On August 24, I will participate in “Hike-Bike for Hospice,” a fundraiser for Hospice of Santa Cruz County, where I volunteer as a caregiver. I’ll be walking in honor of the people I love who have passed away. Because of the fundraiser I was inspired to write this blog post about them.
Sometimes, when I’m driving on a long country road, I start thinking of all the people I love who have passed away. I see them standing at the side of the road, one by one, like hitchhikers. I pull over to pick them up. Pretty soon my car becomes a school bus to hold them all.
Every stop is an elated reunion – bear hugs, exclamations, grins, tears. After the flush of emotion they climb onto the bus and take a seat. I revel in their presence. It’s been so long since I’ve heard their voices, seen their exquisite eyes, their one-of-a-kind hands.
Oma is first to board the bus, looking sharp in a yellow dress and carrying her violin. She plays a lively song and then tells me this is a fine instrument because it blends tenderness and passion. We talk about her habit of buying dishes just to break them when someone pisses her off – supremely satisfying, she says. Her personality is like a gusty wind: emphatic verve, quick mind, sudden laugh. Yet she softens when she looks at me with the loving pride only a grandmother can know.
Tina, a beautiful wild colt of a young woman, is cradling a puppy as she steps on the bus. She tells me what she loves about this puppy, and dogs in general, and all kinds of other animals. Her eyes sparkle playfully as she reveals that riding a horse makes her feel immortal. She and Oma laugh together loudly, totally without restraint, and I join in, infected by their rambunctious spirit.
Ingmar joins us, skateboard tucked under one arm, looking up sideways under long lopsided bangs. He’s shy at first, but he lights up when we get to talking about photography and his favorite bands (Pearl Jam especially) and what it feels like to kick his board into a mid-air flip.
We’re all happy to see Mimi’s short, plump figure as we pull over for her. “You’re a sight for sore eyes, dah-lin,” she says, enclosing me in the warmest hug that ever was. She has enough M&M cookies and crocheted slippers for everyone. We help her up the steps and soon she regales us with stories of raising four daughters, three of whom were triplets, on a shoestring budget. (Not to be outdone, Oma chimes in with hair-raising accounts of single-mothering three kids – including devilish twin boys – in post-war Germany.)
Uncle Harold, our next passenger, greets us with a cheeky, affable grin. He tells how he loved tending the plum and cherry orchards and driving the triplets around on his tractor. He recalls, with a sense of deep respect, working with Native American “code talkers” in the army. Then he shows us the photo albums in which he pasted magazine photos of flowers around his wife’s smiling face.
Norman’s sizable body is dwarfed by the immensity of his presence, commanding voice, and generous laugh. Soon all our mouths are watering – even the vegetarians – at his description of juicy barbecued ribs. Then he recalls his favorite fly-fishing spot and we all feel the river rushing against our legs.
And then a man whose spirit is big as a legend: Louie, sporting his black leather Harley vest and chaps. His scarred face is rugged, but an affectionate smile comes easy. His camera bag is organized with exacting tidiness. He pontificates on all manner of subjects and somehow captivates us with the history of granite formations in the Colorado Rockies.
Everyone is glad to see our next passenger – Papa. He shakes hands with the gents and then pretends to kiss the ladies’ hands but kisses his own instead, making us giggle. He sits beside Mimi, saying, “Hello, Feetheart,” and giving her a soft peck on the cheek as he closes his strong hand around hers. His prosthetic leg extends into the aisle but nobody minds; we’re too busy listening to him describe his latest invention and then explain, in elaborate detail, how to bowl a strike.
Venus steps onto the bus, smile beaming, eyes round and innocent as a little girl’s. With gut honesty, she tells about the spiritual path that saved her from drugs, alcohol, and inner demons. She refers to her daughter Mary, who is developmentally disabled, as an angel. Her woodpecker laugh bounces around the bus and makes us all smile.
Our next hitchhiker could be mistaken for a king if it weren’t for his flannel plaid shirt and baseball cap. There’s something regal about Whitney. But his boyish grin and mischievous green eyes are disarming – even when he tells tales of his world travels, quotes Shakespeare and Goethe, and casually drops phrases in half a dozen languages. In a rich melodic voice, he treats us to a few lines of an aria from La Traviata.
“Faza!” John exclaims when he sees me. His cackle grows into a laugh that makes everybody crack up, and his presence warms the whole bus. He holds Mimi’s hand on one side and Whitney’s on the other as he tells about his father, chief of their tribe in Tanzania. His story unfolds into an enthralling history lesson.
The last passenger is dear Bobby. He’s holding two pies that he baked: banana cream and pumpkin. He gives out plates, forks, and flowered napkins, and serves each person a generous slice. A blissful hush falls over the group as we take the first bite. In his sweet, self-effacing way, he explains how he improvised a recipe for the crust, which nobody can believe is so melt-on-your-tongue divine.
The bus buzzes with stories and easy laughter and a love so vast I feel like I’m swimming in it. I’m bowled over by the knockout potency of my love for each person who has died. I wonder: What would my life be like if I let myself feel this boundless, cherishing love for the ones who are still alive?
What would my life be like if I loved each living person as if they would be gone tomorrow?
If you would like to donate to my walk for Hospice, please go to: