By Christopher Cudworth
There was a moment in the mid-season finale of the Starz series The Outlander in which the main character Claire Randall Beecham Frazier (you’ll have to watch to understand) approaches a set of stones on the hill of Craigh na Dun in Scotland… where she can travel back through time. As she nears the Stonehenge-like gathering of stones, she calls out to her husband who is at the same spot in “the future” to hear her voice coming to him through the stones. Tantalizingly, his voice can also be heard by her in return. They near the same point in the universe but in fact are 300 years apart…
I won’t spoil the plot for anyone interested in watching the intriguingly crafted series. It’s not that it makes time travel seem possible, or even desirable. It’s that it makes time a commodity about which we should all be more aware.
My own piece of Scotland
I’m Scottish, and there is a spot in my life much like the hill of Craigh na Dun. It sits at the intersection of two roads in central Kane County. The roads themselves have been altered over time. At one point they formed an odd junction in which the curved road and its t-intersection formed a triangle among the cornfields. That spot seems to draw me back again and again. Many of my cycling rides pass that spot. It has significance to me.
The campus of Kaneland High School where I attended 8th-10th grade meets that arc in the road. Our cross country team would run that curve around a set of trees planted in a long semi-circle. For decades after I ran there as a freshman and sophomore in high school, an indentation from our many footsteps could be seen in the ground.
That trace of the past may have been meaningful only to me. Who knows if anyone else ever even noticed it, or knew its origins? But when I moved away to another school a part of me got left behind on that campus. It lurked as an artifact of times past just like the trace of the Oregon Trail that sits one mile north and east of the Kaneland campus. It only means something if you know the history.
Time on earth
The simple footpath that stood up through multiple mowings lasted for decades. It held the early secrets of my running life, those first moments when you realized you could really do something in this world if you worked at it.
Of course I’m no more important in the world of running than a million or more other runners with similar abilities. So I’m not suggesting there is any value to these memories other than a link to some sense of self.
But there are paths of a similar order that do bear greater significance, and to which so many others do have connections. I think of the cross country course in Peoria where the state championships are held each year. That’s where I watched Craig Virgin set the state record that still stands. Though thousands of other runners have tried, no one has ever run faster than Craig did that day. That time warp feels like a worm hole in my mind. I was there to witness history and realized even at that moment… the chasm of time between a talent like that and my own. Yet those connections are real.
For there is triumph in the feverish memories of our own efforts on a path around a thousand campuses just like the one on which I once ran. Our coach once challenged the Top 5 to complete the .87 circle in under 4:10 to earn a steak dinner. And we did it. So there are cogent miles of effort tied up in that space.
It so happened that 40+ years later, on the very first ride I did with my companion Sue, she liked to pause on that same campus as her turnaround point of a 30-mile ride. So she plopped down on the very grass where I once ran as a kid and sat back with a smile to ask, “So, what do I want to know about you?”
You can imagine the sweep of thoughts going through my mind at that moment. Here we sat literally on the path where I’d once run my guts out as a 15-year-old sophomore cross country runner. We were also in sight of the cafeteria where I once danced so close with a girl named Joanie Hankes that I thought I’d absorb right into her skin. Or wished I could. So what do you say at moments like that? What do you choose to reveal about yourself?
It turned out we talked about a lot of things, especially our current interests and our growing interest in each other. She knew the story of how I’d lost my wife Linda to cancer several months before. She learned of my pride in that woman’s life, and her perseverance and character. That was ground we’d continue to cover together. The grieving process is individual, and I had nothing to hide. Life and time go on whether you acknowledge that fact or not. I had made the decision that time should not stand still.
A few weeks later while riding with Sue she had a crash. I accompanied her to the Urgent Care Center and a rush of familiar sensations came over me. In eight years of cancer treatment with my wife I’d spent many moments sitting in waiting rooms as the medical teams gathered information about her.
Now here was Sue giving information to a medical team. They asked her name and she replied, “Linda.”
Then she quickly turned to me and said, “Oh, I forgot to tell you about that. I go by my middle name Suzanne. But my real first name is Linda.”
I was not freaked out. Just intrigued by the enormous circumstance of how odd life can be.
Which brings us to the present and another spot not far down the road from the Kaneland campus. There sits an apple orchard and pumpkin farm that turns into a major tourist attraction each fall. The Kuipers family farm erupts each September into a fest of autumn goodies, honey-crisp apples and a hundred other opportunities to celebrate the transition of the seasons.
Last year my daughter Emily and I made a pilgrimage to Kuipers in memory of her mother. We both made it through the store until we hit the spot where they make apple cider donuts. That’s where we both lost it. The memories were still fresh from the year before. So we stood there and hugged in line without being able to tell the people around us exactly what the tears were for. But it was good. That was a place were my wife Linda and her family liked to go each fall. Our memory of her was partly wrapped up in that place. Even when it was hard for her to walk during the worst throes of chemotherapy, we still made it out to the apple orchard for fall goodies. She never gave up.
We’d purchase bushels of apples and her late father Melvin would peel them all and make dozens of apple pies and pans of apple crisp. Before his health failed and he died three years ago, Emily sat with Mel to learn the craft of his pie-making.
So you can sense the meaning of applies and pumpkins and cider donuts. They represent both the preciousness of the moment and the passage of time. They come together in one place and we are transported in some way.
This year our little clan headed out to Kuipers for some fun and the day was magnificent. My daughter Emily and her boyfriend Kyle joined Sue and I for an afternoon drive and a wander through the Kuipers campus that has grown into a regional attraction. The weather was 80 degrees and sunny.
Just the day before I’d biked up the hill on the south side of the apple orchard with a couple friends and told them, “We’re heading there tomorrow.” In fact I’ve ridden past the orchard many times this summer. Every time the swirl of recent and past memories flow through my head.
Yet I don’t feel these memories the same way I once did. Maturity and age give you perspective than can be mistaken for ambivalence if you’re not careful. There were times in life when I felt emotions so passionately they threatened to melt me down like a ring of solder. My anger and love and competitive fury mixed together, making victories and losses feel like life and death.
Time has a purpose
There was a purpose to all that. When life and death really did come along, I was prepared to deal with them. That’s what’s so hard to explain to people who might wonder what it is like to deal with the death of a spouse, and why it is okay to feel love again, and want that flow to return to your life. All of us encounter those cycles of time and life and death. Future, past and present seem to combine in those moments.
I love my children so much and it has been painful thinking about the loss of their mother this past year. As wordy as I can be at times, there have been moments when words or the opportunity to say them have perhaps failed me.
I did not lose my own mother until 2005 when she was 80 years old. By contrast their mother was just 56. She’d worked through cancer treatments so many times it seemed impossible she’d ever die. My method of coming to grips with that possibility involved writing my way through both the fears and blessings of all that we experienced. That has helped me face all kinds of life challenges. I can only hope my example and love for them is sustaining. That and telling them that I love them.
The fact of the matter is that I emerged on the other side of life with less fear. There was help. While my late wife was taking steroids to treat the side effects of surgery for cancer that had migrated to her brain, she once woke me up at 4:00 one time to tell me to go for it. Write my way to the life I wanted to lead. Do it, she told me. She’d seen me race and win and live life without fear when we were first dating. Get it back, she seemed to be saying. And so it goes.
That type of confidence in faith and hope has helped dispel any fears toward making it on my own. With the many challenges of forging your way in your own business, there also comes a freedom that makes life feel more real. I first felt the flipside of that emotion while being a caregiver to my father once my mother died. I realized his care was now entirely in my own hands, and that there were really no rules to follow. One learns to step up in that moment to accept the responsibility. You lose fear over making decisions and accept the consequences, both good and bad, of being the one who cares.
So when our group of four wonderful souls walked around the Kuipers pumpkin patch it struck me that when it comes to making decisions in life, you either go big or go home.
The pumpkins at Kuipers in fact looked like they were raised on other-worldly fare. The stems were huge and phallic. The bodies of those gourds stood two feet tall in some cases. There was a fecund quality to all of them, an inspiration in some ways to me. They cost 39 cents a pound and we bought three of them and stored them in the back end of the Subaru. We came home with $100 worth of popcorn, apples and apple cider donuts. So goddamnit, we went big and we went home. Who says you can’t do both? That’s how we’ve got to roll in this world.
In a week Sue and I will ride the Pumpkin Pedal down in Ottawa, Illinois. Last year the winds were so strong at times they nearly stripped the kits off our backs. It’s likely after a warm, dry and calm spell here in Illinois that we’ll see a shift in the weather for next weekend. It may turn cold or wet. But we’ll be there. She’s in the early phases of training for next year’s Ironman Wisconsin. Every ride counts whether it builds fitness or builds character. We’re traveling through time together now. And through time, every effort counts for something.