Walking With Thoreau

Written By: Christopher Benedict

Walking With Thoreau by Christopher Benedict She wore a grey cardigan over her t-shirt and khaki shorts. This despite the fact that Hampton Bays was often a boiling cauldron of thick, stagnant air enveloping you in an unwanted and loveless embrace during the often suffocating brutality of Long Island summers. The reason for this was two-fold. One of the unfortunate side effects of Mom’s renal failure, which itself resulted from a long-undiagnosed heart aneurysm, was the depletion of iron from her circulatory system. Because it interacts with oxygen to transport nitrogen and essential proteins throughout the bloodstream, creating a sort of cellular blast furnace, the anemia resulting from her compromised body chemistry robbed her of this crucial biological heating system. She was always cold and given to reminiscing wistfully about the brief time we lived in Tucson, hopeful that maybe one day she would make her way back to savor its sustained elevated thermal readings. Mostly, though, Mom sought to conceal the eight-inch jagged, crisscrossed scar which rose several centimeters above her forearm’s cutaneous surface. Beneath this lay the surgically implanted catheter that would feed her poisonous blood through the tubes connecting the shunt to the detoxifying dialysis machine and back again on afternoon visits to Riverhead’s Central Suffolk Hospital every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The sweaters and long-sleeve shirts were her one concession to vanity, and only then because the angry-looking blemish provoked lingering, puzzled stares and even more unwanted questions, innocent and harmless though they may have been. Mom was an intensely private person who preferred to suffer in silence, yet always free of maudlin self-pity. To me, the scar was the polar opposite of an unsightly disfigurement. I thought it was beautiful and said everything there was to know about Mom’s strength, honor and resilience, a badge of courage only true heroes earn. She was never much of a reader, but something appealed to her immensely about Henry David Thoreau. Probably both his obstinate civil disobedience and fondness for seeking and finding the value in the overlooked, the noble among the unwanted, the dignity of the ordinary. The battered, dog-eared paperback copy of Walden she bought at one of our trips to the long-gone Encore Books in Bridgehampton, and a green spiral notebook she used to copy down her favorite passages, were rarely left behind upon departing the house on Argonne Road for long walks into town, whether there was a specific destination in mind or not. As degrading as it must have been to essentially be made to beg for cash handouts and government cheese to heat the house and feed us kids, Thoreau’s words inspired and empowered her throughout excruciating meetings with indifferent Social Services representatives, during which Mom was forced to plead her case, as if for the first time every time, for the continuation of benefits for financial assistance, food stamps, and fuel oil. Far more rewarding were the aimless strolls she would take downtown Hampton Bays or Southampton, carrying her Thoreau books and listening to the Eagles, Neil Young, or Lou Reed’s New York album (which I got her into) on her Walkman and, blissfully forgetful of her surroundings, singing along out loud to Take It Easy, Harvest Moon, or maybe Last Great American Whale. She could simply revel in the hard-won luxury to sit on a park bench and read. And, for a short while, unhurried and unworried, forget. Her library card was a personal passport from Hampton Bays to Concord, Massachusetts and Thoreau’s Walden, the acres of rambling woods which “walled in” the mythically bottomless pond, courtesy of a volume of Henry’s writings illuminated by dozens of stunning photographs. The majority of stamps on the card in back of the book can be accounted for by the numerous times she borrowed it. I later offered to find and buy her one, but she declined, knowing I could ill afford it. I am no book thief, but would have stolen that one for her except for the indisputable fact that she wouldn’t have wanted it that way. I did get to make the journey she had previously taken only in the pages of books a reality for her one September morning, when we set out together in the pre-dawn hour, originating from Argonne Road to Ponquogue Avenue to Montauk and Sunrise Highways to the LIE to 95 North and eventually to Route 2 in Concord. Mom and I hiked as far around the pond as she was physically able, lingered reverently at the site where Henry had built his cabin, evaded the taxman, and tended to his bean fields, visited the Concord Library to view Henry’s handwritten manuscripts on display, got a late lunch in town, and paid our respects at Author’s Ridge in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery where Thoreau ’s body lies (restlessly, I like to think) alongside Ralph Waldo Emerson and Louis May Alcott. Mom snapped a picture of me standing near the edge of Walden Pond which I still have. Not normally one to smile for photos anyway, in it I appear particularly glum, as though preoccupied by the grim prospect of traffic conditions getting out of New England and heading home to Long Island. The fact that I don’t look in the least bit happy to be there, especially when the exact opposite was true, makes me hate that picture. But, not unlike my feelings regarding her dreaded scar, Mom loved it. She saw past the scowl to treasure that photographic souvenir of our special and memorable day together. Mother and son strengthening the integrity of an unbreakable bond 166 miles from home, reaching from Hampton Bays to Concord, Massachusetts, that was what she opted to see when she looked at it. Having already nearly doubled the seven-year life expectancy of dialysis patients, Mom was diagnosed just after Valentine’s Day 1998 with cancer of the lungs, liver, and bones. I had been working half days so that I could return to relieve my Grandmother Jenny, Uncle Tom, brothers Kevin and Marc and their better halves, and the hospice nurses who were all helping to take care of Mom. Something told me that Wednesday morning to stay home, where Mom, having refused hospitalization, chose to live out her remaining months, to die on her terms, on her time. That time came due only minutes after I whispered in the ear of the bravest woman I have ever known that it was okay for her to stop fighting, and Clare Szczygiel passed away at 10:30 am on May 6. One hundred thirty-six years to the day that Henry David Thoreau himself forever marched off into the great beyond, to the music of his own drummer and contentedly out of pace with his companions. The song that Mom stepped away to that day may well have been any number of favorites by her beloved Eagles. With the bombastic thunderstorms which tore apart the night with great fury, I imagined the musical accompaniment to Mom’s kicking and screaming transition from the physical to the ethereal being more appropriately defiant. Maybe Lou Reed raging about how There Is No Time while Mom walked out of step and sang out of tune. Mom had not only entrusted me with the role as her health care proxy, but confided to me her desire to be cremated so as not to be “thrown in a hole in the ground.” When the matter of what to do with her remains came up for discussion, the idea of taking them to Tucson was briefly considered but discarded as ultimately impractical. For me, the choice was clear. So, later that Summer, I smuggled Mom’s ashes into Walden Woods in my backpack and Uncle Tom, Kevin and his wife Beea, Marc and I and our girlfriends Vlasta and Jill scattered them atop a rolling hill off the beaten path overlooking the pond. We each wrote a message on the underside of a small boulder we used to mark the spot and commemorate the occasion. She had nothing in the way of financial assets to bequeath us kids as an inheritance, so we each helped ourselves to some personal remembrance from her few possessions. For sixteen years now I have been the dutiful custodian of Mom’s copy of Walden, along with her little green notebook full of handwritten Thoreau quotations, which have helped me enhance my understanding of what this humble woman from Hampton Bays found so alluring about this proud and independent man from Concord. After all, she no longer has use for words and pictures. Not when she now spends her summers in the natural beauty of birdsong and sunshine reflecting off of the pond, hawks circling above and among the canopy of pine trees. Now, unbothered by time or tumors or heartless administrators or the ever-rolling wheels of progress, Henry and Clare get to go walking together at her leisure, whenever Mom likes.