosis, Angie summoned strength from a previously untapped reservoir. She put forward her best spin on what lay ahead. “Concentrate on the good times, Bobby. Remember us at our best. And hike for me. Hike for us.”
Then she was gone.
Tramping from Georgia to Maine, “Snaky” meets other thru-hikers. “Socrates” is a Duke graduate and know-it-all scientist. The two discuss theology, science, and nature.
Socrates laughed. “It’s nice to know how you really feel.” He took several more steps, and spoke over his shoulder. “So you believe in God?”
Robert was momentarily taken aback by the direct question. He did not immediately answer.
“Maybe I awarded that collar prematurely.”
“God and I haven’t been on good terms since Angie died. He really pissed me off. She was an intelligent, vibrant, caring, loving person. He took her much too soon. I’ll never forgive Him for that.”
“Your anger is at least an acknowledgement of His existence. By the way, that’s an interesting spin on the Cartesian theorem. ‘I piss you off, therefore I AM.’ But I’ll ask one more time. Do you believe in God?”
“You’re full of questions today, aren’t you?”
“Are you full of answers?”
“I don’t know if I have the right answer, but I have my answer.”
“Let’s hear it.”
“The perfectibility of man. The idea we keep getting better as history runs its course. Otherwise, there’s no reason to hope. I couldn’t live without hope.”
“Life’s a bitch, and then you die. That’s not you?”
“I’m not a nihilist either. But where does God fit in?”