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first person

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Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

I counted. It takes me 419 steps to walk the path. Hidden behind the dog park, the path begins at the bottom of a steep slope that descends like a grand staircase into the Secret Forest. The small wooded pocket is home to a natural spring-fed creek that guides the path. Across from where the spring emerges from the earth sits the throne. A great, old tree. Rather than reach toward the sky, the trunk grows along the forest floor. It beckons my children to recline and admire the canopy above. Some days it challenges them to test their balance-beam skills, with the safety of the soft, lush earth below. The pathway follows the meandering creek until the flowing water dips out of sight on its way to the Bow River.

My daughter, Edyn, wondered if maybe the trunk grew to follow the flow of the creek, romanced by the constant gurgling. All year long, the babble from the groundwater spring echoes through the gulley, resonating in the mixed urban forest. Sometimes when I’m alone there and everything is still, it sounds like being underwater and intensifies the silence despite the surrounding city.

Not too long ago, when visiting this natural temple, my feet barely gripped the frozen, snow-covered ground. I felt unsure in the familiar surroundings as I started on the path. All around, with the perfect combination of cold, snow and sunlight, everything sparkling, the trees looked like they had party dresses on. My favourite time.

We had a memorial tree planted for Edyn. It’s a strong, young poplar and monitors the entrance to the gulley. Beside it grow three mountain ash planted at the same time, representing Michael, Simon and me. When the woman at the Parks Department heard our story, she arranged to plant the additional trees as a gift from the city. The plaque reminds passersby to “be kinder than necessary.”

With longer spring days, crocuses begin peeking out of the Earth and buds awaken on the branches of trees and shrubs, showing their green. The birds returning from winter retreats fill the Secret Forest with song, accompanied by squirrels’ chatter. Spring brings its own challenges. For a few weeks, it feels like the deluge of rain will never end. That forest path along the creek slickens with mud, deterring even the most able explorer.

In the summer, native plants knit a blanket for the ground on either bank. The delicate foliage of aspen and dogwood filters the sunlight that penetrates the forest floor. This path, refurbished by the community, is meant to redirect foot traffic from the riparian zone along the edge and link the two parks that border the gulley. A piece of serenity.

The July we moved to Calgary, Michael discovered the Secret Forest with the kids one afternoon. When the soccer ball rolled out of touch and found the entrance to the gulley, they were drawn to explore. Always eager for an adventure, Edyn was the first to descend. Immediately enraptured by the protective, cave-like canopy, she called to Michael and Simon, her younger brother and trusting fan. Over time we discovered that during the Calgary summer, the shade of the Secret Forest offered a cool reprieve from the dry, hot, windless days. It became an escape for us in many ways.

Edyn and her friends would play Hunger Games in that treed pocket, the mix of trees, shrubs and brush providing the best backdrop for survival. Those 10-year-old warriors tasted the nutrient-rich dirt from their hiding places. They took their game seriously. The weapons were basic. Edyn, armed with a store-bought wooden bow and suction-cup arrow, her satchel crossed over her chest, set out to meet her fellow Tributes for afternoons in the forest.

During the weekdays, I like to find the times when I can claim the gulley to myself. I pass through with our dog, Bear, when finishing a walk to the river or escarpment. While he hungers after the ever-faster squirrels, barking crazily at the tree trunks in which they are perched, I give gratitude to the space. With each step into the gulley I’m struck with a shock of sadness. Memories of Edyn with Simon flood through my brain. I see them laughing and exploring, playing their imaginative games or lounging together on the reclined throne.

New Year’s Eve in the park became our tradition, finishing with a walk through the Secret Forest. It started the first year after Edyn kicked us out of the hospital at 10:05 p.m. The ball had just dropped in New York, and Edyn told us that it was time to go. For the first night of Michael’s shift at the hospital, they had a mission. The Walking Dead marathon was about to begin. Edyn found it amusing that her brain cancer made her safe from zombies.

At home, sitting in the living room by the fire, the rest of us tried to respark our party with music and snacks. Simon’s raucous lip sync of Bohemian Rhapsody with his cousin Isabel boosted the energy enough to inspire a walk to the Secret Forest. The garage door opened to big, fat flakes of snow falling fast. We excitedly grabbed the magic carpets and hurried to the park. Renewed after 2½ hours of sledding, we walked home through the gulley.

Eight months later, we invited guests to the park to celebrate Edyn. The cousins weaved a web from twine in the branches of the throne, offering a place to leave messages for our daughter. At the end of the day, as the fall sun began to set, Michael and I crossed the park to untie the green strings that attached the notes to the web. The chill of September was noticeable, more so as we descended the staircase under the gold of the changing leaves. Awestruck with the multitude of note cards fluttering like delicate butterflies in the evening breeze, we planted ourselves before the throne and stared. A part of me wanted to leave the web for all to see, to share the magic that Edyn had given to this forested pocket.

More than eight years later, those note cards remain in a green linen box, safely stored for the day when we are able to read them. But on that evening, once we had carefully collected them, Michael and I hugged for a long time before beginning the ascent back to family and friends. Halfway I stopped. Looking back one more time, I remembered Edyn commenting on how when she walked down to the gulley, the world got quieter and quieter, then became totally peaceful at the bottom of the staircase in front of the tree. How it would make her stop and take a breath.

Kristyn Drever lives in Calgary.

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