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It happens most afternoons: Just before I nod into the haze of a geriatric nap, my mind teases me with recollections from a former life.

With my eyes closed, the images develop in my imagination like photos taken by an instant camera. They are from 40 years ago, but they remain as vivid as the aroma of my morning coffee.

My subconscious leads me safely, by the hand, past many unhappy thoughts toward a two-bedroom cottage overlooking a narrow lake in the middle reaches of Ontario. I feel content among these images, because in them I am young and fit and have a continent of experiences still to discover.

As the memories become more distinct, I can smell the morning mist trailing gently above the lake. I hear a loon calling to its mate. Turning around, I see my wife and three young sons emerge from the woods. My boys rush toward me and in excited voices recount their walk and their plans for the day. Between sunrise and sunset their expectations for adventure are boundless. Yet they are content. They understand the rhythm of their time at the lake, as familiar and comforting as the noise the water makes lapping between the dock and motor boat.

They will fish from a canoe until a cicada cry pierces the midday quiet and announces it is time to swim. After innumerable cannonballs and belly flops off a diving platform anchored far from shore, and parental rebuke, they will tire of the water and each other. One by one they will desert the platform and make furious lonely strokes and flutter kicks toward land. The afternoon will end with them loafing in hammocks strung between silver birch trees.

I leave them sleeping and awake to my present life.

My hands reach out for them, but the cottage, my young family and our endless possibilities for happiness are gone. They are just specks of memory floating before me like dragonflies skimming for insects.

I open my eyes and look at my hands, wrapped in skin as rough and brittle as parchment paper. I sigh, because I know I am old and I have outlived all of my childhood friends, my wife and one of my sons.

I am aware that I am past my third act. Behind me the curtain is quickly closing, but I will remain on this stage as long as life has meaning to me. Although I am in my decline, I marvel each and every day at this world and the miracle of life. I am straddled between two universes: one of light and hope, the other of eternal darkness.

That is why I retraced my steps, making a pilgrimage to that cottage far north of the city: That lake is the source, the headwater, of my cascading river of midlife memories. I wanted to utter my thanks to a place that gave me and my family so much joy.

So, with an old map of Ontario's highways and byways, a well-serviced car, a working cellphone and lunch packed in a cooler, I travelled to the backwoods of holidays past.

The journey was not as long as I remembered it. The highway, cut through rock rich in uranium, was smoother, wider and less tortuous than when I last drove it, at the height of the Bill Davis era, in a giant Rideau 500.

The stores that once dotted the roadside and sold ice-cold, seven-ounce glass bottles of Pepsi-Cola, flip-flops and sunglasses without UV protection were gone, replaced by air-conditioned corporate outlets. I zoomed past them and their specials on DVDs, firewood and sunscreen.

The map, sitting folded on the passenger seat, directed me to the shores of the lake with more efficiency than any GPS. I parked my car beside a public boat landing across the water from the cottage where we spent our summers in the 1970s.

It pleased me to find the landing deserted. I didn't want to be disturbed while I set up my lawn chair, ate my lunch and stared back at my past.

I could see the cottage across the waves, and remembered how the screen door slammed whenever someone was angry or sad or just in a rush to go out and play.

I sipped on my iced tea and heard the voices of children swimming in the distance. I heard their splashes as they jumped into the crystal-clear water from a diving platform.

I closed my eyes and could hear my three sons preparing for a fishing expedition on the lake. I remembered my warnings to them about respect for the water, the boat and their lives.

While I ate and watched, I felt less lonely. I could sense the lake was still alive, brimming with hope and possibility.

My lunch finished, I cleaned my hands and packed my cooler and chair back into the trunk. I took one final look at the lake.

Suddenly, before me, a canoe glided across the water's surface. A father sat at the stern and propelled the craft with a paddle while two small children sat ahead of him. The children saw me on shore and waved.

I raised my hand in thanks. I was grateful to know the cycle of life continues. And that for me, whether my remaining days are long or short, they are still filled with endless possibilities.

Harry Leslie Smith lives in Belleville, Ont.