Sunday, June 21, 2015

Father's Day - Casting Into the Past

The family home in Montana was sold some time ago.  Mom wanted to enter her later years some place a little warmer. Dad was lured by fishing that started much earlier and ended much later.  After she died and he and my Step Mom married, his new bride made the decision to join him out further West.  But they kept a little house in Montana, which was eventually rented out, first to young folks, then to a family member who eventually bought it.

They still visited regularly and we spent many summers there as we grew into adulthood.  It’s been a while since he was back, a trip he would combine with a stay at my cousin Liz, high up in the mountains, while a family member housesits for him.  He is there now, paying respects at the family graves on the way, then stopping to spend a few weeks at my cousins, in what I believe will be his final trip. It was nothing he said, no word or action, just his voice as he talked about it, the suddenness of the trip.  It's as if he realizes that something, beyond any control, has begun, the beginning of the end of something he can not articulate. It was the recognition of something he would neither rage against or mourn, but being the man he is, simply wonder how he was found worthy to be part of it all in the first place.
Mentally he is still surprisingly sharp, unless he is tired, beating me in countless games of cribbage, which he taught me a few years ago, adding up the combination of scores in his head with lightning precision.  His wit is intact, as is his work ethic.  But the difference in his ability to move, to stand, to get around was markedly different than the last visit, just weeks ago.  He’s had a recent heart issue, a mass in his colon, the surgery for which he would not survive. But that has not stopped him, no the specter of a small stroke 9 years back that still waits in the shadows (though he usually just raises the television remote to it in triumph, as he recovered as no one said he would).

But he’s starting to show  all of the signs that none of us ever truly win.  It started with a couple of fainting spells.  Then he had difficulty getting out of a chair. We got him one of those chairs that will lift him which has been a huge help.  He’s still doing  his stretching and hand weights, but there are times he can’t even will himself to stand, without assistance. I can see the frustration in his eyes, though he tries not to show it, the brain commanding his heretofore obedient legs into action and their going AWOL on him.

What must it feel like to have words do your bidding but nothing else well?

But I'm thankful he decided to go when the invitation was offered - even with the two day drive with his nurse in attendance.  He loves it there.  It’s a land both wild and untamed, eagles riding the updrafts, bears and mountain lions still freely roaming, the coyotes making their living like gypsies, getting by with wiles, opportunity and constant movement.

There are four distinct seasons high up in the mountains, but to people that aren't from there, they appear to be winter, winter's not done with us yet, highway construction and winter's almost here.  There's no getting around it. Winters are harsh, the typical evenings entertainment consisting of a fire and a book, or simply watching the gauges outside. Overnight visits involve an extension cord.
The day Dad and my Step Mom got married, the snow was deep and the temperatures down in the minus 20's with the wind. The turn out at the church was remarkable, temperatures that can kill you not overriding a good Lutheran wedding and free booze.  But, like most people who were raised with hard work and nature, they were aware of the dangers, outside air that can freeze your lung and your flesh, the air sharp with the tang of cold whetted stone, a knife edge against fragile skin.

In the spring the residents emerge safely.  They do so though with caution, keeping a squinting eye on the mountains, at the sky.  They understand well that they are only servants to mother nature, and the overlord may be absent but he is not dethroned. 

The gods may rain down snow and ice and wind, suddenly, without trumpeting, right at that moment the foolish become bold.  Like the small animals in their dens who squint into the sun and the wind, the wise ones are watchful.  For out in these lands, the price of foolishness is high and that shadow of a predator, be it hawk or snow squall, can take you out in a moment of shrill surprise and cold blood.
It is the mountains to which he is sheltered for a spell, for it was the mountains in which he grew up - Glacier National Park, being the winding roads of his youth.  It was there he met my Mom in grade school and where they fell in love. It was there, after being widowed, he met a Montana widow and fell in love again, just as hard, and with the same sweet, faithful intensity.  He will too soon, lie between them on the side of a hill,  under a flag that honors our fallen Veterans.  But for now, he wishes to revisit those moments.

There is a drawer of photos in our house of such times. My Mom out hanging laundry on a line, a young girl coming into womanhood, the clothes blowing softly as her hair, glowing copper in the sunlight. My Dad, watching from a distance, not tall, but lean and well muscled.  My Mom catching his glance, her ice blue eyes looking at my Dad with a look that I did not recognize until many years passed and I stood in a parking lot of a little restaurant, saying hello to someone as if seeing them for the first time and losing my heart in the process.

I'm not sure what that day meant, or why he still had the picture.  It looks as if she was saying something to him, her lips opened as if startled by her words. There's a hint of a pleased smile on his lips, but what words may have been between them remain incommunicable forever, except in his memory.

So many photos in which he looks much like the man he will become, but still so young, living each day, not with that obsession of time's dragging weight which is the life of the unhappy or the weary, but simply embracing  time's fluidity, there in those lost moments between sixteen and war.

There were photos of  tractors and  range land and young men sitting on the bed of a forestry truck, feet dangling above the crisp green flood that washed out from the road, caught in that moment in time, unmoving, unstained and unbroken in a sort of bewildered denial of change and foreboding.  On the horizon was a looming war and future hardship but here in this moment, they could only see the limitless expectation that was youthful hearts under deep blue skies.


Dad sorted through those pictures with me.  He said “I don’t feel any different now, not in my head, I’m still that young man", then he chuckled and said “but all the names in my little black book now end in M.D.” I laughed but understand that. I’m wiser now then I was at 20 something, or even older.  I’m more cautious as to the acts and conceits of man, but I feel no different than I did then, but for my knee and a couple of faint lines around my eyes, the reminder that years grow short, even if we live our lives standing still, fearful of their passage.

I was a little taken aback, then, when Dad said he was going to go visit cousin Liz, with a couple stops on the way, his having declined a  trip to the WWII Memorial, trips to visit my house or distant relatives, reunions.  He said he wasn’t up to the travel and I certainly understood.  But the mountains were something he needed to see one last time, not the coastal mountains of his home, but the majestic mountains of his family roots, a source of inarticulate strength and honor, courage gained and love fulfilled.


I wrote this in  a small journal to be mailed to my Dad and carried with him, until I could join him again.  The cover is leather, the pages blank slates.  Outside, the sound of a train, that sound that filled the air behind our childhood home, with blasts of a whistle that were both elation and defiance, denial and farewell.   As I close the journal, the sound moves away, as if the train knows it dare not stop and even if it did, it would not be able to return.

Dad - I hope this trip is not a reminder of the horizon that awaits but a renewal of joys and memories that trigger in a certain shaft of sunlight, a certain smell. I hope as you stand in those mountains of stone and woods and rivers that race with fluid need that knows no age, you can remember the promise and the grace and the exhilerating danger that was your life, even if you can‘t return to it.

I hope you can cast a line into a stream for a big bass. I hope you can drive too fast, even if from the passenger seat, down a long mountain road, windows down and a taste in your mouth of your youth, of fear and hope and exultant passion for the destination and who awaited you there.  There was so much love that awaited you.  I hope you can watch from a cabin porch, as a big buck disappears into the woods.  Not moving away, but simply fading from sight, as that big bass would do, diving back into the safe depths of the water, vanishing home, seemingly without effort or even movement.

I hope that even if you can’t climb and hike these mountains that reared you, that you can mine them, down through  deep through the layers of your past.  May you fully explore all that is there, layer upon layer, memory upon memory, reliving and remembering, until such time as that single bright light beckons you home.

Until then may you look forward to each and every day with more longing and hope than without it.

Love - Brigid