Bench 22

I go see my grandfather every couple of weeks. Sometimes I talk to him. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes, if there are too many people around, I slow my pace but won’t stop. I’ll give him a glance, a knowing nod, and keep moving. Other times, when I know we’re alone, I’ll stop, sit down, and stare straight ahead trying to wash my brain of expectation that he’ll talk back to me. He’s been dead since 2010.
Growing up, on warm, sunny Sundays, our family—my mom, my dad, my sister and me—would skip church and go traipsing off into the woods. Even as a very young child, I had an understanding that church could be anywhere, God could be anything, and that it all felt more real to me when I was walking in the woods. Ancient pagan Celts believed there were places where the space between Heaven and Earth came closer together, where the barrier separating Man and God lessened. They called these spaces thin places. I found my first thin place on those Sundays.
In 1987 my grandfather, a woodworking hobbyist, built a bench. Bench 22. His name and the year he built it are carved into its side. For almost 30 years, this bench has rested along one of Nashville’s most beloved hiking trails overlooking Radnor Lake. This is where I go to see him. Since his burial, I have never been back to his gravesite. I don’t think he’s there. Cemeteries feel like they are more for the living than the dead anyway.
We weren’t close, my grandfather and me. I have 39 first cousins on my mom’s side of the family alone; she has eleven brothers and sisters. Remembering all of our names seemed a fête in and of itself. That I would also have a close, personal relationship with him was never an expectation of mine. Besides, I feel like I know him better today in death than I ever did when he was alive.
John, my grandfather, as I understand it, could be a hard man to love. As much as he believed in showing up, working hard, and appreciating the value of a dollar, he also believed a belt was an effective means of communication, that people heard you better when you yelled, and that being financially present was the same as being emotionally present. These memories of him, however, do not belong to me.
I remember him as quick-witted and sarcastic, caustic at times. He drank Milwaukee’s Best even though he could afford much better. I never saw him drunk. His father was an alcoholic and abandoned him and his mother when he was a child, dying some years later in a car accident in California. My great-grandmother divorced him in a time when that meant becoming a pariah in the community. To be the only child of a divorced woman and an absent, alcoholic father in the 1930s must change your DNA I think, must reconfigure your genes to operate on rage and control. I heard my grandfather yell at my grandmother once. It didn’t scare me so much as it made me feel embarrassed for her. I was maybe eight or nine, standing in the kitchen down the hall from them. I pretended I hadn’t heard it, and she pretended it hadn’t happened. Both of us were proficient in our skill sets.
My grandfather kept a metal cage in the backyard where he caught chipmunks, releasing them back into the wild at Radnor. He had hair on his knuckles but hardly any on his head. After retiring from the railroad, he worked at an amusement park then Home Depot. He didn’t need to, he just wanted to. He watched golf on TV and wore old man sweaters. Once, when I was very young, still unable to really wipe myself, he helped me. That small, gentle act feels truer to me than anything else I’ve ever heard about him. A grandfather helping his granddaughter. The day he died was overcast. After taking out the recycling, he came back inside, and then he was gone. Maybe the reward for a hard life is a swift death.
When I woke up yesterday morning, I wanted to go to Radnor Lake. I needed to be there. It is my thin place, the place where I first understood the seen and the unseen could coexist, my bridge between two worlds. It is my church and Bench 22 my altar. Each morning, I think about those things for which I am most grateful, and I think about how I can, in this day only, best express my gratitude for them. On this particular day, with so much lately to be grateful for, it would not be enough just to think of these things or even write them down. I needed to walk. I needed to meet my gratitude in the thinnest place I know. I needed to get as close to it as possible.
As I walked, I looked for my turtle friends and turkeys, all of which were hiding. My world was mostly quiet with snow. I watched a blue heron, with its stoic beauty, stand motionless at the edge of the lake. Blue herons wait, and wait, and wait, knowing the exact moment to strike to gobble up their prey. Then they fold their long, thin legs into their bodies and simply fly away, never lingering where they no longer need to be.
I rounded the bend to Bench 22. I walked off the trail and up the hill, adding my tracks to the deer hooves and bird feet. And I wept. Not because I was sad; I wasn’t. Not because I miss my grandfather; I don’t. But because sometimes a place feels so thin that it runs right through you, taking your breath with it. Because sometimes a grateful heart can feel as wet and heavy as a sad one, so it wrings itself dry, oozing hot tears onto your cold face, offering you a chance to acknowledge it in a way a prayer or a list cannot do. We were alone, my grandfather and me, the snow deterring hikers. As I reviewed a life that some days doesn’t feel like mine at all, each silent murmur of gratitude relieved a little more weight, pressed more tears out of my body.
When I returned to the trail and started walking again, I stopped once to look back. It was the same as it always was, a bench in the woods past the fork and the bend. When I turned back around, I heard a woodpecker to my right. I spotted its red head and black body defying gravity as it stood parallel to the tree, hammering its head into the bark. This is how I hear my grandfather who never says hello, or goodbye, or here’s what you should do. But I hear the woodpecker—my favorite bird because we are so similar, beating our heads into something until it submits—and I know that in this thin place, at Radnor Lake at Bench 22, he says I see you, I know you’re here. I watched the woodpecker until I could no longer find its bright red head. Then it was time to go, each step taking me away from the thin and back into the thick—the thick of it—where the rest of life happens; where Heaven and Earth pull away from each other; where gratitude, pain, or confusion so great build until it's time once again to release it into thin air.