Ali sat looking out the window at the driving rain, one hand propping up her chin and the other absentmindedly stroking the cracked leather upholstery of the well-worn couch. She loved this little hideaway where she could be alone without being lonely.
She and Isaac had stumbled upon the cabin while hiking the backwoods of Mount Baker in the North Cascades. How many years ago was that? Ten? Fifteen? No, it must have been fourteen years ago, she thought, because it was the year we got engaged. It was about this time of year—late November—but the weather then was dry and crisp. The trees were dropping the last of their leaves, carpeting the ground with a mosaic of gold and red and orange. It was a magical autumn.
Today, however, Mother Nature was showing her more dramatic side. The wind and rain had already been pummeling the area for hours and the weather forecast was for more of the same throughout the night, possibly all weekend.
If Ali were less familiar with this place, she might have been more concerned about being alone on a mountaintop during such a violent storm. But she had arrived a few hours earlier in her ancient-yet-dependable Jeep Cherokee, fully intending to stay put for several days. Despite her family’s protestations, this is where she wanted to spend her first Thanksgiving since the death of her husband and daughter ten months earlier.
Ali had done enough thinking for one night; it was time for some mindless distraction.
Thumbing through the stack of DVDs, she ran across It’s a Wonderful Life, popped the disc in the player and settled back for her annual visit with George and Mary.
A second glass of wine, together with the soft, flickering light of the television, quieted Ali’s mind and body. She felt calm and relaxed to a degree she hadn’t felt in some time.
Unconcerned about missing significant plot points to this story she knew so well, Ali allowed herself to drift in and out of consciousness. The last ten minutes of the movie were her favorite part, so she was glad that she roused again for the scene on the bridge where Clarence points out, “You see, George, you’ve really had a wonderful life.”
When it came to the part where George finally declares, “I want to live again!” Ali suddenly sat bolt upright. Once again, she reached for her journal and began writing.
That’s how I feel! I want to live again! Thanks to all the friends and family in my life, I finally feel as if I want to live again!
If I were to write a sequel to this movie, it would begin with George seeking out and individually thanking all the people who made his life worthwhile. He would sit down with each of them and tell them everything he appreciated about them and what they had taught him. He would tell them how his life would have been lesser if they had never been born.
Maybe that’s what I should do. When I think about it, there have been so many special people in my life who have taught me about loving and living. How many of them have I thanked with the earnestness and deliberation they deserve?
Curious about the answer to her own question, Ali pulled a legal pad and pen from her briefcase and started recalling the significant relationships in her life. By the time she’d finished, she’d filled two pages with names of people who now, or had at one time, played a significant role in her life—more than sixty individuals whose lives had touched hers in a way that had made her a better person. So many! And surely more would come to mind.
As she reviewed her list, Ali felt overcome with love and gratitude. How appropriate, she thought, that I would think of these special people on Thanksgiving. I have so much to be thankful for materially, but without these people, the physical comforts wouldn’t mean anything.
With that, she flipped to a new page on her pad and began writing a letter to the first person on her list. Her mother.
I have always known that you are proud of me, no matter what. I know you believe I can do and be anything I set my mind to. I feel it. And so I believe it of myself. Your unflinching faith in me has given me the self-confidence to achieve so much more than I might otherwise have accomplished.
Now, at this time of genuine tragedy, your faith in me helps me believe that I can survive even this. I may not want to, but I can. I will.
Some days, simple survival still feels like a formidable goal for me. And I might be satisfied to merely survive, if you hadn’t also taught me the key to achieving genuine happiness . . .
Satisfied that Eric was just a sweet memory, Gwen picked up the stack of envelopes and asked, “So what are you going to do with all these letters you wrote?”
“You know, I’ve been thinking about that. You’re probably going to say I’m crazy, but I’m thinking about using the money from Isaac’s life insurance to take a year off work.”
“Really?” Gwen’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “I hope you don’t mind me pointing out the irony in that, given that Isaac was always pushing for you to work fewer hours.”
“Yeah, I know, and believe me, I feel a good amount of regret over not listening to him. I wasted a lot of time working when I could have been spending it with my family. I’d give anything to be able to turn back time and make different choices, but that’s not an option.”
“And what do you intend to do with all this time off?”
“Well,” Ali admitted, “that’s the crazy part. I want to track down the people on my list and deliver the letters to them in person. It would be a year-long road trip of sorts.”
“Uh-huh. I’m thinking about leasing a car—or maybe taking Isaac’s, though that would feel a little strange—since my Jeep isn’t really up to a cross-country trip. I’ll be traveling alone between stops, but I anticipate some awesome reunions.”
“Wow. That’s quite a plan. Are you sure you’ve thought it through all the way?” Gwen asked with a touch of concern.
“Frankly, no. But I’m sure you’ll help me,” Ali said with a wink.
v v v
Now that her travel plans were solidifying—with actual dates and destinations—Ali began to wonder, can I really do this? Can I spend a year traveling around the country by myself showing up on the doorsteps of long-lost friends and mentors who might have no interest in a reunion? Just because these individuals were special to me doesn’t necessarily mean that I was significant to them.
v v v
Ali was much relieved to hear the note of joyful surprise in Martha’s voice when she called to invite herself for a visit. It gave her another reason to believe that this ten-month sojourn would be all she hoped for.
Now, with the help of a trusty GPS, a good set of winter tires, and her copilot Tess at her side, Ali found herself winding down the long driveway to Martha’s vintage farmhouse on the outskirts of Clarkston. Four-foot snowdrifts lined both sides of the road. This was a familiar winter landscape for Martha, but not for Ali. Living in the Seattle area for the past twenty years, she was used to largely snowless winters, which suited her just fine. She really did love the white stuff, but she was happy to live in a place that it stayed in the mountains where it belonged; in less than a two-hour drive, she could visit it whenever she pleased.
When Martha opened the storm door to greet her old friend, Ali realized that they were just that . . . old friends, or at least older friends. Where had the years gone? Who had drawn these soft lines on their faces and the streaks of silver in Martha’s once-raven hair? No matter, for even if Martha’s physical appearance was less familiar, her voice and her embrace were instantly identifiable.