Bare Mountain

My friend Karen and I were sitting atop Bare Mountain near Amherst, Massachusetts, looking down over the Pioneer Valley. It was mid-October, and the densely wooded foothills of the Holyoke Range were alive with color: mostly red.

Every autumn, busloads of tourists travel to the western half of the state to see the foliage. It’s an annual pilgrimage for some, complete with rustic barns, country stores, and farm stands bearing acres of pumpkins. They drive along the back roads, admiring the scenery, perhaps considering for a moment the inherent beauty of Nature’s most basic ritual: the changing of the seasons.

Each fall, I too make the pilgrimage west. But the foliage is not my main interest: I go to visit friends.

I finished college almost five years ago, and some of the friends I made there continue to have a place in my life. Some I see almost monthly, while with others the visits are few and far between.

These are people with whom I went to school: my peers. But there are also a few professors and college staff with whom I’ve grown close. We don’t see each other often, but my annual visit with each of them grows increasingly important as the years roll by. It’s a sort of homecoming for me — a chance to remember who I was five years ago and to see who I’ve become, a chance to remember the impact they have made on my life. With them I feel nurtured and grateful.

This year was different. A few months ago, Karen, who now works at our Alma Mater, forwarded an all-staff e-mail to me, whose text read, in part “In reference to (name deleted)’s recent surgery: Good news! The tumor was benign. She’s in recovery.” Karen had tacked on a brief note at the end: “I had no idea.” Neither had I.

The woman referenced in the email runs our college’s post office, where Karen and I both held work-study jobs for several years. The work itself was nothing special, but we stayed because being with our boss, day after day, was such a pleasure. She wasn’t the easiest person to work for — cranky at times, and always demanding — but it was obvious that she cared — both about the school and about us. And that made it all — the early mornings, the mountains of heavy packages — worth it. For me, the post office was a safe and friendly haven in the complicated world of college.

Our boss became a sort of surrogate grandmother to me. She was unfailingly supportive, and although I rarely shared my troubles with her, I knew that if I ever needed the perspective of an elder — or just a hug — she would be there for me. Just by the way she greeted me, with a nickname no one else dared to use, showed me that she cared.

Karen and I had a plan for the afternoon. We’d climb Bare Mountain, enjoy a picnic near the summit, rest a while, and then hike back down, stopping at the school to see our former boss before heading into Northampton to meet some other friends for dinner. We were both a bit apprehensive about seeing her — neither or us had learned anything more about her surgery or recovery — only that she’d just recently returned to work. I didn’t want to pry into her personal matters, but neither did I want to appear aloof to her pain.

From the summit, I could see the entire college campus — bright red trees against fading fields. From above, it looked like a forest fire. It reminded me of the fires I saw in the redwood groves of Yosemite: the controlled burns that would remove the deadwood and nourish the soil.

It wasn’t long before we were in the school post office, enjoying yet another reunion, catching up on each other’s lives. News of her surgery came in snatches at first, and then more profusely, as her story slowly unwound. Karen and I listened in wonder as she told of the vacation she insisted on taking before going “under the knife,” afraid it might be her last.

But neither of us were prepared for what she said next. A mild but persistent backache was the only indication that something was wrong, but when she returned from a week on the beach and admitted herself to the hospital, the surgery revealed a tumor the size of a football. It was benign, thank goodness, and the doctor was able to remove it cleanly.

I managed to hold my tears — of shock, of amazement — until we’d departed the post office an hour later . . . but just barely.

Although I can’t completely erase the image of a football from my mind, what strikes me most about all of this is our former boss’s state of mind. As one might expect, this event has changed her life. Before, she often had an air of complacency about her — she seemed happy enough, but stuck. Now she emits a sort of light. She has begun to look at things differently now, and you can tell she’s never turning back.

“I’ve spent too much of my life just getting by . . . taking care of the little things, like laundry,” she said. “There’s more to life than that.”

I keep coming back to the image of the forest fire — the controlled burn. I would never wish cancer — threatened or actual — on anyone. But I’m interested in the effect it and other life-threatening situations have on people’s lives. I’ve seen it time and again — with illness, with trauma. You walk through a fire so furious that no one else could even begin to comprehend your experience. But you when you emerge, you are renewed, and in some ways reborn.

At the end of our visit, our former boss had these words to say to Karen and I. “You’re young and you’re just getting started in life. Live the way you want to. Don’t waste any time.”

I will never look at fall foliage the same way again.

Kezia Bacon serves on the Board of Directors of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association.