We were in a state of near-delirium when returning to Bend at the end of July because we were so happy. The coast bike tour the first half of July had been a disappointment but the impulsive decision to move to a better apartment after budget-grade accommodations for 20 years was wildly successful and exceeded our expectations. At last, we’d completed the long overdue, massive cull of our belongings and we had secured a new apartment with the desperately needed air conditioning (AC) despite the tight housing market. The documents weren’t completed to make the move official, but it felt like a “done deal” and we were intent on celebrating.
We were ecstatic when leaving home and again buoyed when our trailer was serviced on the way to Bend because the mundane job of sealing all of the exterior joints was completed and better yet, “Wayne the man” fixed our AC problem. We had begun to suspect that it was a ductwork issue and Wayne, who works down the road from the trailer manufacturer, knew precisely what the problem was: a bit of familiar, systematic assembly sloppiness during production. That was in stark contrast to the several RV repair guys we’d consulted last summer who only shrugged their shoulders when we were dying in Colorado’s 100° heat.
Our first SUP outing on the Deschutes River.
The only excitement that we’d predicted at the end of July upon returning to Bend was picking-up our new stand-up paddle boards (SUP) from our RV park’s office. Somehow Costco and UPS bungled the shipment and delivery of our new boards and they arrived after we left Bend at the end of June. The RV park staff was kind enough to hold them for the month we were away—a courtesy that definitely is not a given in RV parks.
We had been poised and ready to ride them in June, so we were out on them the next day and did so 5 of the next 7 days. They were as much fun as we expected and our gear was flawless. The boards were complete and as advertised, the expensive electric pump we bought performed to specifications, and our accessories were great. We had everything we needed on the first outing, which had been the plan.
The fun receptionist at the RV park, who has a rigid SUP, stared blankly and said nothing when I described our first 2 outings. I laughed when I said “We put-in at Benham Falls, paddled up stream into a headwind for 90 minutes, then turned around and were back 15 minutes. The next day, there was less wind, so we got farther upstream and it took 20 minutes to return.” We were proud of our effort, proud that we did those first paddles on our new boards without falling in, and we thought that the speed of our return was hilarious in light of how hard we had worked, and yet the usually conversational woman said nothing.
We chatted with everyone we could about paddling, admiring their boards and asking for their favorite put-in places. We gradually learned that even though Bend is bulging with ace athletes, even they turned lazy and dreamy-eyed when on their boards. We were doing it all wrong by local standards; we were working too hard. We of course bought the boards for cross-training, especially for the core muscles work-out, which was a large part of the appeal. But no, the consensus in Bend was that you drift downstream and get a car ride back upstream. It was a shuttle sport to them and we even learned that for $5, you could hire a ride back up to a particular put-in spot at Sunriver Resort. We heard stories of 4 hour and 6 hour drifts. Drifting downstream, at least the short bits we had done, was indeed sweet, but 6 hours sounded a bit boring to me.
Resting & reveling at the turnaround.
Bill took the only dunking between us in all of those hours on the water and it was when we were tired towards the end of the Paulina Lake outing. A lapse in concentration, and he went over backwards, even though falling sideways is more common. He yelped in time for me to catch a glimpse of his water landing and I was pleased to see that his life vest kept his head out of the water. He isn’t a strong swimmer, so keeping his face dry was more reassuring.
Initially, Bill’s survival reflexes prevailed over his learning and he kept grasping the board in a way that threatened to flip it over on him. Exactly like the woman in our class on the Columbia River had said from the water when in that position “It’s too hard” when I coached Bill to reach all of the way across to grab the far edge of the board. “Yup, it’s hard, but it’s the only way you are going to get out of the water.” That brief exchange was enough for him to remember the winning strategy himself and in moments, he was on his board.
The combined water and air temperature was above 120°, which is the line for determining when one needs a wetsuit. Even being well above that safety temperature, Bill became a bit chilled because of the overcast skies and wind. Next time, we’ll consider paddling from a seated position after a soaking to stave-off a chill. But the sun came out, we were soon back at the truck and ate lunch, then did the planned hike to Paulina Peak.
We had a blast implementing our anticipated “multi-sport” plan by hiking 6 to 7 miles in the morning, eating lunch at our truck while inflating our boards, and then paddling for a few hours in the afternoon. (At Paulina Lake, we paddled first because of the predictable, strong afternoon winds). We’d been in Bend long enough on our prior visit to know where to put-in to avoid the waterfalls and where a long trail connected the boat landings.
At the end of our first week back in Bend, we made the hard decision to decrease our boarding time so as to increase our hiking miles and elevation gain for our flagging preparation for hiking in the Grand Canyon in 2 months. But we quickly learned that the grand hiking from Bend wasn’t so grand for outsiders like us who struggled to navigate the new permit system limiting the traffic on the trails. Additionally, the area lacked the big-gain hikes we’d anticipated.
Unfortunately, that noble decision to become more focused on our training coincided with the wildfire smoke inundating Bend. Our last afternoon on our boards had ended in heavy smoke that rolled in unseen behind us, necessitating paddling hard up stream while breathing toxic air. My crudded-up lungs told the story without looking at our monitor. We hunkered down in our trailer for 2 days that week. Perhaps foolishly, we hiked for 3 days of the next week on and around Mt Bachelor before conceding and spending the next 4 days confined to quarters in the comfort provided by our air purifier.
Our truck’s tonneau was a perfect work station for inflating our boards.
We would immediately implement Plan B for our fitness, which was going to the lovely public recreation facilities in Bend. That had always been my back-up plan but we threw in the towel on even that contingency plan when Oregon’s governor sensibly re-instated the state’s mandatory mask requirement on the very day we were to begin indoor workouts. Exerting with a mask on had been nearly impossible for me and now, with the lung-irritating smoke already inflaming my lung tissues, it would be a non-starter.
Even Bill, with no history of asthma, was being compromised by the smoke. The air quality index (AQI) hadn’t been horribly high when he felt that characteristic wheeziness of asthma, but we suspect it was the small particles, the PM2.5, that pushed him over the edge. The asthma diagnosis was confirmed when the smile immediately reappeared on his face after using my inhaler. It’s never that effective for me, but it was magic for him.
The PM2.5 is a parameter our little monitor reports but we usually left it set to display the AQI. But on this decisive Friday, the highly toxic PM2.5 particles were running at 65 outside our trailer door, 5 times more than the recommended limit of 12. Bill kindly did the running around needed to do laundry that day, but it again swamped him. He was uncomfortable for hours. The AQI and PM2.5 readings took a turn for the worse overnight. We immediately decided to forfeit 4 nights of our pre-paid 7 day stay after tending to a business matter on Monday morning, after which we’d head for the coast to breathe.
The central and southern coast also suddenly had bad air but the northern coast at Astoria, was clear. I remembered from our recent bike trip there how hilly it was and suggested we could do more hill training there than anywhere else on the coast. After hours and hours of frustrating searching, Bill was able to patch-together RV park reservations for August 20-31 at 2 parks with a move within one of them. A bit inefficient and a hassle to relocate and there was no guarantee about the AQI, but it would improve our odds. The salmon run on at the mouth of the Columbia River near Astoria, and it being nearly at the peak of high season, had made relocating at the coast a near thing.
I hadn’t opened the trailer door for 2 days and when I finally exited, I was wearing an N-95 mask to spare my lungs. We were on the road heading north for 3 hours before the air cleared, a bit east of the road summit at Government Camp. We cheered while Bill reported the improving air quality numbers while I drove.
It had gotten worse, much, much worse 30 minutes or so before we crossed the visible line between the toxic haze and blue skies. Our truck cabin filter, like our fancy Dyson air purifier in our trailer, did an excellent job of cleaning the air, to a point. They both had their limits and we watched the numbers shoot-up in the truck like we’d done several times inside the trailer. We resorted to wearing our N-95 masks inside the truck to protect our lungs the best we could.. We were so sad to leave Bend. Bend was where we’d chosen to be, Bend was where we wanted to be, but currently, Bend was a wretched place to be.
The first and second halves of late July and August could hardly have been more different for us in 2021. The first two weeks were filled with joy, triumph, and the highs and lows of a hot pursuit for our new apartment. That sensational drama was accompanied by the delight in finally receiving our stand-up paddle boards that had been waiting for us for a month in the RV park’s office. We were thrilled with both of these new beginnings in our lives.
Bend’s AQI map the morning we departed for 2021.
Oh, how we missed the dry, warm weather of Central Oregon and the better hiking venues, but of course, the air was toxic there. Our moods slowly tanked from the constant gray skies. The lushness of the landscape and the drama of the ocean didn’t make-up for the dreariness we felt.
We didn’t bother hooking-up the TV service at either RV park because the news was too depressing. The disaster in the Afghanistan withdraw, Biden’s stumbles, the earthquake in Haiti, and the worsening pandemic statistics all signaled that it was “head in the sand” time for us. Our resiliency wasn’t up to those challenges. The twice daily review of the digital news headlines kept us abreast of the major issues without dragging us down.
Our former competitive athlete friend wrote about their prior decision to abandon cycling on the coast and on all roads after reading our piece about our coast tour. We were relieved that we weren’t viewed as wimps, that it wasn’t just us losing our nerve, but it was sad to have our conclusions validated. She spoke of essentially all in her more athletic community having been hit by cars. Her report confirmed our decision to permanently abandon cycling on the Oregon coast—underscoring another loss.
Our picnic view atop Mt Bachelor.
smoke but the traffic was too intense for cycling and the hiking was second rate. Over and over we ran through the possible options for a 2022 hiking venue if Europe felt unsafe because of covid for a 3rd summer. Over-and-over again, like last summer, we came to the same conclusion: there was no good answer. We uttered the old expression “There is nowhere to hide” often.
The bright spot was back home where our friends Larry and Robin, who were packing for our move, were having a grand time. They were enjoying throwing themselves into a project together that was out of their house after too much hunkering down in the last 18 months of covid. It was so wonderful to have them taking such ownership of a job neither of us wanted to do and to not have this huge undertaking intrude on our flagging fitness. It was even better that we’d provided a situation where they could have their own kind of fun; I love win-wins.
MY CHANGING FAMILY CONSTELLATION
Closing One Relationship
Against this back-drop of restless discontent with the wildfire smoke, covid, gloomy weather, tedious long walks on flat terrain at the coast, and the challenges of our upcoming move, my nephew wrote saying that my only sibling, his father, was probably dying. We were startled that neither my brother nor his small family had previously mentioned his 18 months of failing health.
Even though we were largely estranged, my brother had always quickly turned to us for opinions about his health issues. His current bone cancer symptoms had been difficulty walking, sitting, and being incontinent. The last medical consult a few days before my nephew’s note to me included the comment that he might live for 10 years but the doctor also mentioned hospice.
For reasons unknown to me, I became persona non grata early in my older brother’s long marriage. Bill and I gradually assumed that some personality disorder of his wife’s was behind their position and the only way my brother found to cope with it was by enabling her behavior. The mean-spiritedness towards me over the decades allowed me to slowly and painfully grieve our lost relationship, so hearing of his illness only after he was probably diagnosed as terminal, was a shock but didn’t register as a loss.
I was sad to hear that their son was taking the brunt of his mother’s distortions when he came home to help them initiate hospice. I appreciated that my nephew passed-on my concern for my brother to him and, knowing that my interest in visiting him was pleasing to him. We were left wondering if his full diagnosis would ever be shared with us and if his wife would allow me to visit—we had not been welcome in their nearby home for over 35 years.
I was startled again 6 days later, after the initial alert, when news of my brother’s death was only sent to me after I responded to my nephew’s posting of his family’s beach photos from the previous week. I had been obsessively checking my emails since the last word, which had been more than 36 hours earlier, and after 2 of my emails were ignored. Sadly, it appeared that my brother had passed on at least some of his distain for empathy.
My brother had died heavily medicated and peacefully at home in the morning and only when I probed with my 3rd email in the late afternoon, was I told of his passing, without apology for the delay. I was devastated that my need to know about my brother ranked below posting vacation photos online; I thought I had a more cordial and respectful relationship with my nephew. Yet another hard-learned lesson about the emotional hazards of leaning-in with my family sent me reeling
The shy brown pelicans were difficult to photo.
I don’t believe or not believe in these energetic experiences, I just notice them. I felt at peace and pleased and relieved and decided that I would enjoy the shift, regardless of the reality. My farewell ceremony was welcome closure to an oddly orchestrated life event for me, a major one that was over so quickly.
With further reflection on the timing of his passing and my experiences, I realized that my brother’s death occurred within minutes of me telling myself that I needed to let go of my expectations about my inclusion in his process. I’d been checking my emails several times an hour in hopes of news about him. I recognized that the information flow was far slower and shallower than my need to know and, for my own emotional wellbeing, I had decided that it was time to re-calibrate my expectations and once again detach.
I regret that my brother was in so much pain, perhaps for years, remembering that he had grumbled to me about pain. He had crafted our relationship the way he wanted it and I sadly accepted that that was what he needed. I was pleased that though the relationship wasn’t what I wanted, that I experienced the closure I needed for his passing without his consideration. My proposed death bed visit to him had been for him, not me.
My brother’s long but unrevealed final illness and seemingly sudden death were oddly juxtaposed to us having had a wonderful event spreading my mother’s ashes 2 weeks prior—something my brother refused to participate in for either our father or mother. She had passed 8 years before and I had slowly been looking for just the right place to spread them but nothing had suited me. Amusingly, in May, when pulling off of the trail to pee on our loop around Paulina Lake near Bend, Oregon, I found the perfect spot.
This was the perfect place on the Paulina Lake trail.
It was so odd to be holding both of these passings in my heart at the same time: the lovely and nurturing final event for my mother that was only attended by us and largely being excluded from my brother’s sudden passing after a years-long illness. I briefly considered offering to spread his ashes in the same place as my mother’s but decided that it was best to stay in my assigned position on the sidelines.
A Budding New Relationship
I continued piecing together the early bits of information about my brother’s final illness from my nephew’s emails and eventually understood that my brother had elected to commit suicide by not revealing and not treating his prostate cancer. Because of the bone involvement, we had assumed it was prostate cancer and not the familial burden of stomach cancer.
Four or 5 years earlier, he’d been diagnosed with an enlarged prostate and when his physician left the clinic and his new doctor missed that detail in his chart, my brother didn’t mention it. He dis-invited his wife from accompanying him on all future medical appointments and failed to mention his mounting symptoms of pain, syncope, difficulty walking, incontinence, and eating disorders when going to subsequent appointments for other reasons, even 6 weeks before his death.
At his wife’s insistence because he was reduced to crawling 3 weeks before dying, he was admitted to the hospital for 9 days. MRI studies revealed tumors and cancerous bone infiltrations the entire length of his spine and in his pelvis. His cancer was finally diagnosed as originating from the prostate with a bone biopsy 9 days before he died. His secret was revealed, leaving our small family with the unanswered question of “Why?”. I don’t know but doubt that he ever admitted concealing his secret to his family. My decades-long, painful journey of going from adoring and idolizing my big brother to having little regard for him didn’t shed any light on the mystery either but we kept hoping to make sense of it.
My brother’s appalling behavior of disregarding his wife and son’s needs with his tortuously long suicide was infuriating to me and my growing understanding of his wife’s personality disorder made me worry for their adult son. At the risk of severing our fragile relationship, I began writing my nephew with stories of my brother’s and his wife’s pathological behaviors over the decades, hoping to shed some light for him on the back drop to this peculiar and difficult situation.
Much to my surprise, the tone and content of me nephew’s correspondence dramatically improved and he expressed his gratitude for my insights. My risk was instantly rewarded with an animated exchange of examples of the family craziness. His over-the-top example of their paranoia was encrypting their passwords in incomplete forms so only they could fill-in the missing characters. Not surprisingly, our respective examples didn’t yield any clues to why my brother opted for suicide by cancer, but the stories created the opportunity for us each to better understand the context for his decision.
Along the way, someone identified my brother’s lifelong lack of empathy and careless regard for other people’s feeling as being sociopathic. That sidewalk diagnosis was deeply relieving to me because it validated my decision to armor myself against my brother’s meanness. My mother’s words of “don’t burn bridges” still echo in my head and societal norms about my obligation to keep reaching out to him told the same story. Drawing lines in the sand with my brother had felt like I was pitting myself against the world and then suddenly, I had support for taking care of myself. Dismantling this sense of judgment of me because I distanced myself from my only sibling, my only family besides my nephew, was an enormous relief. It was the last piece I needed to bring closure to my brother’s passing.
An older sidewalk diagnosis from my first sports massage therapist, whom my brother saw for foot pain in the late 1980’s, was “He doesn’t want to be well.” Perhaps that is the missing, underlying explanation for his unusual suicide. It reminded me of my mother’s comment about how differently he and I responded to illness or injury: he cocooned, I sped up.
ON TO THE NEW APARTMENT
The intense, 6 day journey culminating in my brother’s death concluded the day before we drove home to execute our actual move into our new apartment but the high level of emotional content was not over for us. We learned a day later that during our first evening home, there had been a horrific, maiming, domestic assault on our floor. The ambulance and police responding to the episode had been unusually quiet and we’d fortunately dodged the physical side of the drama.
We and other residents were quite shaken but, unlike them, at least we were leaving. Sadly, they were trapped by the economics of housing costs but we were not. The other troublemaker in the apartment on the other side of the elevator finally had been successfully evicted, which was reassuring, but confirmed what we had always known, that we didn’t belong in this crowd.
The morning after the assault, we had an existential trauma upon seeing our new apartment for the first time. The condo owners were very nice and the new carpet installation had been completed at 7 pm the night before but we were initially shocked and disappointed: everything looked smaller than it did in the few online pictures we’d seen.
The photo of the lovely living room with a large window and gas fireplace captured essentially the entire space, not just part of it, like we had assumed. The official floor plan we had used to rent the unit indicated a standard door into the “2nd bedroom” in addition to the peculiar 6’ by 7’ opening in the wall with the living room. The standard bedroom door on an adjacent wall of our unit was instead a hall closet. We were crestfallen.
Bill & Larry assembling our bed late on move-in day.
Dumbstruck, we hurriedly had to start over on how we were going to have this sort-of 2nd bedroom that was supposed to be an out-of-sight storage room, be visually a part of our little living room. After the owners left us with the keys, Bill, who was in a tailspin of disappointment, went off to measure the master bedroom to confirm that at least our designated furniture would fit in there. I declined his request for me to help him, opting instead to stand in the kitchen to eat my lunch (safely away from the new carpet) and let my problem-solving brain absorb the new constraints; to let it find a way to make this disappointing configuration work for us.
It actually didn’t take long for my busy, visually-oriented mind to devise a radical new plan. The big, tiled, kitchen counter looked across the living room, through the massive window, and into the treed courtyard. From the kitchen, the same view was enjoyed through the second room and its large window. Together, they made an enchanting space, which was enhanced by the ample ceiling lighting and 9’ ceilings. The disappointingly small living room space was suddenly larger with a wall of natural light. Of course, our storage needs would still be a challenge, but we would have a splendid living room we thought we had. Bill reported back with his good news about the bedroom furniture fitting in the real bedroom, which had no surprises. I proposed my new plan while he ate his lunch in the kitchen. We then adjourned to sitting on the new carpet in the living room while I elaborated on my plan.
Our 3 teak bookshelves and mini-buffet wouldn’t land in the living room but instead comfortably fill the wall space in the ‘library.’ Perhaps our small, pressed-paper, Ikea table would rest in line with the window in that space. Our remaining smaller teak pieces would catch one’s eye when they entered the living room and it then would be drawn to the larger pieces in the adjacent room, hopefully tying the 2 rooms together in a pleasing way. My family heirloom, stone owl that we hand carried in with our lunches and had placed on the hearth, helped make the vacant space feel like ours while we contemplated the new design. It wasn’t long until Bill pronounced that he liked the repurposing of the rooms, declaring that it was “time to have more living space and less storage space” and so it would be. He was soon making pronouncements like “I feel at home” and “I love this place!”
Bill & Robin assembling our new stand-up desks.
Fortunately, a small storage locker cage in the garage would hold the second set of shelves and the bikes, though not much more. The sewing cart and upright vacuum just fit in the closet that we expected to be a door into the 2nd bedroom. More culling would be necessary when we returned in the spring after our friends Robin and Larry finished unpacking our belongings and fitting them in as best they could, but it was looking like it would work.
EYES ON THE SW
A week after our actual move-in with the help of professional movers doing the heavy lifting and Robin and Larry assisting, we’d be on our way to the SW for the winter. Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon would consume our first 6 weeks, as was our usual itinerary. Our treasured Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim hiking event was in question because of my ongoing buttock muscle issues and the collapse in our conditioning due to covid, the wildfire smoke, and the big move. But we’d enjoy our time in those venues regardless of our hiking destinations and then it would be on to Palm Springs and leading hikes in the desert over the winter. Things were looking up again.