Lost and Found
by Karen Beaumont
Dedicated to Pierre Lioni Ullman who once said, “Whenever I see you, I remember that I am a human being.”
Peer Gynt: Where was I, as myself, as the whole man, the true man?
Solveig: In my faith, in my hope, and in my love.
“I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”
--from the hymn Amazing Grace
After breakfast, Rachel and I walked down the hill to boat landing to the canoe. She had job at as a land manager for the nature preserve along the river, and I took her there every morning and picked her up in the afternoon. It would have been almost as fast to walk, but it got me out on the water every day.
No story has a beginning. Even our birth is preceded by family and societal stories into which our lives are cast. Having said that, the simplest way to begin this story was when I stood on the Olympic stand with my canoe partner to receive a gold medal in the Men’s Doubles Slalom Canoe race.
Walking down from that stand after the national anthem is, metaphorically, a very steep decline. How does one go back to “normal” life again? I was thirty which sounds “old” for an Olympic athlete, but slalom racing benefits from experience with water.
Flying home, I wondered what I would do, and, a week after returning to my mother’s home, the decision was made. My mother, a widow, as diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
The next step seemed clear: I would take care of her. I was her only child. I didn’t have any post-Olympic plans. There were government programs to help pay family caregivers, and I had a little money from endorsements and sponsorships.
There’d be no chance for me to get on the water, so I bought a rowing machine to stay in shape.
ALS can go very fast, but it is not unheard of for people to live up to ten years, and that’s what happened. My mother lived ten years, the disease taking her by inches. All I did was take care of her and the house and exercise on the rowing machine every day, listening to audio books and news.
Hospice came in during the last six months, and then she died.
If walking down the Olympic medal stand was a steep decline, my mother’s death was like being dropped off a cliff in the dark. She died. The entire map of my existence for the last ten years died, too. I couldn’t even go to the grocery store without feeling like I was blind. Everything was dark. Every action was an act of groping in that dark.
I was forty years old. My career as a racer was over. My “career” as a caregiver was over. No parents, no siblings, no teammates, and no friends as caretaking and a social life are incompatible.
COVID lockdowns were actually a blessing because I no longer felt guilty for holing up in my mother’s house alone. I didn’t have to go to the grocery store and be reminded that there were connected people in the world or be reminded of the things I used to buy for my mother. Groceries were delivered. I stayed at home, eating, sleeping, and working out on my rowing machine.
The quiet and lack of pressure to conform to some sort of grief trajectory that pleased other people gave my mind space to sort out my next steps.
What did I miss? Did I really miss caring for my mother? ALS is brutal and watching a once vibrant person be cut down like that is painful and exhausting: for her sake and because I needed energy simply to meet the demands, I repressed the horror of what I was observing.
I missed having purpose.
I missed being on the water.
What were my skills? Being an Olympian, being a caretaker.
Slowly, the next steps began to reveal themselves.
After selling my mother’s home, I bought a condo that had river access and a canoe.
There was enough money left over to cover my minimal living expenses and begin a business consulting athletes and dancers who need, because of age or injury, to begin a new career. Though my focus was on Olympians, I knew my experience could be of use to others.
To prepare for helping others in a new way, I planned a solo camping trip along the river in a nature preserve. It was May, but there hadn’t been much snow. The river wasn’t high and the current not as strong as might be expected in Spring.
Besides provisions and a phone, I brought some books and notepaper and was looking forward to the quiet of the woods and getting used to the idea of my new life chapter.
What I didn’t expect on the trip was a woman tripping over my tent support and into my life.
I was making some notes and thought I heard a rustling in the woods, and, before I could identify what was making the sound, Rachel was tripping over the support.
Here was this thin woman dressed in old clothes, including a very long skirt, and a long braid down to her waist.
Our eyes met and communicated an instant and deep understanding. It would take us months before we were even to begin to name all the elements of that understanding.
She cared for the trees like they were little children and then look at the sun, calculate the time, and dart back into the woods.
I found out she lived in the commune, had been there twenty years, and that there was a reason for the hunted look that came into her eyes when she calculated the time.
The short of it is, when it was time to come home, I took her with me.
It hadn’t occurred to me that part of the new chapter of my life should include another human being.
Rachel and I helped each other. I helped her navigate a world much different than the one she left. We went to a thrift store for clothes. I introduced her to people who did land management along the river, and her immense experience soon garnered her a job as a land steward.
The more difficult issue was her immense fear of doing the wrong thing. I could see her calculating every move and word around me. Nothing I said could change this. And I never knew what I was going to encounter – her habit of deference, the extra hard Teflon or, conversely, hitting some unknown patch of raw pain that would send her, and therefore our household, reeling.
I suppose it sounds like I’m just taking care of another person like I did my mother, and it did begin that way. What I learned, eventually, that it was my own authenticity that we both needed.
I had to learn what it meant to be authentic. Being an Olympian is about being the best and fastest – a numbers game which has little to do with the whole individual. Taking care of someone who you love is dying means choking down tons of fear and horror and weariness to meet the tasks of the day. Whatever authentic reactions I had would have impeded me from fulfilling my duties.
With each other, we both practiced being real, and, in the process, we found ourselves and, yes, we found each other.
Finding each other paints might paint a picture of two middle aged lovers finding their way in the world, and, though I considered Rachel my lover, this was not expressed fully. Whatever happened to her in the commune included issues of sexuality, and the topic was so brittle that I decided to quietly be grateful for the affection we shared and take her cue.
Autumn turned into winter quickly and early that year.
There was an early snowstorm in November, and, in deference to caution, I told Rachel we should stay off the river for a little while. There was a bike path that ran parallel to the river, so I would walk her to work each morning and walk back to pick her up. The bike path wasn’t shoveled and close to icy from all the intrepid bikers who were willing to bike through the snow. Rachel would take my arm, and we’d walk, sometimes talking, sometimes not.
One day as we were walking back, she suggested that we take the trail close to the river. We veered off the paved trail onto the unpaved. It was narrow, and we couldn’t walk arm in arm beside each other. Her hand slipped down into mine.
The air was still, the sky blue. Without discussing it, we walked down a side path right to the river’s edge. The river was noisy, constricted by the snow and ice that hugged the shore.
“Some moments are so real that they are perfect, don’t you think, Benjamin?”