A Walk to Remember, by Fenton Johnson

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From At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life, published this month by W. W. Norton.

When I imagine my death, I do not see myself surrounded by loved ones with music gently playing in the background, in a hospital or a hospice or even in my own room, wherever it may be. I see myself alone. Animals, who are so much wiser than we and who so often know their time to die, do not seek out their owners or playmates or offspring, but find a remote corner or glade where they can accomplish this most private act in solitude.

In death I see myself alone, in a landscape where there is still winter. In my imagination I am standing outside the house in Kentucky, the house my parents built. On a cold, clear night after a great tongue of arctic air from Canada has passed through and the stars glitter against the infinitude of dark sky, I set out to walk the half mile or so to the river, the humble Rolling Fork of my childhood, crossing the flagstone patio, past the limestone table and the shop and the dead brown stalks of the frostbitten garden, climbing the fence—some advance planning is called for here, since the aged joints will balk—walking over the frozen, rutted field toward the bare-branched water maples and sycamores that line the riverbank—trees that have populated my novels. There must be a moon, so let us have a moon, rising full over the frosted fields, their glitter matching that of the stars. Along the way I shed clothes, pausing long enough to fold each item neatly, leaving civilization behind, until I arrive at the river unclothed, naked to the stars. I want to think that I will have courage to do this with no more reinforcement than a shot of bourbon—enough to brighten but not dull the senses—in honor of those who came before and made my life possible, and in hopes that I have accomplished a small measure of the same for those who follow. There you will find my body, come the cold, bright blue morning, leaning against the great mottled sycamore of my dreams, happy to have left this world as I came into it, alone but not alone, content to join the company of those who have gone before, who made me who I am and who welcomed me back with open arms to our true and perfect home.

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