At dusk, we walk up the steep dirt road to our Adirondack cabin, Birdsong. It rests peacefully at the foot of Marble Mountain.
I lie down in my electric wheelchair near the fireplace. Fire repels cold and darkness.
I watch the sky behind our 90-foot-tall white pines turn a deep shade of denim before turning black.
The fire crackles. A tree creaks. And then: Hoot-hoot-hoot, hoot-hoot, who-whoooo.
The first barred owl of the summer.
I am at peace.
Like a spawning salmon, I came home to die.
ALS has progressed at the speed of a mountain river over the past two months.
My core muscles packed their backpacks, threw them in the back of a Subaru Outback, and settled into Colorado, where they enjoy outdoor adventures.
However, I’m pretty helpless without my core muscles. I lean more to the left than Bernie Sanders. My voice softened to the sound of a gentle breeze through the oak leaves.
Worse still, my breathing has weakened to the point that I can no longer blow out a stinging gadfly from my nose. (Swatting is not an option as my arms don’t move more than an inch.)
A measurement of my lung capacity dropped 40% in three months.
My doctors say it’s time to turn my life over to palliative care. I agree.
But the question arose: a hospice in the valley of Pennsylvania where we have lived for 21 years, or in the mountains of New York where I feel most at home?
In Pennsylvania, I would be surrounded by the love and camaraderie of neighbors, friends, and colleagues, who supported us with a thousand acts of kindness.
In New York, I would feel surrounded by my family and the power of nature.
Mel and I chatted with his daughter Emily, his son-in-law Erick, his daughter Mathilde and his partner Grayson. We all agreed to spend my last days in the north.
I was born in Buffalo, but somehow started my life in the Adirondacks.
I first saw Mel as I walked into our college newspaper office. This beauty waved her arms as she regaled several staff members with a tumultuous story. I didn’t know what the story was about, but I did know this: This was the woman I had been looking for all my 20 years.
We stole glances and shared stories while working on the journal together and sitting next to each other during creative writing.
She told me about her family’s cabin in the woods near Lake Placid, New York. I told him about my adventures hiking in the Adirondacks with my brother when we were teenagers.
One day, in a stairwell in Old Main, she invited me to join her on a seven-hour trip to the cabin during the school holidays. My heart skipped two or three beats.
On this trip, I learned to drive her 1980 Renault Le Car shifter. My mind and soul opened up to the charm of this woman and the austere forests in March, with ice-covered rocks and skeletons birches lining the shores of the lake.
We hiked the trails around the cabin. We walked along the Ausable, one of the best trout fishing rivers in the country. I put my arm around her as we lay under a swing, watching the rapidly moving clouds.
Forever Mel, me and this cabin in the woods have been bound by unbreakable chains.
On a lark, just after graduating from college in 1982, we went to the cottage to relax and look for jobs. Miraculously, we landed the only two reporting jobs at the weekly Lake Placid News. We got married in October.
Every summer, without fail, we vacationed at Birdsong. The morning trill of the hermit thrush, the lazy movement of the sun in the side yard, and the stillness of the cemetery at night soothed our frayed nerves. Time and heart rates slowed down.
Mel and I would spend whole days under blue skies sitting outside reading newspapers and novels. Every year I re-read Hemingway’s trout fishing masterpiece, “Big Two-Hearted River”.
The girls have learned to love this place too. They fought for time to read books in the hammock. We bonded over 12 hour trips to climb mountains. In a decade and a half, we’ve summited 23 of the 46 highest peaks in the Adirondacks, always having our lunch with a great view.
I first met Erick when he drove Emily from Manhattan to Birdsong. He was planning to go home that evening, but Mel and I insisted that he stay until morning. He finally stayed for almost a week. It fell right into the rhythm of reading, hiking, and exploring the trails around our family’s Birdsong.
Over the years, he and I would glide early in the morning for 25-mile bike rides on steep roads, returning to Birdsong when everyone had their first cup of coffee.
Emily and Erick named their Brooklyn photo studio, Heidi’s Bridge, after a rustic wooden span over a creek near Birdsong. Erick proposed on this bridge.
Our youngest daughter, Mathilde, followed her fascination with the natural world to a degree in environmental studies from the University of Vermont.
So the answer to where we should spend our last days as a family was as clear as the water in a mountain lake. I’ll work as an opinion writer for the Morning Call as often as I can, soak up the sunrises and delight in the rata-tat-tat-tat-tat and the monkey cry of the Pileated Woodpecker.
Birdsong is where my life began with my precious Mel. It is also where our earthly bonds will ultimately be torn. My ashes will be scattered here.
But Mel and I believe that our love will last and that we will one day be reunited in a place as glorious as our Birdsong.
Mike Hirsch, of Lower Macungie, is the Director of Content/Opinion and Community Engagement for The Morning Call. He had previously worked as the newspaper’s Business and Features editor. He can be contacted at [email protected]