For some people, it’s a stuffed animal — maybe a teddy bear with a missing plastic eye, battered by age and beloved. For others, perhaps it’s a blanket, faded and fraying at the corners. Many people carry such mementos from childhood; things that were so necessary in those early years and still hold deep meaning.
There’s an object like this for me, taking up real estate in my heart. Mine, however, is different than most.
It’s a wooden bridge, nearly 40 years old and spanning the 85 feet that linked my boyhood home to the rest of the world. Battered and frayed, just like those other beloved childhood keepsakes, it’s seen better days. And now, finally, it’s time to say goodbye.
It’s hard to remember a time in my life without the bridge. My family moved from Queens to a house on an acre of woods in Putnam County, New York, when I was 3 years old. My parents were city people. My father learned to drive at the age of 38. My mother never did.
Dad had been in the Marines and used the GI Bill to go to art school. We bought our house from his former sculpture professor. Stone carvings made their home among the trees on the property. Dad had ideas of being an artist himself. But fate had different plans.
I’ve been calling it a bridge. In reality, it was a wheelchair ramp. Not long after we moved into our house in the woods, my mother was diagnosed with an aggressive form of spinal cancer.
There’s no “good” form of cancer, but this has to be one of the worst. The tumors had wrapped themselves around mom’s spinal cord and were slowly crushing it. I remember spending a lot of time in hospital waiting rooms. Eventually she had major surgery that was deemed a success because it saved her life, for a time. But it also left her mostly paralyzed from the neck down.
It must have looked like a perverse version of a wedding day ritual, the groom carrying his new wife across the threshold
I was 6 years old. My brother, Adam, was 9. Today, as a father, I think of what it must have been like for her to not be able to put her arms around her children and hug them.
Back then, beyond the emotional trauma, there were logistical problems to consider. A number of nurses were called in to help my dad take care of Mom. Adam and I helped too.
My older brother was tasked with feeding our mother, one forkful at a time. My job was to turn the pages of her romance novels. She sat in her wheelchair at the head of the dining room table and went through stacks of them. I think it’s why I love to read.
One of the biggest problems for my father was simply getting my mother in and out of the house for medical appointments. In order to bring her anywhere, he needed to carry her out the door, up the steep footpath through the trees, and into the car waiting in the driveway. It must have looked like a perverse version of a wedding day ritual, the groom carrying his new wife across the threshold. It must have grown tiresome for both of them.
So dad devised a plan: He would build a bridge.
What he did next still seems remarkable to me. He hired a small team of contractors for the job, but money was tight and he needed more help. So he printed up fliers that said something like “Lend a hammer and a hand” and went around our community stuffing them into mailboxes. It was an open call to neighbors we barely knew for help building this bridge.
And it worked.
On the chosen days, those neighbors came. Men and women brought their tools and food and good intentions and got to work.
As a boy, I remember sitting on a rock in the sunshine and watching the builders. To me, they were giants. The bridge was constructed over the span of a single weekend.
When it was done, my mother was wheeled across. I don’t remember it exactly, but I want to say she was laughing and smiling at this crowd of new friends who clapped and watched her with tears in their eyes.
From that day on, the bridge became the main route in and out of the house. Its path ran right past my bedroom window. Pretty soon I developed an ear for the footfalls on the wooden planks. Without looking, I knew which ones belonged to my father when he came home from work and which belonged to my friends coming over to play. My mother was able to use it to get to an increasing number of medical appointments.
But her condition grew worse. The last time she used the bridge I was 9. It was a few days after Christmas. An ambulance came in the night and rushed her to the hospital. She never came back.
Though she was gone, the bridge remained. What do you do with something when its reason for being is no longer a reason for it to remain?
We kept the bridge and cared for it. It became my job to sweep it clear of fallen leaves in the autumn and shovel away the snow in winter. My friends and I devised countless games using it as a prop. I’m sure my father, who never remarried, learned the language of the footfalls to keep tabs on us.
When my brother and I grew up and left home, Dad would shout up the length of the bridge to greet us when we, along with our wives, came to visit.
The decades wore on. My father used the bridge every day to get the mail, go shopping, and stay connected to the outside world. As his health began to falter, he’d walk up and down the bridge for exercise, using the handrails to steady himself.
Dad passed two summers ago. My brother and I are finally selling the house. The new owners will likely need to tear the bridge down. That’s okay. As difficult as it’s been, I know it’s time.
My memory of the bridge will serve as the connector now. Each beam and plank are still known to me. I can feel the slight slope of the wooden pathway beneath my feet right now. That bridge is a part of me as much as anything I’ve ever loved.
It’s there when I look into my daughter’s eyes, which she inherited from Mom, and wrap my arms around her. It’s there when I think of Dad. He may not have been the type of artist he wanted to become, but, with the help of his neighbors, he was able to construct a masterpiece. It’s there on summer days when the sun kisses my face and I’m brought back to the days giants came to lift up a family in need.
Jared Crawford is a producer for TODAY