The Us in This Is Us

It is rare these days for me to be wrapped up in a television show. Like a lot of kids of the 1960s, I grew up with Gilligan’s Island, and as a pre-teen, Friday nights meant a round of The Brady Bunch, Partridge Family and Room 222. Cartoons were not my favorite although I remember watching them with Michael as early elementary latchkey kids. I most remember the triple decker saltine peanut butter after school stacks we would eat in front of the TV.

Yes, I have followed a few TV shows in my adulthood. But none have stolen my heart like This is Us, episodes I mostly watch via the NBC app on my iPad. The emotion I feel surprises me. This is Us takes me along in its journey with parts that feel much like my own, even if its characters come from different places: addiction, intimate relationships, aging, trauma, raising children, adult siblings. More than any show I have watched, its deft portrayal of life’s stages is sometimes staggering. Yes, I remember. Sometimes my own similar experience feels raw, as with Rebecca’s late term dementia, played masterfully by Mandy Moore. Her expressions, confusion, devastating beauty capturing these moments.

Watching this week’s episode capped a series of harder than normal weeks, even though I know I am privileged in the big picture of things. Yes, too, we are weighed down by what is happening around us: politics, wars, climate change, economics. Yet, we not only need to carry on and do the good we do, but we must find our own ways to boost personal well-being, even if for only a few moments.

It isn’t yet kayaking weather for me, and so I head out my door on foot. Walking may be my favorite outdoor activity, and as on days like today I think of it more as an expedition –fortunate to recognize my internal need to block out several hours. I am grateful to be able to leave by foot from my door and travel through gorgeous natural spaces. Walking solo soothes me. Each place I enter reminds me too of those I love, interweaving with my thoughts of today.

Before I step into Wilderness Park, I pass the studio I would drop Emily off for piano lessons before school, leash up Oscar and dash a few loops of the trail. All before buzzing her off to school, dropping Oscar at home and hustling myself to catch my own bus to work. Those days when every free moment counted. Today, declaring a few free hours to myself, I am welcomed by Pacific Northwest beauties: Douglas fir reaching skyward, vine maples still harboring raindrops from a morning shower, sword ferns uncurling through Oregon grape and thimbleberry. My tennis shoes squish through the mud, and I exhale, deep in this pocket of wilderness. My brain expands, thoughts unwind.

Flowering vanilla leaf on the ridge above Camassia Park remind me of Karen. It is here that I took the picture for the cover of Then, Now and In-Between: Karen was the friend to tell me how perfect this image was for my book cover. She died before it was released and yet West Linn trails bring her spirit back to me. Always.

My thoughts dash on, and with them, the reminder of all the love Karen shared with others and her boundless knowledge of the natural world. Tears fall, yet my feet continue along the path ahead. These moments and days and years that fill our time here. My sorrow and joy are all mixed together.

As I continue down the slope to enter Camassia Nature Preserve, its spring purple, blue and pink blooms remind me of Mom.

I break out of my private thoughts to spy a friend ahead of me, a friend I first knew as Emily’s piano teacher but later also sharing a facility where our elderly moms lived. We remark on the passage of time, the beauty of the park: I wonder about her mother? I learn now that she like my mom died in 2021. So many of my friends now share this stage of life. (Like Randall and Kate and Kevin.) So many we have missed during these secluded COVID years.

Yes, Camassia reminds me of Mom: the pleasure she took from flowers, the walks we had and the spilling laughter on our last trip together when I told her I hoped I wouldn’t have to call a helicopter to extract her from this place. Both of us giggling so hard we couldn’t stay standing.

I stop to admire the lupine just now poking upward: I wonder, might I get out into the wilderness more this summer? Strong oaks fill out beyond the meadow, a few severed by last year’s ice storm. More breaths. I am grateful for protected and accessible natural oases like this. Places to escape even when we have too much to do.

This abundance of place reminds me to breathe deeply, slow down and observe the beauty surrounding me. Even in turmoil, spring comes again and vanilla leaf sprouts and camas blooms. Not exactly like yesterday, often leaving us with concerns about tomorrow, and yet still I rejoice in these moments.

My mind darts back to this week’s This is Us episode. Kate a bit frustratedly guides her brothers as final decisions are made (oh yes, this rings so true to me). I am most moved when Kevin puts lotion on his mother‘s hands and Randall brushes her hair. Both acts encouraged by the sister who is the first to understand how, yes Mom is different now, and they too can adapt to the change in relationship. But they must accept how she has changed to do that. I cried then because I thought, Oh if only! If only I could put lotion on Mom’s hands one more time, and brush her hair as I did every morning in those final months.

Then a regret pops up. I wish I had created ritual in washing Mom after she died. I wish I had dressed her fully in her favorite outfit. Before her body was taken from our home to be cremated. I didn’t think about it at the time because– at the time –it didn’t seem to matter. Mom had lost her attachment to clothing. Everything was about comfort. I remind myself it is OK. Maybe what it really is, is that I simply want one more moment to be with her. To take care of her. To love her. My regret dissipates. We had many many moments, and rarely does it feel like enough for us. I know Mom would tell me none of that matters: that we did all that matters. And, like Rebecca, our mom would remind us that we did what matters and even bigger than that to her is that we take care of ourselves too.

I continue onward. Gratefully, my monkey mind is distracted back to the present by the osprey nest. I peer upward but don’t spy an osprey. Not today. I don’t realize at first that I have picked up my pace as I pass the high school, eager as always to near the river.

I hesitate at Maddox Woods, feeling almost as if part of my life was here long ago–but no, it was only when Russ and I acted as Dorothy and Virgil Maddox at Voices in the Park.

Today I thank the Friends of Maddox Woods for letting every visitor delight in the photos and stories of olden times here on the bank of the Willamette. I pause across from Goat Island’s heron rookery.

Then my feet continue on as I follow the meandering riverfront path. The one I have walked countless times before, alone, with friends, with family.

I hesitate at the intersection of the trail to Burnside Park. Emails await me. No, my feet know better and I drop down to check on the river height. Its muddiness. The hopeful fisherpeople. Might I get my boat into the water this weekend? I peek down the channel where Russ tossed my bottle and I filmed its short river voyage from my kayak to make a book trailer. So much connects in this place I have lived in longer than any other.

I weave my way along, eager to enter Mary Young Park. Nearby is the bench dedicated to Kris. I thought of Kris as I left my home hours before: she was one who would have been up to accompany me on this journey –Kris was up for anything most of the time, when she could.

Instead I journeyed alone. And now as I near my home, I recognize how many miles and thoughts and sights I have processed today. Solitude grants us permission and space to tease out all that is happening in our lives, all that we are feeling. And the uncertainties that accompany both. It offers us the opportunity to transition into what is next, whatever that might be. And to simply be. And for that I am grateful.

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3 thoughts on “The Us in This Is Us

  1. I feel for your loss of your friend Karen. It must be so hard to travel the paths you walked together. Well put about pain and joy and hoping as time goes on it will be less painful. Oh my gosh! This is us…I soak in every minute-and yes Rebecca! It’s all so sad and real. Except most of us don’t have a Kevin to build the family compound. We’ll have to discuss. I love the stories and focus on each character.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dede, great post, has me inspired to write something about connection and loss, about never ending love. I’m in Karen’s garden. It’s our third spring without her. Her signature Clematis winds around apple limbs; blossoms mingling in sweet almost tropical May air. Randomly placed driftwood pieces hold rain and grow succulents. The place exudes peace, reverence for nature, like she did. Maybe you grow more grateful than sad; hard to know the difference.

    I’m liking This is Us. Karen would have been won over at the birth in the first episode. I really like the actor brother. Thanks for the tip.

    Liked by 1 person

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