For instance, the American Bittersweet, Celustus scandens, is a native semi-shrubby vine that blooms May through June, yet most people probably past by this plant without even noticing its tiny 1/4” greenish white or greenish yellow blossoms. They certainly don’t stand out amongst the vibrant purples and pinks of tulips and hyacinths. Nor are the petals light enough to provide a glowing contrast against the foliage like the yellows and whites of daffodils and dogwoods. The bittersweet is an inconspicuous participant in the spring parade of color.
That is often how life goes. Some events are vivid and spectacular emblazing themselves on our memories while others are quickly forgotten or happen without much notice or recognition. Sometimes we chose to focus on the good times and try to forget the bad times. Sometimes, it is just time itself that erases the sufferings of the past. Oh sure, there’s often a scar left behind to remind us that the event really did take place, but the intensity of those events fades with time and falls from our memories like the petals of those springtime flowers.
This is often how the hike and adventure on the Appalachian Trail is portrayed to the family and friends of hikers; they see the beauty, the pageantry, the parade of endless pictures of trail life showing the grand vistas and smiling faces all displaying the wonder, excitement, freedom and good times of life out on the trail. Oh, there might be an occasional snapshot of the blisters, lost toenails, or cuts and scrapes, but even these are shown with a bit of pride in receiving this badge of honor, this symbol of your rite of passage as a thru hiker. What goes unnoticed and lies inconspicuously in the background are the forgotten moments of loneliness that occur because of the separation from loved ones.
Next week I depart to resume hiking in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia (that’s West, by God, Virginia for you locals) after spending the last six weeks recuperating from my health issues. While I am happy to be getting back out on the trail and continuing on my quest, I’m also saddened about once again leaving my husband. Somehow, it’s much harder this time and I can only think of the bittersweet moment as I board the train while Juliet’s line runs through my mind – “parting is such sweet sorrow”.
Separation is certainly nothing new to my marriage. As I sit here writing, I am, once again, waiting for my husband’s return from another week long business trip. At least 18 of the last 25 years, I have been in the position of waiting at home for his return from various military or government missions and business trips. Many of those years, he would be traveling in excess of 180 days per year. So, the time apart is nothing new for us, EXCEPT, this is one of those rare times when I’m the one that’s gone and he’s the one at home waiting.
Throughout those years, I have known many women who have asked the question, “How do you do it?” or made the statement, “I couldn’t do that” and I must agree that it takes a certain kind of individual, namely, one who is very independent and emotionally strong to be able to routinely manage these types of marital disconnections. On the other hand, one acquaintance, actually said to me that the reason my marriage was so happy, was because we were apart so often. She said that it was like only being married half the time, so we were in a constant state of bliss because we were always experiencing the new ‘I’ve just fallen in love’ experience. While I don’t agree with her reasoning, I will admit that my husband and I make an effort to keep our relationship fresh and that we do look forward to our times of reunion much like a young couple who are still in the emotional highs of their new found love.
And it isn’t just the women who have an opinion about being apart. Recently, my husband has found a similar sentiment among his male coworkers and friends who have said that they would never allow their wives to go on such a journey alone and have implied that our relationship may be in jeopardy or fall prey to infidelity with such a long separation, but they obviously don’t understand the bond that we share or the commitment we have to one another. Distance does not destroy us, because we refuse to let it. Do we miss each other when we’re apart? Of course we do. Does it get hard? Yes, it does. We’ve both shed our share of tears over the years, but we carry on and continue to hold each other dear in our hearts.
The loneliness is hardest for me at the end of the day, because that’s the time of day when he comes home and we talk about our day and share our experiences. It is the time of day when we laugh the most together. So, when I am on the trail, this is the time of day when the loneliness hits. Besides wishing that he were there to share every wide mountain vista or crystal stream trickling through the rocks or flitting bird that finally landed long enough to get a quick picture, when I finish the day and sit down to dinner, I miss having him there to talk with, to laugh with, as we re-cap and share the events of the day. When night has arrived and it’s time to rest, I miss throwing my arm around him as we sleep. Without a doubt, the end of the day is my lonely time.
But I’m not alone in my loneliness. There are the other hikers, many who have left behind spouses or partners, children and grandchildren that they adore and even those who have an especially close relationship with a pet or pets that go through this suffering of the heart. We are not unlike the thousands of other truck drivers, rail workers, airline pilots and crews, military personnel and business travelers worldwide who must endure extended absences from those they love, with one glaring difference; we are not doing this as a job requirement, we do it by choice.
So why go back? Why put our relationship through another separation when we’ve already endured so much time apart? Because it’s my turn to blossom. See, although the job required my husband to be gone and he spent many hours missing the family, he also got to go places and see and do things that the rest of the family probably never will. He enjoyed his time flying and participating in military exercises around the world. He has been to five of the seven continents, (although Africa was just a brief plane stop) has toured many cities and seen sights that he could only share with us through photos and souvenirs. He may have been working and putting in long hours most of the time, but when he had time off, it was filled with a lot of adventure.
So much so, that at times, we almost despised him for it, because it seemed like you couldn’t mention a place you’d like to visit without him saying, “Oh, I’ve been there and you really should see such and such or go to this or that.” It ended up becoming a standing joke in the family – he became known as Tour Guide Dad who would always say “Been there, done that”. Our youngest daughter even prayed to be sent to a location her father hadn’t been while waiting her assignment for a mission trip. God heard her and sent her to Thailand.
This is another reason I was able to endure his time away from us, because I knew he was doing something he loved to do. When you love someone you want the best for them. You want to encourage them and support them in their dreams and help them achieve their goals.
While my husband and I have many things in common and share many goals, we have always found a way to embrace and celebrate our differences as well, including pursuing activities or dreams in which the other has little or no interest. So, as I celebrate and attempt being a thru-hiker, my husband is quite content celebrating that he’s through hiking -- as in, done, finished, never again! His over hill, over dale, we will hit the dusty trail days in the army kind of turned him off to any further hiking or tenting activities. Now, he will take his turn providing moral support and encouraging the achievement of my dreams.
As spring marches forward, the American bittersweet is hidden in the background, but in the fall when the branches are bare the yellow-orange shell of its fruit splits open to reveal a heart red berry. This is the season when the bittersweet vine displays its brilliance and the sweetness of the vine comes to fruition. These bare vines with their colorful berries are used in a number of decorations throughout the fall and winter months. The berries also provide food for many birds and fox squirrels. This is also the season when the bitter sweetness I bear now will end and I will return home to the arms of my lover, my friend, my supporter and companion. Then together, we will wait for the next blooming season and all the beauty and excitement it will bring.
“There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:”
-- Ecclesiastes 3:1