“Hit it!” he yelled and the boat roared into action, skipping and weaving down the dark blue lake. The man struggled to pull himself upright but after a few moments, he flopped back into the water, head first. The rumble of the boat’s engine shifted down as it circled around the skier for another try.
At the next dock down, the black and brown retriever – a “dog pound special” as his owner called him – lapped at the waves set in motion by the boat. His master pointed furiously at the ball bobbing in the water a few feet out.
“Buster! Buster!” he cried. “You’re gonna lose your ball…”
It was early that morning, only 8:00 a.m. or so but warm, the temperature already inching towards 70. The sun was but two clicks up from the horizon but the lake already glimmered and reeled, the water cross-hatched with beams of light and dark. A bird darted near the dog’s ball, dive-bombing close to check for fish. Disappointed, it turned on its wing away, swirling through the early morning sky.
It was perfect, she thought, but then it always has been.
The woman was at the family cabin, the one her grandfather had built so long ago. He had chopped down each tree and then sanded and cut and hammered until the log cabin was pushed up from the earth as though it had always been part of the land. A large stone fireplace stood in the center of the place and each time the woman saw it anew, she was struck with wonder. It astounded her that her own grandfather, an assembly-line worker at the Chevy plant, had built the beautiful fireplace, stone-by-stone, with his own hands. He wasn’t a mason, he wasn’t a brick-layer, but he had figured out how to do it, anyway. Back then it seemed that everyone knew how to do most everything. There wasn’t a Home Depot you could call.
The cabin was simple, beautiful, and peaceful. It was set deep in the pine trees that scooped around Arbor Lake. Just beyond the cabin were twelve wooden steps that took you down to the weathered dock and the clear, cool water.
She had come to this cabin for 35 years, first as an infant with her mother and siblings, then through the years with one brother or the other, a sister-in-law, a niece, a new dog. Her father had died before she was born and she only knew him as a staunch man wearing a suit coat in a silver picture frame on the shelf at home. She had asked her mother about him many times over the years but since he had never been in her life, she didn’t really miss him. To her, it had always been her mother, her two brothers and her.
As an adult she continued to accompany her mother to the cabin at least twice a year. The boys had drifted off as boys do but she was still close to her mother – very close – and their relationship had deepened as they both grew older. She looked forward to traveling with her the 150 miles up the rural highway to the cabin in the woods. The two of them would spend their time outside on the dock reading Barbara Kingsolver and John Grisham. Later in the afternoon they might flit around the lake in the old wooden canoe that her mother had picked up at an estate sale. At night they would gather fallen branches and dried wood and make a fire in the pit on their small beach and stare into the flames, mesmerized.
Each year as life became more complicated as it so often does, the cabin remained a simple haven for the woman. An oasis. She began to think of it as her very own fountain of youth. Well, maybe not youth but definitely strength. It was where she came with her mother to gather and center herself after heartbreak from a broken romance, the loss of a job, the death of her beloved dog, even the suicide of her best friend.
The cabin always seemed to heal her.
She wondered if it could possibly work this time.
The woman sat on the dock alone this year, her feet draped in the water, kicking back and forth, back and forth. Across the lake a couple was pushing off from a creaky dock, settling into an old paddle boat. She could see their legs begin to pump furiously. The water cast off behind them curled into a vigorous stream.
“Slow down,” the wife laughed but the husband continued pistoning his legs in their own rhythm, focused solely on the duty at hand. Before the day was out his nose would be sunburned and his eyes sleepy but he will be glad that he accompanied his wife on the lake instead of sitting on the beach reading the latest Sports Illustrated.
The woman could feel the fresh water move over her toes, licking the soles of her feet. The sun was bright and it warmed her shoulders and slowly some part of the tension and anxiety she had felt over the past three weeks eased. She could feel herself fall into a trance-like state. Sometimes she thought she could stare at the lake for eternity, its ripples and waves breaking the still and silent glass surface. It was as though her mind no longer needed to think, to feel, to hurt. The lake did that for her.
After a while the couple in the paddle boat made their way down the lake and she could no longer hear their laughter. The power boat was silent, its frustrated skier giving up for the day. Buster-the-dog lay on the sand at the dock down one sunning himself, the wet ball at his feet. It was quiet for the moment, but soon, she knew, children would be out splashing in the water and the boats would speed by and in the midst of Arbor Lake, it would be just another day.
Life shouldered on, fairly or unfairly, she knew. The lake remained. The pine trees grew taller. The cabin sat where it had sat for the past 80 years. But her mother was gone, now, slowly fading away in her sleep three weeks ago.
“A good death,” they had called it.
The woman squeezed her eyes shut and the tears began softly drifting down her cheeks.
Her mother was dead and she didn’t know what to do. Who do you become, she wondered, when the ones who give you life are no longer alive, themselves? Are you now in charge of the world?
She looked back out onto the lake, wishing her mother was sitting next to her regaling her with some funny story from her seniors’ book club. Her mother had always made her laugh; she had always made her feel safe; she had always made her feel that all was right with the world.
The woman could feel her mother close now that she was at the cabin; the place where they had spent so much time together. But even so, the longer she sat on the dock thinking about her mother, the clearer it became that it really hadn’t been the cabin at all that had been her safe haven; it had been her mother. Of course it had.
The breeze blew through the tall pines behind her ruffling her hair and tossing it in her face. The wind caught the water and the wave ran over and out from her toes. She watched as it made its stalwart journey across the lake to the docks on the other side.
She loved the cabin in the woods, the dock by the lake, the silly canoe; probably even more so, now. It didn’t feel empty or lonely. The entire place was filled with her mother and for the first time in weeks the woman smiled.
She could hear her mother’s voice, warm, comforting, and very near.
“It’s going to be alright, honey,” she said. “You’re going to be alright.”