Watershed Moment

Nineteen years ago today my father died at the top of one of his favorite waterfalls. This morning I found myself back in the forest near the spot, and while sitting on a rock in the middle of a stream, I thought back to how much my life has changed. Watershed moments are turning points. They are the dividing point in our lives that are often seen in hindsight, and it didn’t take me that long to figure out that life with my dad and life without my dad were going to be completely different.

On this day when the loss was new, I would dig out pictures of all the things I had done with my dad. I would go through memories diligently, and seek to remember all of the good to somehow erase the bad that today had become.

My father was lots of things before the day he died. My father was funny. He loved to make voices like Donald Duck and the Swedish Chef. He was kind. He would always drive friends of ours places and fill in on the soundboard at church anytime when asked. Dad was thoughtful. He was always plotting Christmas, even months ahead of time. My dad was caring. He loved taking care of us when we were sick. My dad was a great cook. His fudge was the best around the holidays. Dad was hardworking. He was often found working around the house hours after he came home from work.  Dad was so so many things that are way too numerous to list here. Then he died on March 9, 2001.

Things tend to shift when someone dies. If they die tragically, it seems even more so. The focus is taken off all the things they were when they were alive, and we tend to wrap up their existence into the day they died. As if that is the only day they lived… that is their life. It just isn’t so.

Even nineteen years later it seems like I can reach back in my brain to yesterday to something he said. I could sit beside him on the couch. I remember so plainly playing Super Nintendo and watching him beat levels as though it was a mere 48 hours ago. I remember him scrambling to bail water when I didn’t realize our dishwasher only used certain kinds of soap. I remember the day he threw the dryer off the back porch when I almost died in it. I remember so much in detail. Our brain plays tricks on us. Our brain does not want to admit what our heart so plainly knows. He is gone, and has been.

Now, instead of thinking of all the pictures I have of Dad, I think of all the pictures he belongs in that he is not. I find myself thinking of how much he would love the 5 grandkids he never got to meet. I think of how proud he would be of my brothers and their accomplishments. I consider myself lucky for the 21 years I had him, but there was so much more life left to live that he wasn’t a part of at all.

I sometimes wonder if he knew the implications for me when he chose the place to leave this earth. I wonder if he understood I’d spend my whole life chasing waterfalls on the outside chance I would get just one more minute with the greatest dad ever by sharing an experience he loved. I will always miss my dad, and today it cuts a little more than usual. He was truly wonderful, and I wish he could have seen himself through my eyes. He would have seen the life he gave me growing up, and I think he would have been proud of what he had accomplished. So, today I chased the small waterfalls to try and chase a moment long gone. I’m sad I didn’t know how to chase the small moments I’d one day miss years later.

 So, today I spend the day knowing it’s been another whole year since I’ve seen him, hugged him, or exasperated him with my talking. I miss you, Dad. It’s still not the same without you.  

Legacy of a Mountain Climber

She was a girl with a mountain to climb.

-Markus Zusak

 

My daddy taught me to climb mountains. I was born in Texas while Dad was in the Army, but as soon as his time was served, he headed straight back for the mountains. I really can’t blame him. He was raised in Detroit, moved to the mountains when he was 10, and then he found himself in the desert for years. Once his time in the desert was finished, it was logical to go back to the mountains. It’s even biblical. There are a lot of verses in the Bible talking about fleeing to the mountains. Growing up I thought of the mountains as comfort, like the topographical macaroni and cheese. This week my daddy, the mountain climber, would have been 61.

When I went to visit my grandparents, and it didn’t matter which ones, we headed for the mountains. One lived nearby in the heart of a region that is known for sweeping rivers, wildflowers, and fly-fishing. There I learned to pick the sassafras leaves off the tree and smell them, and I ran through the sprinkler while the train whistled as it came around the mountain down the bend in the road. I learned about snakes and owls. My granddaddy would play the guitar as my granny rocked me to sleep. My dad’s parents were a state away. Our extended family settled in the mountains so high I got car sick each time we traveled there. In those mountains I learned to dance in the rain, caught my first fish, learned to snap green beans, and climbed the crab apple trees. Mountains were my friends.

My family could always see the mountains in the distance. We could visit the mountain and live in the valley in the shadow of the mountains. My father took us on afternoon drives for most of my childhood right up until the day mountains started having a completely different meaning to me. I always loved the part of the mountains where we reached the end of a wall of mountains on each side and the blue sky opened up. We spent our weekends on walking trails hiking to waterfalls with various friends, seeing creatures in the woods, and being taught to leave nature where it was. Flowers were there for everyone. There, the rocks were made for skipping. Life was tangibly more abundant there in the mountains.

The day my father ended his life it was at the top of one of his beloved mountains. That was the first day I thought of mountains as something huge to get over. My playground was now a graveyard. I had to find a way to sort all the wonderful memories I had in those mountains that were now mingled with the pain on the worst day of my life. I swore I’d never drive past that place again. Then I moved to the mountains. I had to drive past that mountain each time I came home for the holidays. When your mountain is visible, it makes for a much harder journey to get around it.

When you are raised climbing mountains, it makes it harder to identify mountains that are problems. If you like challenges, you might not notice your mountain until it starts to feel like a desert. Once I lived through losing my father, all other mountains seemed like hills. I eventually came upon a time in my life it was clear I was in the desert. This was a totally different kind of mountain. Desert air sucks the life out of you. It demands your attention. It gives no mercy. Deserts are not known for their mercy to life. Deserts are…well, deserts.

You never really consider life in the desert. Everyone knows cacti live there, but if someone had told me to name desert animals I’d likely have said, “tumbleweed?” I started understanding why a cactus is prickly. I was pretty prickly myself. I started to feel forgotten by the God that I knew made all my beloved mountains. I started praying that God would move a very specific mountain. I was working three jobs while battling this mountain, and one day I was sitting praying watching the front door of a retail establishment, and it hit me. The store I worked had “mountain outfitters” in the name. God had somehow placed me smack in the middle of the biggest clue that sometimes He moves the mountain, but some mountains are meant to be climbed.

While in my metaphorical desert, I did a little research. There is a rain shadow effect that happens in some areas that cause little water to get to an area because of…you guessed it, a MOUNTAIN. In the rain shadow effect, water comes up with wind up one side of the mountain, and moist air rises. By the time it gets to the top, the moisture is gone. The other side of the mountain has a rain shadow effect that causes desert like conditions.

     Something I never considered was even though the rain was not reaching my desert, I was being sheltered from the wind by being on the other side of the mountain. But things still grow in the desert, and I was no different. In a rain shadow effect, it still rains, and when it does, the desert the next day is abloom. The plants there have just enough rain to live until the next rain. Sometimes that is how we live in the desert. We just have to get the rain when we can, and somehow it is enough until the next rainfall.

Even though I no longer am in my “desert”, I still have a few mountains. I have decided that some of them will not be moving, and one day I will be prepared for the hike to get to the top of them. I am grateful for the legacy of mountains my father left to me. I don’t have to hike the mountains alone. Just like God provides rain to a desert in need, He has not failed to provide exactly whatever and whomever I need in my life through each mountain, valley, and even desert. Mountains are inevitable. I’m glad my daddy knew the way to the top.

My Life, the Coloring Book

I have 35 coloring books lined up on a shelf. I refer to them in polite company as memories.  Sometimes I take them down and flip through them.  I’d like to say I colored them in all by myself, but I didn’t.  I helped color them in by the things I did, people I chose to be around, and who I let hold crayons.

Who holds your crayons? When I was little my grandmother, my babysitter, kept the crayons on a high shelf in the pantry.  At the time, I hated that and resented having to ask for them when I wanted to use them.  Looking back, the ones we love hold the crayons in more than one way.  She helped color those early years in, and kept my crayons safe.  She helped choose people I would be around, and therefore she also chose who held the crayons to color in my first five coloring books.

When you get a little older you want to start making everything your own.  You use crayons to color outside the lines to test your limits.  You use colors you’ve never used before, and they might become new favorites.  You start seeing friends, and not just family all over your coloring book pages.  It becomes even more beautiful when you flip back though them.

When you are a teenager pages might have equal dark and light on them.  Splashes of color that are vibrant are right beside colors of memories of middle school and high school trauma.  We take the good with the bad and hope that in the end our pages look prettier each day.  Sometimes they do.  Sometimes they don’t.

As an adult we choose who holds our crayons.  We shape our coloring books just as much as we shape our family’s and friend’s coloring books.  Loved ones get married.  Loved ones have babies.  We color the most vibrant colors of all.  Loved ones die.  Loved ones get divorced.  We color some of the darkest pages of all as adults.

What color of crayon are you holding over your family and friend’s coloring books?  Are you a bearer of light?  Are you shading in rich, bold colors?  Are you warming the pages with your presence?

Some pages are meant to be dark.  Some beautiful things come out of darkness.  If someone scribbles all over your pages with ugly colors, the pages that follow can be some of the most beautiful.  After a rainstorm can come a beautiful rainbow.  You can’t choose the colors when you let people color in your coloring book.  You just get to choose the crayon holder.