The parking lot had been surprisingly slow for the Friday of Labor Day weekend. My coworker left early, and I was handling the job alone.
In the middle of the afternoon, a pickup truck pulled in. I approached the driver, an older man with a short white beard and longish white hair. I asked him if he were there for the trail, and he said he was. I told him about the $5 parking fee. As he fumbled for his wallet, he began to speak. He was wearing a hat advertising his status as a veteran of the U.S. Army, so I thought he was going to ask for a discount. Instead, he said, My wife came up here with her sister. She wanted me to see the trees. She passed away in July…At that point he choked up, and tears sprung to my eyes too.
You don’t have to pay, I told him. There’s no parking fee.
He drove around the loop and parked near the front of the lot. I watched him out of the corner of my eye, but I didn’t know what to say to him. I didn’t want to be weird or intrude upon his grief.
The man had to be pushing 70, but he walked toward the trail briskly, with purpose.
When I saw him exit the trail, I decided to check in with him, find out how he was doing. I stood and approached him as he walked into the parking lot.
How was it? I asked.
He let out a joyful yell. Woo-wee! echoed through the trees.
I love that sound, he said and smiled at me. He said the walk through the trees had done him good.
Then he asked if I had change for a twenty, said he wanted to pay the parking fee, said he liked to contribute and support his country. As I gave him change, he said his wife had always wanted him to see the giant sequoias on the trail where I work. Then he was crying, and he said, I don’t know what I’m going to do without her.
I started crying too, and said, Sir, can I give you a hug?
I certainly don’t go around hugging strangers, especially strange men, especially while I’m at work, but I could tell this man was hurting, and I just wanted to offer him some human kindness. He turned to me, and we embraced as tourists passed us on their way to the trail. It wasn’t a long hug, but it was a good one, sustaining, and full of comfort and light. It wasn’t one bit weird, which may be surprising, but was wonderful.
After we hugged, he told me his love story.
His wife of twenty-five years had divorced him, and he was devastated. He didn’t know what to do. He started drawing and found himself drawing the same face over and over again. His mother saw him drawing the face and asked him who she was. He said he didn’t know. His mom said she knew someone he needed to meet. She introduced him to a woman she’d met at the grocery store and given a ride to in the back of her pickup truck. The woman’s name was Rose. Hers was the face he’d been drawing. He married her two months later. They were together for eighteen years.
It wasn’t easy at first, he told me. They had different ideas, differences of opinion, different ways of doing things. But we never fought, he told me, and we never went to bed mad. They always talked it out and worked it out.
We were almost always together, he said. They lived in a remote mountain area, and as a safety precaution, even when they worked on different projects, they tried to stay within each other’s sight, just in case something happened to one of them.
And now Rose was gone.
There is no doubt in my mind this man loved that woman intensely and completely, but in a way that was healthy and kind.
That’s the kind of love I hope to know before I leave this life.