When you run the Provo River Trail in the fall, there are a few things you should expect: battling with bikers, walkers, long boarders, rollerbladers and other runners for your little place of trail; a staccato echo through the canyon from the gun club on Squaw Peak Road; a breeze that feels impossibly chilly when you get out of your car but refreshingly chill after five minutes or so of running; leaves just beginning to turn on a few trees and the rest that exhausted, early-fall green; golden grasses on fire with sunlight.
What no one expects, and what I have never witnessed before today, is a line of praying mantises. Six or seven of them, standing three or four inches away from each other, facing the sun on the sunny peak of a gentle uphill. Unexpected, yet there they were, leached of jade, the color of dry straw, stiff and slow-moving. They reminded me of nothing more than a row of old men, soaking the warmth of the sunshine into their morning-cold joints. I swear they sighed and shifted in the warm light. Their mandibles and claws moved slowly when I carefully leaped over them, leaving them to their stiff insect yoga.
As I ran, I thought, for awhile, of old men. I thought of my grandpa Fuzz, who had a stroke on a Sunday morning in December when I was twelve. He was living with us, in the room right next to mine, and over the few weeks he'd been there, I'd grown accustomed to the rhythm of his snoring. So the strange syncopation of his breath woke me early that day, and I lay, listening, wondering what the pattern meant, until I fell asleep again. I still wonder: what if I had gotten up and checked on him? Would he have lived longer? Was it my fault he died when he did? I still don't know. When I woke the second time that morning, it was to the sound of the ambulance wailing down our street.
I thought of my dad, caught in his dark wordlessness. He doesn't walk very well anymore—part of the disease—and goes, silently, by wheelchair. When I sit across from him, he looks me in the eye for a moment and I am again, consistently, surprised by the tininess of his pupils, engulfed by the brown iris. It is almost as if the problem isn't in his brain, but in his eyes; a few drops should open his pupils and then he would come back to us. Instead, he looks down and away. He wrings his hands. He shifts in his chair and eventually looks back up, and I am left to wonder many things: does the eye contact mean anything? What sort of terror is he locked in? Why is this happening—what is this trial meant to teach him? or me?
I thought of my father-in-law, too. I know the cliche is that no one gets along with their in-laws, but really: aside from a handful of topics we disagree on (and so don't bring up around each other), I love him. He has been a good surrogate father to me in the wake of Dad's Alzheimer's. He has tried to build a relationship with my kids. At the very moment I was running, he was in a hospital having surgery to remove a cancerous mass from his bowel. It was discovered on Thursday; we found out about it as we were leaving the hospital after Kaleb's cardio appointment.
And I thought about a question a friend had asked me as we talked about death and suffering. "Which is worse," she wondered, "the slow, lingering death or the quick, unexpected one?" The unexpected one cuts short pain and suffering; the slow, lingering one allows for goodbyes to be said. I think, if I could choose my way to go, I would pick the slow and lingering—so long as Alzheimer's or dementia isn't included in the list of suffering. I would want to be able to say goodbye, both to the people I love and to the things and experiences, too. I would want to bask in the sun like those seven praying mantises, to appreciate the simple things one last time. Feel warm light on my closed eyelids, a beloved hand in mine; hear a familiar voice talk me away from the world. Know I was going before I went.
Thoughts of old men, of cancer masses, plaques and tangles, regrets and mistakes: perhaps my running thoughts seem dark. But I was trying to puzzle it out, to put a name or a label to the way that gratitude swelled in me as i considered death and all the hardships of the world. It came back to the wizened faces of the praying mantises, who would certainly die soon enough. They weren't huddled, weaping, under leaves. They weren't hiding. Instead, they were seeking out sunlight and companionship. This is, I think, what we all should do, dying or not. It is what I should do: reach out. Step away from the protected comfort of loneliness. Come out into the world and let the sun warm my face.
When I came back down the trail, I came across the mantises again. A wasp hovered, buzzing, over their bodies, which had been crushed by a running shoe. Perhaps that should have sent me into a tailspin toward despair: my symbols for courage, trampled by a careless foot. Instead, though, I felt grateful that they had had their moment of sunlight and warmth, and then a quick death: the best of both options. Saying goodbye and then a swift blackness, with only that reminder left to me. Step out. Feel the sun. Seek out a friend. Never, until life makes you, stop living.