One of my favorite hikes in Missouri follows the winding Meramec River through Al Foster Memorial Trail in Wildwood.
It's an easy, flat gravel path along the original route of the Pacific Railroad built in 1854. There's something about the way the light and the river current mix that makes the water look both serene and tumultuous -- shades of green and brown, all shifting within a mile or so.
I like to walk across a short bridge that leads to a scenic view. On one side is the wide and mighty river. On the other side, a streamlet breaks away and flows underneath the bridge.
Last week, this distributary stopped me in my tracks. Half of the stream looked sandy brown and half was light green. I don't know if it was the way the sunlight hit the water or the swirling sediment underneath that created this illusion. I've walked this path a hundred times, but I had never seen the water look quite like this. It was the kind of natural beauty that makes you linger.
A tangible object can look so different depending on where we are standing, and when, I thought.
The river hadn't changed. My perspective had.
I was taking this walk a few days after visiting my family over the Easter holiday weekend. Now that our daughter attends college in Texas, I'm more inclined to take quick trips rather than waiting for a longer vacation.
Also, when my father got cancer a couple of years ago, my perspective on time shifted. The years that stretched out ahead of us suddenly seemed shorter. He's cancer-free now, but his life has changed dramatically: He went from substitute teaching full-time to being stuck at home and dependent on my mom. The trauma of his illness turned his attitude darker and more pessimistic.
On our recent visit, he was lying on the bed when I walked in to greet him. I hugged him, and he cried briefly.
Growing up, I saw my father cry only once -- when the Challenger exploded. Now, he gets emotional more easily. He said he hadn't been feeling well. He can't accept that his body doesn't feel the same as it did before he got sick.
It's hard for me to accept the ways he's changed, too. He's so much more frail and needy. I want the pre-cancer version of him back just as much as he does.
I left home for college when I was 18, and except for a few months between jobs, I've never lived at home or even in the same city as my parents since. But I've always visited often, and my parents are lucky to have five of their adult children living nearby.
In contrast, my father left his parents, and his country, in his mid-20s and never went back. The distance between the life he left and the path he chose became too great to bridge.
Lately, my dad has started asking when we might come back "home."
I feel a stab of guilt when he asks; my husband and I have established careers in St. Louis, and our son still has another year of high school.
I'm old enough to have felt the truth in the expression that "time speeds up as we age." But can the same distance begin to feel longer? The 759 miles between our home in Missouri and my parents' place in Texas used to feel like a short two-hour plane ride or a 12-hour road trip. Far, but close enough.
Now, 759 miles means relying on siblings to update me on our parents' latest doctor's appointments. Or wondering how much more noticeable the tremors in my father's hands will be the next time I see him. I think of the distance in terms of things that are easier to say in person than over the phone.
My dad turns 79 this week.
The miles between us haven't changed. But his health and age have changed the way he sees them -- and the way I see them, as well.