A View from the Ridge
by Edward Fowler
Having spent the day at my desk grading fall-term exams, my body is stiff, and my brain is dull. I break for a walk, something that, once out the door, I never regret doing.
Campus housing for faculty and staff at UC Irvine is a paradise for walkers. My route varies with season and mood. I sometimes thread the maze of hedge-lined footpaths linking the streets. More often I make my way through the community garden into the ecological preserve.
I amble up the ridge, eyes peeled for a wary coyote cutting across the slope; a jackrabbit that has leapt out of a folk tale; a roadrunner, spiked crown on its head, which appears to have flown off the page of a paleontology textbook. Meanwhile, my ears pick up the rasp of a cactus wren in the underbrush, the warble of a meadowlark in the open field, the scream of a red-tailed hawk high overhead. I rarely see another hiker. It is just as well, for I appreciate what is not here: buildings, traffic, other human beings. This is a place to be alone.
It was on such a walk through the preserve years ago that I noticed something not quite right with my wife Hiroko. A natural athlete and a regular at the local fitness club, she could keep pace with those half her age despite her smoking habit. I rarely accompanied her to the gym but happily joined her on walks. Hiroko would lead the way, her stride steady and long. On that late-autumn day, however, a few months before being diagnosed with liver cancer, she lacked her usual spring. She was getting old, I joked, prodding her from behind and reminding her of the times she’d pushed me up the hill when I was weak from ulcerative colitis and later surgery to remove my colon. I recalled the shorter walks we’d taken before I could venture as far as the preserve, and the improbable patience she demonstrated when guiding me, step by feeble step.
Hiroko scoffed at my prodding but moved no faster.
I thought no more of it at the time, yet the memory haunts me. Had I taken her fatigue to heart and sent her to the doctor, might we not have discovered a problem early on? One that could be fixed? Would greater vigilance have allowed us to treat her liver, that notoriously silent organ, before it began shutting down?
Probably not. She’d had a physical around that time and nothing seemed amiss. Irregularities in the liver are detected with more specialized tests, and none were indicated. When she finally underwent them, a chorus of doctors would chant as one, to a patient who’d been given a clean bill of health only months before: “Nothing can be done!”
Regardless of my route going out, I invariably stop on my return at a shrub-covered island on the street above mine that fronts a clump of houses. There, beneath a cover of Indian hawthorn, I place a spray of Lantana, a cluster of Bougainvillea, some bush daisies, or whatever else I might have plucked from hedges along the way. This, my roadside shrine, is the spot where Hiroko stood her ground during a stroll three weeks before she died.
It was Thanksgiving Day. Hiroko’s parents had flown in from Japan and were helping me care for their daughter, who still enjoyed the occasional outing but relied on a wheelchair. Light and compact, it enabled her to visit friends, shops, and the beach as well as the hospital or clinic. Its maneuverability made it a hit with family members, who took turns pushing its cargo. Hiroko, on the go her entire life, was usually eager for a ride. The only drawback was nausea, at times brought on by the slightest motion.
We four set out after breakfast. Hiroko’s father piloted the wheelchair. Hiroko donned her wardrobe for outings: pajamas and robe covered by a raincoat that concealed her appliances and kept her warm. A wide-brimmed hat hid her gaunt features and thinning hair.
We’d gotten no farther than the island when Hiroko, retching, signaled her father, who brought the wheelchair to a stop. Hiroko’s breakfast dribbled from her lap down to the pavement. I stroked her back repeatedly.
She refused to retreat. I raced home and returned with bottled water, tissues, and plastic bags. We swept the vomit onto the soil beneath the hawthorn. We patted her face, wiped her robe and wheelchair, and washed residue from the curb with the remaining water, saving just enough to rinse our hands. We then pressed on to our destination: a grassy knoll overlooking the newest housing phase going in.
It is here that I pause, mindful not to attract the attention of passing cars or passersby, and lay flowers beneath the foliage. When accompanied by the occasional visitor, I merely nod in its direction. When with someone I know well, I might, after a brief word, make a quick bow. I usually am alone. Crouching down, one knee on the curb, I arrange the flowers into a small bouquet that goes unnoticed at any distance. I don’t want to tell the world. I’m doing this for me.
When Hiroko could still walk unaided, our favored destination was the community garden, not two minutes away on foot from the house, and the ridge beyond it. Situated on a narrow rectangle eighty yards long from front to back, the garden is home to dozens of plants from near and far: sweet alyssum, lavender, and rock rose from the Old World; native California laurel and lemonade berry; agave and Matilija poppies from south of the border; plumbago, protea, and kangaroo paws from south of the equator. The grounds are graced by artemisia and other plants redolent of sage; and graced as well by flowering and evergreen trees: Acacia, Erythrina, and, no surprise, California live oak.
The Valencia orange, once synonymous with the California citrus industry, is also represented. The Irvine Company, which owns vast tracts of land in Orange County, bought interest in the fruit and once grew it on half its land. As more people migrated to the area, the fields, orchards, and pastures were ploughed under; in their place sprang up housing developments, shopping malls, office parks, and the university at which I work.
Trellises entwined with morning glory guard the entrance. A gnarled Wisteria protects a sturdy, pew-like bench that awaits the visitor at the garden’s midpoint. Left to grow in rank profusion until more orderly minds assumed management in recent years, the grounds, even more than now, were a riot of color, especially in June.
“Damn, damn this nausea!”
One afternoon in early summer, Hiroko let out a holler that shook the house. She wanted to scream, she said, but not here, not from her bed. She’d hike to the preserve and shout from the granite outcrop, where she’d shouted with her mother before. She rose from her bed only to sink back and retch. Then she rose again.
The preserve’s most prominent feature is an undulating ridge, half a mile long, that culminates in a promontory overlooking seemingly all of Southern California. On a clear day like today, which has turned cool and blustery, it affords sweeping vistas of the coastal hills and the entire Los Angeles Basin. To the north, a good fifty miles from where I stand, the San Gabriel Mountains pierce the heavens, a crisp wall of white in early winter. The Bactrian humps of Saddleback, its twin peaks the highest points in Orange County, dominate the eastern horizon. To the southwest, Santa Catalina Island floats serenely on the Pacific, twenty miles offshore. The port city of Long Beach, sandwiched between a comma-shaped shoreline and the oil-rich mound of Signal Hill, lies due west. Beyond it looms the Palos Verdes Peninsula, a lushly wooded pyramid. Rising up forty miles to the northwest are the skyscrapers of downtown LA, tiny yet distinct. The Malibu Hills, far beyond, provide a movie-set backdrop. In the foreground, three miles from my perch, commuter jets catapult from Orange County Airport into a cobalt sky.
Ngresonance at English Wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
I drove her to the garden and we proceeded on foot. Deep-purple Limonium and Salvia complemented the Leonotis and Santolina’s oranges and golds. The two-minute saunter from the trellis to the outcrop was now a quarter-hour trek. The toyon and elderberry had lost their bloom. The bright yellow fiddlenecks that lined the trail in spring had long since faded. Resting her bony buttocks on a knee-high boulder, she yelled with all her might.
“I hate this. I just hate it!” The tears flowed freely down her face. “Dear God, grant me a miracle. Please make me well again!”
Stan Shebs, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Far more aware than she of the disease’s expected course, I gently massaged her neck.
“Ted, I didn’t mean to drag you down.”
Earthmoving equipment was parked on a wide expanse below, construction work on the university-owned corporate research park having stopped for the day. A vulture in search of carrion circled over the expanse of scrub that would soon be turned into a building complex.
“When will I stop being a burden?”
I wiped her nose with my hand. The late-afternoon sun revealed every crease on her face.
“You’re not a burden. Bother me all you want.”
We sat side by side for ten minutes, facing the sun, before retracing our steps.
“Ahhhhh!” Hiroko let out a parting shriek.
“We’ll be back,” I yelled, wondering if there would be a next time.
Returning to the house, somehow under her own power, Hiroko fell into a deep sleep.
“I’ve felt normal for just a few minutes out of the whole day,” she said upon awakening.
Our walk was a distant memory. Hoping to raise her spirits, I recalled our dinner date a quarter century before at a London hotel overlooking Hyde Park – a date we enjoyed despite the bleak news, only days earlier, of the 1972 Munich Olympic Village massacre. That was when I presented her with an engagement ring, in a covered dish I had our waiter serve as though it were another course. She anxiously told the waiter that there must be some mistake, and accepted it only after much persuasion, from the waiter more than me.
The garden constantly beckoned. Hiroko joined me when she could. One midsummer evening after dinner we padded down the street. I led her through the foliage and pushed her up the far slope. The sun was low on the horizon. Standing side by side, we beheld the city below.
“What a lovely view!” Hiroko exclaimed. The damp air smelled of sage and clay. Palos Verdes and Catalina loomed in the distance. A commuter jet had just taken off. Another was about to land – its approach, from our viewpoint, through a thicket of office buildings.
“Let’s worship the sun.” She clasped her hands in supplication and mumbled a prayer.
“Make my wife well . . . completely well!” I did not mumble mine.
“I’m so happy, Ted. Now let’s watch the sunset.”
I held Hiroko as tightly as her slender frame and fragile appliances would allow. The jet plane, taxiing ever slower, flickered in the gaps between buildings.
The next thing I knew, an amber ribbon arced down from her lips.
“Ugh, too much dinner.”
She wiped her mouth with the tissues always in her pocket.
“Yeah, too much,” I agreed.
She tossed a wad of tissue on the ground. We retraced our steps home without waiting for the sun to kiss the horizon.
Later, after bedding her down, I slipped out of the house, hurried to the garden, and scrambled up the far slope. Something compelled me to undo all that had earlier gone awry. I retrieved the tissue. I kicked dirt onto the vomit-soaked soil and stomped on it. Whereupon I repeated my incantation, this time in a whisper: Make my wife well!
Then I waited for the next airplane. I would watch one more jet take off.
None ever did. It was past the hour that commercial planes were permitted to disturb the night. No more takeoffs? The prospect seemed ominous. I continued to wait. At long last a tiny Cessna angled skyward with an insistent drone. Satisfied, I descended the slope and made my way home in the dark.
Edward (Ted) Fowler, a Californian from the age of five months, spent his youth in Los Angeles County and the past three decades in Orange County, where he taught for twenty-two years at UC Irvine. Best known for his San’ya Blues: Laboring Life in Contemporary Tokyo, he is the author of or contributor to half a dozen books on Japan. He is also a 2019 alumnus of the Community of Writers. In retirement, he has written a memoir about his first wife, a Japanese national, from which “A View from the Ridge” is excerpted.