By Alenka Vrecek
Jim’s sharp punch into my chest shocks me out of deep sleep. I lay stunned, my breath momentarily crushed, listening to the waves crashing onto the beach below our Baja winter home.
At night we lie under the palapa’s palm-thatched roof. No walls surround us. The air is cool. The skies are bright with stars. But I’m wide awake now, and to avoid the second punch I roll out of bed nimbly, like a ninja warrior. I reach out, then clutch yesterday’s pile of clothes to my chest, and run out of the palapa barefoot like a thief, the light of the crescent moon splashing my naked body. Our golden retriever, Monty, leaps ahead of me. He’s running too, probably wondering how he deserved this midnight walk.
From a growing distance as I run, Jim’s laughter reaches me. A big, hardy, belly laugh. It stops me. He is still happy in his dreams. I hold on to my breath.
Wrapping a fleece jacket around my chilled body, I sit down on soft, white desert sand and lean against the smooth trunk of an elephant tree. I look up at the Baja night sky and trace the line from Orion’s Belt down to the brightest star, Sirius, wishing its beam could pull me into space. Monty sits beside me and soon places his paw on my folded arms. It’s time to go back. I rise slowly, still clenching the pants in my fists, and pad through the sand along the path back to our palapa.
I can see the outline of my husband’s body under the covers. After removing my fleece, I crawl back into bed next to him to warm up. He reaches over and pats me on a thigh still covered in goosebumps. He emits a deep sigh, which is followed by soft, slow breathing. I drift off to sleep, but soon his loud grinding-gravel-like snoring wakes me again. Trying to turn him over to stop the noise is like attempting to turn a thousand-year-old redwood tree trunk. He doesn’t budge. Not wanting to wake him, I lie with my eyes closed, inhaling the air that’s infused with desert lavender, counting his breaths.
Gradually, as the morning sun’s brightness illuminates a pale ocean outside, Jim rests his trembling hand on the small of my back. The first birds start chirping. “Where did you go last night?” he murmurs. There is concern in his voice.
I lie. “I didn’t go anywhere.” He gets upset if I tell him he was acting out his dreams again. He would be especially shocked if I told him he had hit or kicked me last night. So, I don’t tell him anymore.
When I don’t answer, he pushes me on it. “I woke up and you were gone; so was Monty; you were both gone.”
He is worried I will leave him, but I am terrified that he is leaving me.
“I just went out,” I say. “Monty and I went for a little walk. It was beautiful.” After a pause, I add, “Peaceful.”
“Was I snoring again?”
I whisper, “Just a little.”
He wraps his arm around me, and he rests a quivering right hand on my belly. I’m used to his now uncontrollable tremor; I pretend not to notice.
“Do you remember your dreams?” I ask.
“I wish I did,” he says. “Was I talking in my sleep again?”
“You were. The only word I understood was tomorrow. You were laughing, too. It must have been a happy or a funny dream.” That pleases him.
“I wish I remembered my dreams,” he says as he begins to slowly slide out of bed. I try not to watch, but I have to help him roll over to his stomach. His right arm is stuck underneath him, so he can’t move until I give him a push. He struggles to put on his sweatpants. He curses. Everything makes him angry. Who can blame him?
In the nearly 20 years that I’ve known Jim, he has been an exceptional athlete. When we aren’t living in Baja, we are in North Tahoe, where the outdoor sports opportunities are endless. Jim was a champion laser boat sailor; together we loved cross-country skiing, ice skating, windsurfing, kiteboarding, paddle boarding, sailing, hiking, running. Actually, he hates running, but sometimes he would come along just to appease me, running behind me, my personal six-foot-two bodyguard. On his mountain bike, he would clear huge jumps that I was way too chicken to attempt. While backcountry ski touring, on the uphills I’d fall behind with a whimper, unable to keep up. On the downhills, he’d struggle to match me. (I coached skiing for 30 years at Palisades Tahoe.) He loved playing hockey with his brothers and friends.
On March 9, 2008, we married above Tahoe City on top of Mt. Watson, standing on a flat boulder overlooking Lake Tahoe. It was a warm, sunny day. We climbed up the mountain on backcountry skis. Surrounded by family and a handful of friends, the big blue lake, and the snowcapped mountains, we promised “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part.”
A decade later, that promise was tested. On a snowy February morning, my husband, sitting in his favorite recliner in our cozy mountain cabin, looked up from his computer and announced: “I have Parkinson’s.” The world around me shifted then. The acid rose from my stomach into my throat. The red cast-iron wood-burning stove stood empty that day, cold and forlorn.
I found my way across the room and slid into the chair near him at our dining table — the table which had held so many dinners with our blended family. I was desperate for a hot fire to warm me up and I was painfully aware that our life had veered into an uncertain future. It didn’t take long for the doctors to confirm Jim’s self-diagnosis. That was four years ago.
Now, after a warm day in Baja, the next night comes, and I lie once again next to Jim, awake, listening to his rhythmic snoring, dodging his unintended punches and kicks. I hope I’ll hear again his laughter from dreaming good dreams. When he settles down into even breathing, I snuggle, matching my breath with his, counting every inhale and exhale.
Morning approaches, and the birds all around our palapa twitch and chirp. The star Sirius vanishes into the glowing light of the rising sun. I am suddenly stirred to my core: The beauty is overwhelming, and I know how lucky we are to enjoy it.
I hold tighter to the love of my life while we both listen, our bodies intertwined. And then I murmur, half to myself: “Despite what life throws at us, we live in paradise if we choose to see it. Nature will heal us if we open our hearts and minds to it.”
The symphony of birds and hundreds of mourning doves coo softly just for us and the sun will rise again.
~ Alenka Vrecek lives in North Tahoe with her husband, Jim, their four grown children, and three grandchildren. A lifelong skier, in 2018 she rode a mountain bike from North Tahoe to near the tip of Baja. Her memoir, She Rides, Chasing Dreams Across California and Mexico, will be available this June.