We pass a small sign for Huntly. There's nothing here but a low white house where the rural post office used to be. It shut down years ago, and now Huntly is just a name on the map. A mile later, we turn left onto a smaller road. Meg slows down as the asphalt gives way to gravel, as Dad taught us to do out of respect for the neighbors. The lane tightens as it passes a row of mailboxes and a neglected stucco chapel that was once a slave church. To our right is a house abandoned when we were children, its rusting swing set still lurching in the weeds. On the left is the overgrown apple orchard where a horse named Mack used to graze, so skinny we could count his ribs.
My heart skips the way it used to when I was a girl and we'd come back after a long absence. What was waiting for us? What had changed while we were away? We were gone far more than we were here. Always I had so many questions.
Now, at last, I see it: the wooden sign, HUNTLY STAGE, hand-carved in large black letters, hanging from its post. We ease in and creep between two long rock walls overhung by persimmon trees, giving way to grass on both sides. The field to our right slopes up a long hill that hides the house, until it doesn't, and there it is, rising right out of the grass, all the lights on, calling us back.
I've been coming to Huntly Stage since 1978, after my parents divorced and my father bought the property with his girlfriend, Lesley. I was six that year. Through much of our childhood living in New Jersey with our mother and stepfather, Meg and I visited the farm four times a year; this dwindled to once or twice a year after we went to college, and considerably less when we got jobs and, later still, had children of our own. A quick computation yields a disappointing sum—fifty-two weeks, a year of my life at most.
Because of the infrequency of our visits, Huntly Stage has never felt entirely like home, yet it's as familiar to me as any place I've ever known. I can close my eyes and summon it in my mind: a two-story wooden house overlooking twenty-seven acres of fields and streams and forest. After a summer rain, no greener place exists than this corner of Rappahannock County, in northern Virginia, at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Dad likes to joke that he can watch the grass grow, but I've seen the way he studies his fields and tends to them like children, and I know he's not kidding.
As with so many things we come to know well over a long period of time, at some point I began to take Huntly's constancy for granted, or perhaps I always had. I thought it would never really change, just as I thought my father would never change.
I was wrong.
Three weeks ago, Dad was diagnosed with stage IV kidney cancer. Shortly after getting the news, I flew east with Maisy from Santa Fe, where I've lived for fifteen years. My husband, Steve, stayed home with our two-year-old daughter, Pippa. Meg caught a flight from her home in California, and together we rented a car and drove an hour and a half from Dulles airport to the farm for a long weekend to help however we can. On the plane, I worried that Dad would have cancer written all over his body, but when we pull up the driveway, he's ambling down the walk to greet us.
"Hello!" he bellows. He looks okay, a little wan but still sturdy, himself.
"Dad," I say, hugging him hard and handing him the baby. He puts his arms around her, and I put my arm around him and together we walk slowly inside. Through his sweatshirt I can feel his shoulder blades moving up and down with his breath.
The house is comfortably cluttered and largely unchanged from my childhood. Books line the shelves in the living room, paintings and photographs hang on the walls. In the kitchen, the refrigerator is plastered with cartoons; a plastic Queen Elizabeth figurine sits on the windowsill, gracing the room with her regal, solar-powered wave when the sun shines. Lesley, who married my father in 1981, is from England and still goes back every other year.
What's different is the way the house feels. The air inside is heavier and quieter, sleepier, but there's too much to do to just droop around the house. Meg and I run errands in our rental car, hauling in supplies from Kmart, ten miles away in Front Royal: a case of chocolate Ensure, because Dad's losing his appetite, and a new pair of plaid pajamas, because his old ones are threadbare. Both seem like terrible portents of what's to come.
In the late afternoons, when our chores are finished and Maisy and Dad are resting, I slip out the back door, sit on the stoop, and put on my running shoes. It's early October and the sun is hot on my skin. I'm tired and I don't feel like going, but I need fresh air. I need to move.
I jog down the long arc of the driveway, between two pastures bounded by a curving split-rail fence, past Lesley's barn, where she runs a small horse-breeding business, one foal a year, for show. The grass is so immaculately trimmed, it looks painted on. At the bottom of the hill, I swing left along the creek and past the Huntly Stage sign. Dad and Lesley gave the farm this name, after the faint, grassy track that cuts across one corner of the property, which they liked to imagine was once a stagecoach road traveled by George Washington.
My legs are heavy and slow, but I don't care. I'm not running for speed or fitness. I'm running to get out of the house and escape the dread of what's to come. I'm running to feel the humid air swoosh through my lungs, to feel normal again, and just a little bit alive. I'm running to forget, and to remember.
I became a runner by accident. It was April 1979, and I was seven. Meg and I were visiting Dad, as we always did over Easter break. Spring was the best time of year in Virginia: the cherry blossoms were in bloom, and the grass and leaves were greener than they were in New Jersey. Easter was Dad's holiday with us, just like Thanksgiving and New Year's and the last few weeks of August. Often when we were with him, I had the uneasy feeling that this was not enough time and also too much. Dad was always trying to think up clever things to do with us.
Now he had an idea.
"What do you think about running a race?" he announced at breakfast. "Six miles, from Flint Hill to Little Washington?"