VIOLA - My neighbor, Pat, died unexpectedly three years ago. Her death left a hole in my life, a hole made even bigger by the recent passing of my mom.
Years ago, when I was only beginning to know her and her family, she made an unannounced visit to my rented one-room cabin on Pa’s Road. We sat in hard, straight-backed chairs at a scarred wooden table, with Riley, my yellow Lab, at her feet. A candle stood in the middle of the table but we didn’t need to light it, as the floor-to-ceiling window let the day’s sunshine warm the wood where our hands rested.
I probably boiled water for tea. If so, there were no doubt dark spots on the table where the tea sloshed out of our cups each time one of us moved. One of the table’s legs was off-kilter, or maybe the ancient wood floor had a dip.
Pat listened to me as I spoke all the words I normally kept dammed up inside. I talked about Riley and our long weekend escapes to the wild woods, thickets, and ponds. I talked of my mom, my daughter, and my struggles with too much work and not enough life.
Gradually the room grew cooler, Pat became harder to see, and I worried about the oncoming darkness. I knew she would need to get home to make dinner for Roger, her husband. There was no way to call him from the cabin. Soon I’d need to light the candle, feed myself, feed Riley, and put out a bowl of kibble for Chance, my full-grown wandering tabby cat.
Still, Pat listened. And she talked. I learned more about her children and grandchildren and her life before these hills and valleys had called to her and Roger. But mostly, I remember being heard. And questioned. When she left, I put on my headlamp and walked her to her car.
When you live alone in absolute quiet, without a soul to share with, and finally have someone to talk to, you can talk a mile without breathing. That’s how it was with Pat and me that day and many days forward.
She loved hearing me talk about the trails I took, about both tribulation and triumph. Pat heard and understood it all.
When Pat died I lost my first and only cheerleader, the one person who said, “You can,” no matter how iffy my idea. And I had a lot of iffy ideas: Quit my job to start my own business. Hike across Isle Royale. Try to write my stories. Backpack the Superior Hiking Trail. Offer trips for women and create a triathlon where every woman can succeed without competition.
After listening, Pat put her understanding into action. She drove over to my off-grid home with a box full of paper clips, pens and pencils, tape, scissors, and a smattering of other office supplies I’d never use, for my new fitness business. I discovered in my mailbox a book called Isle Royale National Park, making the trip planning easier.Pat painstakingly read, reread, and edited every essay I wrote until the week before she died.
While I made my big trip on the Superior Hiking Trail, Pat tucked cards of encouragement (and often a twenty-dollar bill) into the resupply packages that she sent to the nearest trailheads. The pages I carried describing the trail came from the guide book she’d given me when I first told her of my plans.
When the day came for the first TRYathlon, at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, it was Pat who sat at a card table in the parking lot off of Highway P, greeting each participant as she checked them in. The t-shirts she handed out sported the logo she’d drawn.
Today, as the sun pours into my home three miles down the road from where Pat used to live, I miss her. There is so much I wish I could tell her. But instead, I’ll remember her lesson of listening and giving unconditional support.
Who’s your cheerleader? Whose cheerleader are you?Somebody, maybe even your neighbor, is waiting.