Madeleine, Walla Walla

 

I drove over the mountains in the early morning dark (I stopped at the summit to take pictures of the clouds turning pink and the last of the snow in the trees) so I could meet Madeleine when she finished class.

 

 

She's walking with a cane now, and the truth is, when I saw her coming around the corner, I was afraid she'd gotten worse: that something had happened in our months apart—a disaster or a deterioration that made her have to use a cane.

 

 

No, that wasn't it: the cane helps Maddie save energy and helps her keep her balance. You might say she uses it so she doesn't have to.

 

 

Maddie has Lyme Disease. It means she needs to rest a lot, and she can't walk very far, and she takes the elevator instead of the stairs. It means her bones ache and her hands shake and sometimes she has a hard time remembering. 

 

 

It means she has to think, all the time, about questions like, "If I walk around the grocery store tonight, will I be able to go to class tomorrow?" It means she has good days and bad days and she can never really know when it's going to be one or the other.

 

 

The truth is, I try not to let Maddie know I worry about her.

 

 

I'm afraid she will think I think she's weak, fragile; really, I think Maddie is the strongest, mightiest, most courageous person I know. 

 

 

Her hands shake, and her legs can't carry her up a mountain, maybe, but her spirit is like a deep river: calm on the surface and, below, enough force to carve a path through rock, through mountains.

 

 

She will always find her way; she will always make her way.

 

 

In the evening, the apartment filled up with friends: everyone and all their books spread out on the floor.

 

 

They worked on history and biology homework and I worked on photos, and when I saw Madeleine sitting by the window, I got my camera and said, "Just ignore me. Keep reading."

 

 

At bedtime, Maddie hugged me and hugged me and when I started to let go, she said, "Don't let go! I'm not done yet!" And she hugged me closer and said, "Thank you for coming all this way to see me."

 

 

And all my deepest aches: the loneliness I don't talk about, the fears that make me wake up crying at night; all of the hurts fell away, washed away, while Maddie cooed in my ear and hugged me so tight our shoulder joints creaked, and I felt the truth moving like a deep river through my heart. 

 

 

And the river said, "You are safe. You are loved. You are home."