The view from up here is incredible and makes me feel so alive—cliché, I know, but when you consider I’ve come up here to die, you’ll recognize the irony in the statement. Maybe I’ll go out on a whole string of clichés. I feel fit as a fiddle, happy as a clam, strong as an ox.

        Crazy as a loon.

        My children’s opinions are not welcome here. Even though I know that’s what they’re probably thinking right now, back at the motel. Or have they already figured out I’m gone and begun their pursuit?

        The river roars past me, slamming a fallen tree branch against a rock and splintering it into shreds before rushing over the granite shelf that is the top of the falls. Spray defies gravity, and water droplets hang mid-air in a momentary state of suspended animation before plunging to the deep pool ninety feet below.

        I edge closer to the rim and look down. The pool looks different from up here, a bowl worried out of the granite over millions of years. Wondrous stuff, water. Soft enough to glide through without creating much more than a ripple, yet hard enough to shape the rock.

        This is my favorite place in the world, this waterfall tumbling down the side of this mountain. This is where I choose to die.

        I close my eyes and take a slow, deep breath. These mountains have a scent all their own, a signature perfume. I’ve smelled it every time I’ve come here, but this time, I realize I can break down the individual essences perfuming the air: rotting rhododendron blossoms mixed with moss-covered granite and cold, crisp water. I’ve never before  noticed that granite has a scent—like the air just before a storm, vaguely electrical—or that water smells cold. I smile. Now this is a near-death experience. No bright lights at the end of a long, dark tunnel for me, thank you very much. Give me the mountains, my mountains, anytime.

        The sound of the water almost drowns out a rumble of thunder tumbling over the ridge behind me. It always is raining somewhere in these mountains. If you don’t like the rain, just get in your car and drive to the other side. More than likely, the sun will be shining.

        I laugh, realizing I’ve just come up with the ultimate allegory for my life. It’s raining on this side. I’m ready to drive to the other side.

        Raining is somewhat of an understatement. I’ve been caught in a deluge. A hurricane, terminus existica. Inoperable brain cancer. I thought I was getting migraines from spending too much time sitting in front of the computer. I asked the doctor for some Imitrex. What I got was a death sentence.

        The oncologist told me I had options. Radiation. Chemotherapy.

        Vomiting, diarrhea, hair loss. “No thank you,” I said.

        The kids weren’t happy. “It’ll give you another few months,” they said.        Weakness, fatigue, burned scalp, loss of appetite.

        “How can you be so selfish?” they asked.

        Pain. Constant, unmitigated, excruciating pain.

        “How can you?” I replied.

        I used to bring them here when they were small. Justice liked to look for salamanders in the river downstream from the falls. One time, when he was maybe seven or eight, he turned over a rock and found himself staring a two-foot long hellbender straight in the eye. Startled the blazes out of me, but Justice just reached out and grabbed it, slippery as it was. He got a hold of it for only a few moments, but it was one of the highlights of his childhood.

        Artemis, on the other hand, hated the woods, something I never could understand. I never could understand how any child of mine—especially one named for the Greek goddess whose dominion was the forest—could hate the wilderness. We’d always put a book in our daypack, and she’d sit on a rock, sulking and reading, while Justice and I explored the river.

        They’re grown now. Neither one has been to the mountains in at least a decade. They’re caught up in their city lives, working fourteen hour days to pay their rent and maintain their upwardly-mobile lifestyles. To them, vacation means flying to Jamaica in January, or going to Carnival in Rio. Cruising the Mediterranean, maybe. Not cruising the mountain trails of their youth.

        But they brought me here. That’s not right—I brought them. At least, I asked them to meet me here. I told them I wanted us to be together, one more time, here. “Indulge a dying old lady,” I teased.

        No. I pleaded.

        “Your not old, Mom, you’re fifty-four years old,” Artemis pointed out. “And you wouldn’t be dying if you’d take the damn treatments.”

          Despite their grumbling, they came. I took them out for a trout dinner last night—a tradition held over from their childhoods, whenever we came to the mountains—and silently said my good-byes. Back at the motel I asked not to be awakened in the morning. “I’m exhausted,” I told them. “I’ll probably sleep until noon.”

        That is what I said. This is what I did:  At five o’clock in the morning, I crept out of bed, pulled on my jeans and sweatshirt, and slipped out of my room. I went the long way around to the parking lot so as not to pass either Justice’s or Artemis’ rooms.

        I got in my beloved old Volkswagen mini-bus and drove to the trail head.

        I was fairly certain I’d have at least a three-hour jump on them. Three hour jump. I smiled at my own little joke, proud that even though I’m staring death in the face, I’d maintained my sense of humor.

        The trail leading to the bottom of the falls was almost four miles long; there was no trail to the top. The climb had been challenging, but manageable. I knew when I planned this that I would be making my exit at a time when I probably still had two or three good months left. I knew if I waited until the good months were over, I wouldn’t have the strength to make the climb.

        Artemis would be the one who’d get worried, who’d insist the front desk clerk unlock the door to my room so she could check on me.

        Artemis would be the one to find the note. She and Justice would dash to the parking lot, arguing over whose car to take, who should drive. Justice would win.

        They’d head for the trail head, get lost, and lose at least thirty minutes arguing over whose fault that was.

        I would be gone by the time they got here. I hoped the river would sweep me away, out of the pool and down the mountainside. I felt bad at the thought my children (or heaven forbid, a total stranger) might find my broken, empty shell floating in the water below. But this was my exit. I had a right to make it the death of my choosing.

        Not that this had been my original choice. To tell the truth, at first I didn’t give much thought to where I’d die so much as what they’d do with me after I was gone. “Cremate me, and toss my ashes into the river in the mountains,” I’d told my children. Justice seemed agreeable to the idea, but not my daughter.

        “I want to be able to sit on your grave and read to you,” Artemis said.

        Pointing out that I would be dead and consequently unable to hear her read didn’t change her opinion of the situation at all.

        In the end, I decided this was a better idea anyway. At what point does the spirit leave the body?  If it happens at the moment of death, I want mine set loose here in my mountains, not in some sterile hospital room. Not even in my own living room. Here, where my heart has always felt most at home.

        I look down again. I can barely make out the wooden sign at the end of the trail, right next to the falls. NO CLIMBING, the sign warns. FOUR PEOPLE HAVE PLUNGED TO THEIR DEATHS WHILE CLIMBING THESE FALLS.

        I regret the Park Service will now have to pay for a new sign. If I’d thought of that earlier, I would have sent them a check to cover the cost.

        Like I said, the view from up here is incredible. But it also reminds me of an old Indian saying:  Today is a good day to die.

        The clouds break just a little and the sun probes through the trees, one golden beam illuminating my path. I will miss my children. But I am not afraid.

Smoky Trudeau is the author of two novels, Redeeming Grace and The Cabin, and one work of non-fiction, Front-Word, Back-Word, Insight Out: Lessons on Writing the Novel Lurking Inside You From Start to Finish. She may be reached through her Web site at
*The Last Flight Home was a 2003 Pushcart Prize nominee*

Copyright 2009