Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Circling back & dancing (however clumsily) forward

My father died on July 23, 2012. It was a Monday, and for awhile thereafter, we tapped out time's rhythm by that day: One week since Daddy died. Two weeks. Five. Eight. 

As the multiples of seven slipped through our fingers and into the fog surrounding us, we began measuring by a certain day of the month: September 23. December 23. January 23. May 23.

We have watched the calendar pages blow away like they would in an old black-and-white movie, marking off the milestones that make up our lives without him: his birthday and each of ours; every full moon, every season, every holiday (Father's Day was especially hard). 

And now, somehow, it's been a year since Dad died, which could as easily be two days or three weeks or 10 years or 20. I don't want my father to be dead at all, and I certainly don't want him to have been dead for a year. 

So what happens the day after a year has passed? When I see a man pull a white handkerchief out of his pocket, will it take me a second more to remember that Daddy used to always carry one? Will I smell chili and not immediately think of the pots of it (and the mess) he'd make while we in Colorado? Do I forget the words to "The Creation of Sam McGee," a major player in his poetry repertoire?

Maybe I just become a veteran, a longstanding member of that club none of us wants to join, the one made up of shell-shocked children whose parents' deaths have made them inextricably adults.

His death made me feel vulnerable, but also invincible. So to be honest, I think part of me believes that once the calendar page flips over, we'll no longer be under the comforting quilt that wraps around our shoulders and protects us from anything bad. 

I can forget to wear sunscreen and I won't get sunburned. I can eat as much peanut butter as I want and not gain weight. Storm clouds may gather while I'm running, but I know they won't release their torrents until I'm home safely.

I lost my father, I alternately whisper or scream from under the cloth; isn't that enough?

This popped into my head last week, when I was desperate because I didn't know where my son was. Charlie said he was going to Tom Thumb to get a can of tuna, and then (because I wasn't in the mood to cook) pick up dinner at a nearby restaurant. He'd skipped the part telling me that he'd do those things after volleyball, which I'd forgotten that he plays on Thursday nights. I only knew he'd been gone more than an hour, and that the grocery store is five minutes away.

Before he called, I paced the sidewalk, willing the comfort quilt not to slip as I looked up at the stars and thought, "No no no no no. My dad died and that's more than plenty."

My father taught me how to ride a bike and how to drive a car, how to take a refrigerator of seemingly disparate leftovers and turn them into a culinary work of art. He taught me to love coconut, and that crying is OK, and that being tone deaf should not stop anyone from belting out Christmas carols.

He taught me to be kind, to cherish my brothers and sisters, to pick up dropped items with my toes. (He tried to teach me to dance, and to believe more completely in myself, and that airplane turbulence is nothing to fear, but those continue to be works in progress).

He didn't teach me how not to miss him. And as awful as parts of this year have been, as many paper towels and shoulders I've soaked with my tears, I'm realizing -- in miniscule doses -- maybe that isn't knowledge I'd want imparted. I will always miss him. And for that gift, I am eternally grateful.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Climbing higher

We are here in Colorado -- my sister Susan and her family, our mom, my son Charlie, his friend Lee, and I. Charlie and Lee have known each other since first grade, when the G and H of their surnames first soldered their bond in an alphabetically seated classroom. The link has been tight at times, and looser at others, but they've kept their friendship solid for 13 years now -- even after Lee began attending a different school in tenth grade, and despite their college choices being 800 miles apart. 

Lee was last with us up here -- six? seven? -- summers ago, and another week in July a year or two earlier. Back then, the tops of his and Charlie's heads barely reached my shoulders. The boys lollygagged through hikes, preferring to play on the boulders outside the cabin where my parents always stayed.

This summer, we'd no sooner arrived than they were talking about doing a major hike. Less than 36 hours later, we started out on a build-up six-miler called Twin Owls. But at just about the one-mile mark (which meant Charlie and Lee were about twice that far), we heard thunder. So I, the self-designated hike master (admittedly relieved because I could see the boys beginning to clamber up rocks) opted for a scamper down the path we had worked fairly hard to ascend. 

By the time we reached the trail head, of course, the thunder was barely a faraway echo, and the sky crystal clear. But in the interest of time (my niece Julie needed to leave for the airport to pick up her boyfriend), instead of attempting Twin Owls again, we hiked to Gem Lake -- a steep, shorter, and too-familiar hike not far away.

That almost-four mile jaunt was just fine for me. The boys, though, weren't satisfied. The perceived taste of the top whetted their appetites for -- if not the Twin Owls apex -- that of a tougher, longer, steeper, above-the-treeline actuality. 

That's simple to understand, really. It's like anything you come close to grasping -- then catch yourself at the cusp of letting yourself think you already have. The love you've waited for all your life, maybe. Or a perfect pesto, or that driest of martinis. If you're a surfer, maybe you can all but feel that wave of serenity under you, the one that holds you aloft while the ocean roils below.

Until -- if ever -- you truly taste on your tongue whatever you are reaching for, until you feel it on your fingertips, until you see it even when you close your eyes, it absorbs you and holds you rapt.

Charlie and Lee decided to sate their craving by climbing a mountain called Flattop. I've done that hike with each of my sisters and also with a cousin years ago, and can vouch for its breathtaking vistas, its oxygen-deprived air. 

Neither of the boys slept well the night before the hike. Lee told me in the morning that he'd woken up at 2 a.m. and decided he might as well get up and make his peanut-butter sandwiches. (He also packed a baguette and a box of Twinkie knock-offs, but that's another story).

He and Charlie reached the summit -- 4.4 miles from the trail head -- in two hours and 30 minutes. Even before they glanced over their shoulders and saw that last vestige of trees, the boys said they had a hard time moving their legs because the oxygen was so thin. But what they saw -- and you know it must have been astoundingly beautiful for 19-year-olds to say this kind of thing -- made every gasped-for breath worthwhile.

Before beginning this hike, they had decided that they -- along with the three other classmates who had spent time in Colorado with us through the years -- would climb Longs Peak together the summer before their senior year of college. At 14,259 feet, Longs is the highest point in Rocky Mountain National Park. Its name evokes reverence; those who have climbed it, awe. 

After ascending Flattop, the idea of Longs became more than words strung together, more a possibility than a lark, more an adult aspiration than a daydream shared between childhood friends. 

The route up Longs is 6.2 miles farther than Flattop. Getting there takes 12 hours at the very least, so hikers are strongly encouraged to begin around 2 a.m. to ensure they're off the summit when afternoon thunderstorms begin. Flattop was way above the tree line, but Longs would bring them 2,000 feet closer to the sky.

Although Longs, quite honestly, holds no great appeal for wimpy me, I understand its allure; I appreciate its invisible but very real bridge that connects childhood to adulthood. Which is why, ever since they shared this with me, I'm crossing my fingers, picking pennies off the sidewalk, scanning the sky at dusk for that very first star.

My wish is a bit tangential, a sidestep off the trail leading up Longs or down Flattop. I want Charlie and Lee to remember being on top of a mountain the summer they were both 19 -- within touching distance of a thousand clouds, at the starting point of a dream. To hold close what they told each other up there where the air was almost too thin to talk, and what they promised themselves. 

And in days or months or years to come, when life is crazy and Longs seems so very far away, I hope they can bring back the feeling of being on a mountaintop with a friend whose connection goes far beyond alphabetical. Of remembering what it feels like to be standing tall, high in the sky, believing with all your heart that anything is possible.