A Letter to Jack

 

Capture

Jack and his mom, Angie Ricketts

Dear Jack,

I’ve been wanting to write you for some time now. In that strange phenomenon of life in the 21st century, I have come to know both you and your mother electronically. That is to say, while my husband knew your mom in-person, I have come to know her, and consequently you, through social media. I connected with your mother’s irreverence, straight-forwardness, and willingness to hang it all out there in a “what-the-hell, you only live once, loosen up your collar and share a shot with me,” perspective on the world.

My relationship with you (can I call it that?) has taken longer to develop. At first, you were merely ancillary – the handsome son about to graduate high school who graphically got some teeth severed from his jaw in a soccer match. Then, slowly, more of you began to emerge. The creative, intelligent boy who made a wonderfully entertaining and humorous mock ISIS recruitment video for a high school class. A couple months back (it seems like several years ago) you stole center stage, though, with the discovery of that bastard Homer who’d somehow made a nest in the core of your brain. For those of you who think I might be in Colorado smoking a little legal weed, Homer is the moniker Angie (Jack’s mom) gave to the brain tumor that had secretly been waging a life-long war on Jack. Your dream of continuing the family warrior tradition of fighting for your country’s ideals, was suddenly sidelined. Instead, you had been knighted to fight the dragon inside of you, in a strange Eastern medieval fashion.

You did not realize it, I’m not even sure I did, but that day you and I were connected. I’m not sure why, but the date of your battle became lodged in my head – even overriding my own life issues, like my husband’s absence and my children’s looming trip to Alaska. When Jim called to check in the day of your surgery, around midmorning, from a Forest Service cabin on Hebgen Lake, I said, “Jack’s been in surgery now for at least four hours, still no update from Angie.” I’d misunderstood that you were going in at 6:30 a.m. on May 18th. Jim, who was in his “I’m fishing” mode, paused, and had to do a mental shift before he could respond and reassure me. Clearly, the anxiety in my tone surprised him. We’d both talked about your surgery, and Jim was aware of it, but I didn’t really “know” Angie, I’d never met her and I’d never met you – why the level of concern? For some reason, I just felt a deep emotional connection with both you and your mom. I knew that both of you needed to feel connected to something stronger than yourselves, a force of love that was like a wall of soldiers standing ready behind you.

It was weird, Jack, and an entirely new use of social media that gave me a healthy respect for it as a new kind of support tool. Sure, I’d seen other postings about folks with health issues, etc., but none of them reached me like yours. Maybe it’s because your mom’s a writer I connect with, maybe it’s my own traumatic brain injury that I survived, maybe it’s because I’ve always had an affinity for the name Jack, or maybe it’s just because I’m a mom. Regardless, I stalked your mom’s Facebook page relentlessly that day and the following for updates – any sign that you’d fought Homer and won. Thankfully, your mom seemed to know that myself and many others needed updates from the battlefield, and she kept us well-informed. But, the immediate good news was followed by the realities of the inevitable side-effects of brain surgery. That night, the first, when your mom shared with us your degraded condition, I cried for you and for her. My children comforted me and as I told them about you, they too came to know Jack.

The next day, when I picked the children up from school, my 13-year-old daughter got in the car and the first thing she said was, “How’s Jack?” If you’ve had teenagers then you realize how amazing that is, given their entirely selfish natures. I thanked her for asking and then reassured her that although you’d slain the dragon, the injuries you’d received in the fight would take time to heal. That evening, as I was patiently waiting for a final update from your mom, the video came. That dancing Brain Surgery Boogie video. And, Jack, with that video I came to know all that is you. Your spirit was trying to tell your mom, and all of us, to have no fear you were celebrating the win. But, juxtaposed with that video was the comment from your school psychologist about two suicides in your school that week. Which made your video even more poignant. You chose to fight Jack. You stood and fought for your life and here you are, waiting for your body to catch up to your heart and spirit.

My message to you today is simple Jack. Be patient. Give your body time. Let it heal. The best advice I got after my Carotid Artery Dissection was from a nurse friend of mine who said, “Your body is running a marathon every day trying to heal. Listen to your body.” She told me this because I was so frustrated at what I couldn’t do. Before my dissection, I was cycling 100-mile weeks, running, and more. I’d never had my body fail me before. But, suddenly, it was like someone turning off a light switch. I’d announce, “I have to go to bed,” and I’d have all I could do to make it up the flight of stairs and onto my bed. My body took charge of me and that was a frightening feeling. What I’m telling you is to listen to your body. Don’t push too hard too soon. You are going to be back before you know it, but time has a new elasticity when it comes to healing. You need to take the long view and celebrate every moment that you are Homer-free, even if it is going to temporarily reroute you.

Thank you for reminding all of us that life is worth living and worth fighting for Jack. You are an amazing young man and I feel very proud to know you, even if it’s in this weird 21st century kind of way. One of these days, I’m going to get in the car and drive down to Colorado Springs, just to shake your hand. Men can spend 20-years in the military and never see combat like you have. Be proud, be patient, be strong, and most of all, keep dancing.

Much love to you from Montana.

Andre Zollars

 

 

Piece-by-Piece

Car ripe with the smell of freshly run damp, muddy dogs, I crawl in and peel off the layers that protected me from the early morning Montana chill. As I back up, Elllie-May, my Beagle, crawls on my lap and I switch on the radio. Usually dialed into the teen’s top-40, it’s become more background noise then something I focus on. But, today I switched stations until one caught my ear. Shaking off a chill, I glanced over at the Bison standing forlornly in too small of a pen, overshadowed by the freshly dusted Snowies and head towards home.

As music is meant to do, Kelly Clarkson’s song penetrated a place I never knew existed in my memory, snippets of the song stuck and evoked a deep sadness I hadn’t felt in a very long time: “Piece by piece he collected me up off the ground where you abandoned me…He filled the holes that you burned in me. He never walks away, he takes care of me… Piece by piece he restores my faith that a man can be kind and a man can stay.”

Etched forever in my mind is that dark, misty coastal night. The lights of the ferry lit the wet dock and I had the car running to keep the babies, 1 and 3-years-old, warm. I tried to bury my emotions as deep inside of me as I could dig in order to answer their incessant questions without revealing the absolute terror of the unknown that gripped my heart: “Where are we going, mom?” “Why isn’t dad coming with us?” “How long is the ferry ride?” “Where will Bella (our Lab) go potty on the ferry?”

In Clarkson’s song, her man leaves her at the airport. Mine left me that night at the ferry dock. His last words were, “Here, take these with you, I don’t need them,” as guilt drove him to shove our camera and laptop through the car window, which I’d rolled down halfway to keep out the driving rain and his dark presence. So many times over the years, I wished I’d recorded that moment for my kids. So that when the day came that he told them I’d left him, as he did sooner rather than later, I could show them that he left us. But, I always knew that cruel memory should only be my own and that, as in everything in life, I was half at fault for our failure.

It was at that moment, as his back faded into the wet darkness, that I broke completely. Not visibly to my kids, or even to myself, but the wisdom of hindsight leads me to believe that was  when  I lost complete faith in myself, as well as any modicum of self-love I may have possessed. This self-loathing was to manifest itself in many negative and personally destructive ways over the next nine years.

“Piece by piece he collected me…” I am only now realizing how broken I’d become before Jim arrived so unexpectedly in my life. In the nearly five years since we met, Jim has patiently rebuilt me, often having to patch and re-patch the same stubborn pieces. He picked up the first piece of me by the Flathead River, despite me begging him to just leave me. I didn’t believe I was worthy of anyone. On the drive home to Lewistown, he carefully held me together, and in so doing showed me a love I had forgotten existed. He also revealed to me the myriad of cracks that had developed over the years in my facade of independent strength.

I first felt the depth of his resolute character when he returned from his first work trip. As I stepped into his arms, I felt like a balloon suddenly anchored to terra firma. Over time, I would come to feel that same solidity as he pulled us all together into one family. It was this dream of his, that slowly repaired me, “piece-by-piece” and made me believe in myself again. It was his unwaivering commitment to us, to building a life and a family together that would eventually heal me.

“I wish I was on a divorce diet,” someone once said to me, oblivious to the absolute cruelty of the statement. Because if you’ve ever been on a “divorce diet,” particularly with two babies in your care, you will understand the self-loathing, fear, and anxiety that drive you to shed pounds like so much icing off a warm cake. But, as I was to discover, it is self-loathing that had become the cancer inside me.

Jim taught me to love myself again and to trust myself, because, miraculously despite my life experience, he was able to see in me that 18-year-old girl who dreamed of a good man and a home full of children and laughter. In seeing all my beauty and strength, he helped me to believe in us and most importantly to trust myself that I could do my part to make it come true.

You have taught me that, “a man can be kind and that a man can stay.” Thank you for the gift of this life I imagined when I had my Aleutia and Elias. I see all that you are and I see how far I’ve come because of your love. Thank you for believing that I was worthy and for being willing to take one last ride on the child-rearing bull before hanging up the s20150719_101824purs. I love you my darling.

Bucket List

Image

Of all the things I have known in this world, of all the experiences I have had, the greatest is love. Love, I believe, offers the greatest lessons on the human condition. Life without it is unfathomable to me. In my fifty years, love has given much more than it has taken. It has brought me to my darkest places and given me the strength to believe again. If there is one lesson I try to reinforce with my children over and over again, it is to love – always, especially when you believe you never can again.
Today, I cross into what will undoubtedly be the briefer half of my existence. The odds are strongly against me making it to a full century. Moments like these bring reflection and clarity. For many, these years bring a sense of things left undone, and thus the creation of a “bucket list.” If God were to take me this moment; sitting here with my glass of wine, surrounded by the carefully selected pictures, art, and words of all whom I’ve loved, I would be at peace.
I have, at this moment, been given more than I feel I rightly deserve. My life is so full of love that my heart overfloweth. I have two beautiful children whom I was lucky enough to conceive at a rather advanced age, and who have given my life so much meaning that there seems little depth or value to the years before they arrived. In this little town on the prairie, I was to find a man who would see in me the 18-year-old girl with all of my innocence, strength, and virtue that even I was no longer able to see. He has loved me through so much pain and helped me to grow back into that girl I once knew. And, always, I have known the unique companionship of the animals in my life. I’ve buried my companions of 18 and 13 years here in this little town, having known a love with them deeper than any I’d ever discovered with another being. I would never have made it through my years of child-rearing alone, without my dearest Bella, my yellow lab and best friend.
As I write, my husband is in preparing me a birthday cake from scratch. Cooking, I have learned, is for him what writing is for me. It is a chance to get all the words out on paper, to show his love in the thoughtful selection and preparation of exquisite meals. When I eat that cake with my birthday dinner tonight, I will experience it more intimately than a store or box-made cake, because I know him well enough to realize it is full of love. He once teased me that I only loved him because he could cook, and..well… But, the truth is, I love him because he is soulful. His brusque exterior hides what only I could see in his eyes when I met him; that life has asked more of him than most, that he knows what it is to love more than most. The first night I met him I crawled up on his lap, like a stray cat, finally having found its home. Something in me just knew. He has taught me that true love is simple, really; it’s being there – always.
My marriage has brought me two step-children, who have risen to great heights in the time that I have known them, suffering the unspeakable loss of their mother at very fragile ages. They do not understand the composition of the love that I have for them because the ages at which we met and the time made that nearly impossible. Still, if they knew how fiercely I would fight for them, how much I would take care of them if they needed me, they would understand. But, they don’t need me now, they’re too busy becoming young adults and making their way in the world. I hold them dear in my hearts and pray that over time I will become a rock for them in this tumultuous world.
I have come to know what it is to have a relationship with a horse. It is an indescribable thing that is more than I could ever have imagined. There is a reciprocity of feeling and trust that simply defies explanation, but anyone who has ever loved a horse understands. This was an unexpected gift, that was not intended directly for me, but rather was intended for our daughters. Somehow, I became the beneficiary, however. Cowboy has taught me, as much as any meditation or hypnosis tape ever could, how to ground and center myself. Through his eyes, like that of a child’s, I see the world with every sense heightened; the rustling of the deer in the bush, the sudden swish of the wind through the willows, and the harsh rasp of the human voice. He has taught me to learn to filter these intrusions in order to determine what is truly a threat. His power and strength defying the soft beauty that resonates in the burnt chocolate reflection of his eyes.
I have been blessed with a dear friend, who has taught me what it is to believe in someone. She has shown me through her unfailing support of me, what it is to truly be there for another. In my darkest hours, she has believed in me and given me faith that I otherwise might not have found in myself. She has taught me the power of laughter, irreverence, and sarcasm. Our deep respect for one another has only grown over the years and we find great humor at our increasing age.

This morning, as I stood outside the barn, with the brilliant sunshine glinting off the snow, the air punctuated with frozen exhales from the horses nostrils as they tossed their hay around, and the occasional whinny as they paused and looked up expectantly for their oats, I smiled. This is my bucket list. This life that I know, full of more love than I ever would have imagined. I have no need to travel to exotic destinations or try my strength or nerve in unexpected ways. Life has already given me more of those challenges than due for my years. No, this right here, is all I need.

Thank you Jim, for finding me in this tumbleweed town on the prairie, and for the life you have given my children and I. Mostly, thank you for continuing to put out that bowl of warm milk and encouraging me to come back inside to the warmth and security of your world, assuaging my fears and finally showing me a love I could trust for the rest of my years. I love you and the life we have created.DSC_0676

A Savior and a Companion – My Ellie May

I had a friend, once, the kind you think is going to last a lifetime. She rescued me, pulling up to my house in her minivan, an unexpected chariot for a savior. It was instinct for a person like her. A stray had been deposited in her neighborhood and she couldn’t overlook it. For her, I believe, helping those in need was a way to heal her own aching heart, broken from the loss of her mother. Her pain assuaged by nursing other injured souls to health. For five years, we shared kids, Sunday morning coffee, long evenings on the deck and many precious moments in-between. We were family, or at least the only family I had. Our children made it possible, this unlikely union between a worldly woman, broken, who’d come to this small town searching for roots, and a small-town girl returned home to take over the family business after her mother’s death.

It’s been years since she’s initiated contact with me. Only I have reached out, confused, hurt, and needing validation. “You’ve changed,” she told me. No, I’ve healed. But, she wasn’t meant to be my companion for the remainder of my years, because saviors move on when there’s nothing more to fix. And, she did, moving on to another woman in town who’d suffered a tragic, unexpected loss in her life. She was certainly a worthy candidate, I have no bones with her; she deserved to be rescued as much as I did. Still, like the stray fed, comforted, and left again by the roadside with only a passing prayer, I am left confused at my abandonment.

About a year ago, I ran into her and her husband in a public place. Given our rich history, I couldn’t do the small-town thing and pass by, pretending it had never transpired. Rather, I stopped, and through a veil of tears, thanked them for the gifts they’d given me in the time I’d known them. After all, her husband had helped me bury my only companion of 13-years and he’d been there to rescue me time and time again, from moving furniture, to fixing pipes, to helping me with a flooded basement. My gesture that night was kindly acknowledged, but never reciprocated. I finally had to move on, grateful for the kindness that had been extended for a time.

“Do you feel like rescuing a puppy,” he asked, this new man in my life, a rhetorical question, he knew. Minutes later, I was cradling a Beagle, cream with liver-colored patches, in my arms. He’d followed her running pell-mell down the middle of the highway, for over a mile. “Ellie,” my daughter immediately coined her, to which I added “May.” She was also to be known as “Runaway Sue” in those first few months with us. I saw in that little Beagle myself, running down the highway, to God knows where, certain of only one thing – I wasn’t going back to where I came from. Those same instincts had brought me to this little town on the prairie. I didn’t know it, but I had just rescued my next savior and companion, a distinction she was going to teach me.

But, first, I had to win her trust. I knew the only way I could gain that was to chase her every time she ran away, returning her to my unconditional love and absolute security. The running away was instinct, bred of a wild desire and carelessness that comes from not being loved or feeling secure. For months, I’d spend hours tooling around stands of wood, waiting for her to emerge in hot pursuit of a deer. I stopped traffic on roads, dove in front of her, leaping out and putting her back in the car. Every time, my heart breaking when I saw her tiny little figure running, without any regard for danger or consequences. I used to run like that – running until my body was so exhausted I could no longer feel. It was the best tonic I’d found for an empty, aching heart.

Then, one day, she quit running, suddenly believing that I would always come after her. She’d just needed me to prove that to her, because her heart couldn’t take being abandoned again. I know, because in rescuing her, I came to understand the very same instincts that drove my own behavior. Ours is a deeply held belief that we have no intrinsic value, that we are not worthy of chasing after again and again. It is the life lesson of having been let go, tossed aside, left by the road side, because somehow we are just not worth the effort. So, we run and we don’t know how long or how many times we will run, until we are convinced we are safe and have truly found someone we can trust again.

Every time I pulled her into the car, I held her and told her over and over again, “I’ll never leave you. I got you,” and finally she believed me. That’s when she just became “Ellie May,” and no longer “Runaway Sue,” a moniker we laugh about now.  Thank you Ellie May for helping me to understand the difference between a savior and a companion. I see now that my savior was just that and her friendship was not meant to last a lifetime. Through your pain, I have come to understand my own. It is our instinct to run, because deep inside, we don’t believe that we are worth coming back for and too many in our lives have proven that to be true. It is something only an injured soul can understand, so if you don’t, count yourself lucky that someone in your life has made you feel worthwhile and safe.

Now, my Ellie May is sick and all my love and reassurance can’t protect her. So, I ask myself, what would I want right now? And, I know it’s what she and I both have always wanted – security.  The only security I can offer her is the warmth of my embrace and the constant whispering in her ear, “I got you. I’ll never let you go – ever,” and mean it with every cell in my being. Because that is the one thing I need to hear and be absolutely certain of, and that, for me, is what love is – being there, always.

DSC_0656

A Parents Gift

DSC_0830

This past month I have had a couple of wonderful visits with my inlaws. Yes, that’s right, I said my “inlaws.” I know, it seems to be incredible luck to be able to say that – at least, according to many relationships spouses have with their inlaws. But, you see, I’ve learned from my inlaws some things about being a parent I hadn’t considered before. These aren’t simple things I’ve picked up that they shared with me in a conversation. No, they are something deeper, more profound that I’ve come to realize over observing and interacting with them and their children and grandchildren over the course of the past four years.
What I’ve come to discover are a myriad of gifts that they unknowingly have imparted on their children and that I suspect their own children may only be mildly aware of since, unlike me, they don’t have a very different experience to compare it against. Some of these gifts have been given consciously, with great effort and planning – like making their children and grandchildren’s lives a priority or providing financial support when needed. Others, like living a full, rich life are secret gifts that their children may not recognize. So, I’d like to spend a little time ruminating on these gifts.

Dick and Dixie Klingaman are setting out on their 60th year of marriage. This is, easily, the most recognizable and the greatest of their gifts to their children. To maintain their union through thick and thin clearly, no matter what the rest of us who have divorced tell ourselves, provides a steadfast foundation for their children throughout their lives and into adulthood. I was lucky enough to also have a nuclear family, my parents having been married for 63-years. But, as I have learned by observing them, there is much more to growing old gracefully and with dignity and respect for yourself and your children than simply staying together.

Their children and grandchildren are the center of Dick and Dixie’s lives. They make a concerted effort that includes great planning, time and financial commitment to be there for their children and grandchildren. This isn’t a once-a-year affair, or a pop over for a quick visit when it’s convenient for them kind of deal. Rather, they rotate Christmas visits every year between children (traveling from PA to NY, MN, and MT), ensuring they get to see all their grandchildren. In the time I’ve known them, they’ve made special trips for birthdays, anniversaries, and to take their grandkids to Disney World. The time they give on these trips is solely focused on their children and grandchildren. I’ve left the table so they have time to visit with their son one-on-one about our life. I’ve sat and watched them visit with their grandchildren, not showing a precursory, but rather a real interest in them and their lives as they grow and develop.

In between these visits, there is a weekly phone call that is meant to check in and be sure everyone’s doing well. This isn’t a phone call about them, their issues, or their problems. Rather, it’s a phone call geared towards us, our children, our challenges, and our lives. The questions from both Dick and Dixie are genuine, thoughtful, and always with only our best interests in mind. They will always ask about each one of our children and how they’re doing. After a visit, I feel a bit like I just got tucked into bed for the night. I hang up the phone, knowing that while they may be on the other side of the country, they’re really just down the hall. That’s the security that phone call gives me. We all should be lucky enough to get that call once-a-week.

The hidden gift in their lives, though, is not the obvious devotion to their children and grandchildren. Rather, it is that Dick and Dixie are happy. They clearly have a wonderful rich life outside of the time when they are traveling or visiting with their nuclear family. Dick, at 81, remains the Chairman of Westmoreland Coal Company and is very busy in that role. Dixie is an avid reader and is very active in the community where they live, doing classes, sports, and attending cultural events; all of which they do together, as well. Most recently, at 80 and 81, the two just returned from a trip to Slovenia – Dixie’s 80th birthday present from Dick. While her mother never got to return to her childhood home, Dixie was able to walk the streets where her mother grew up. Why is all of this a gift? Because, when we see them or visit on the phone, and the conversation isn’t directed at us, we get to hear about all their wonderful escapades. This is uplifting, enrichening, enlightening, and enjoyable to experience. They are truly happy and have built a wonderful life for themselves. By having done this, we get to share in that positive energy.

While I’m sure there are things about all of their children’s spouses that aren’t perfect or exactly what they’d perhaps desire, Dick and Dixie are resoundingly supportive. They do not judge their children’s spouses or the way they raise their grandchildren. Because of that, they are able to truly enjoy their visits with their children and grandchildren. I’m sure that their children do not make the choices they would always like to see, but they support them financially and otherwise, regardless. This support seems to cultivate a mutual respect between them and their children. They have what I would call an “adult relationship,” instead of one where the child is still trying to seek approval and afraid to voice their opinion for fear of reprisal, despite the fact that they are adults. This respect cultivates an exchange of ideas and thoughts about difficult life decisions their children face, without them trying to control their children.

All of these things are gifts. I note them because I’d never thought of parenthood in quite this way. Before, I thought my greatest challenge was to get my kids through college and able to function as contributing adults in society. But, really, that’s just the beginning of the journey and relationship I signed up for when I had them. What Dick and Dixie have given me is perspective. I see now that I must continue to model for my children what and how to grow old well; how to give back; how to not just take care of myself physically and intellectually, but how to continue to grow and challenge myself; how to build a life with my husband that is full and rich; how to make my children a priority without being overbearing or trying to control their lives and decisions as adults. All of these things, and more, I just simply hadn’t thought of before as part of my role as a parent.

Dick always says to me before he parts, either in-person or on the phone, “Now, if you need anything you give us a call.” And, the thing is, I know he means it. Thank you Dick and Dixie for the greatest gift you have given your son and I. May your 60th year be your grandest. Happy Anniversary!

How Do You Say Farewell?

My dearest father,

The news of your illness seems to have been oddly synchronized with an arctic blast that has tossed those of us in Montana headlong into winter. It has created an eerie mood of a haloed sun with a hoar frost and mist rising off the creek that portends of a mysterious portal you will enter where I will no longer be able to hear your voice or touch your hand again.

We live in such fear of this place, spending many of our days alive dreading its coming. Yet, I see now that it comes no matter our fears, and that, like everything in our lives, we have no real control over its timing. It seems a wicked joke to say laconically that you have lived a “full life” and thank God for that. Yet having stared death in the face with two young children in tow, I can appreciate the underlying meaning in that statement. Still, it seems it does not soften the blow to the ears that must hear it.

Father, if I have taken any wisdom from this life it is that becoming “real” like the Velveteen Rabbit doesn’t happen just from “love,” but also from the releasing of “ego.” This is something I only accomplished when death swooped in and tried to take me. It forever changed me, and brought me one step closer to becoming real one day. The other –  love – you gave to me, and I have carried that love cautiously in my heart, sharing it foolishly at times, but always with the best hopes and dreams. I feel myself becoming real too and as I stared at the snapshot I took of you and I talking on Skype the other day – that crazy modern invention that lets me peer across space and time at you – I realized that is where you are headed. I will no longer be able to run to the garden and find you tossed amongst the rose bushes, forgotten after a time of play. But, I will be able to wade in the creek, suck in the smell of the honeysuckle, listen to the whisper of the aspens, watch the hawks soar, and see in the wonder of it all that is you.

Like the old man, wandering down the road, who is able to see the beauty in the flapping of the wings of the birds as they rise from the trees in the morning sunlight, despite being a survivor of the horrors of war, you have taught me to never stop seeing the beauty around me. What is more, you have taught me to never stop trying to find the kind of love that can carry one through a lifetime. For these two lessons, more than all the others – and there are many – I am most grateful. Because, those two things are what I believe make me beautiful inside, where it counts. A pure spirit still flits in my soul, a golden light that will always look to the sky and believe that there is good in this world.

Pappy, this is damn hard. Damn hard. How many years? How many years have I said goodbye, expecting it might be the last? How carefully I calculated those goodbyes, wanting to never hold in my mind anything but joy at our parting. When things did not go as planned, I was quick to call and ask for forgiveness for my short-sightedness. You see, I never wanted to be in a place where we were cross with one another over something neither of us could let go. This past summer was a lot like life. Your visit brought the very best times and the very worst I could have ever anticipated going through with you. I thank God for getting your sister Ferne up here and getting you to see Faith and your nieces and nephews. I will hold those memories of the two of you singing and your recollections from Kalispell to Libby dear in my heart for the rest of my days. And, the laughter. What fun we had with the Spencers and how unexpected that was, but so comforting for me to find kindred spirits tucked up in the NW corner of this mighty state. That is a gift I will always be grateful for and I hope to share with my children so that they can feel surrounded by more family.

I was out in the garage, picking up things so we could put the Sprite in the barn for the winter when I came across a little Thermos lunchbox. Opening it up, I sat down and cried. Its contents revealing the man that had raised me and my five siblings on seemingly nothing. Inside that lunchbox, carefully packed was duct tape, electrical tape, a ballpin hammer, a Leatherman’s tool, a hand brush, Son-of-a-Gun protectant and cleaner, a dog leash, a leather holder with lock picking tools, a socket wrench and sockets, a towel, and some other carefully selected tools. No artist alive could have rendered a better representation of you and your life’s work. I still remember coming back from the ocean and the fan belt breaking on one of the rigs. You stopped, pulled over, and used a shoestring to fix it until we got home. How many cars did you tow home, headed for the junk yard, that two weeks later came out shiny and like-new, only to be sold to pay for groceries a week later? Think about the number of times you fixed dishwashers, toilets, washing machines, lawn mowers. And, these were the most minor of your challenges.  What about the deck and the pool at the Wall Street house in Spokane, or the cool loft at the house on Lake Blaine, or the inground pool at the place on Brown’s Point? Even those pale to your 20-odd-years spent in “retirement” fixing up, buying and selling homes from Montana to New Mexico.

You never had the luxury of hobbies, so that all of those projects were but a means of survival. I know now that’s how I got those new tenner-shoes or that jacket that everyone else had and I wanted.  You used to talk to me about the joy it gave you to take something old and make it new again. And, I watched you over the years, breathe life into every type of thing imaginable in order to give it one more run. Your lessons were not for naught. I have learned to be a self-sufficient woman who spent the better part of the past 10-years raising her two children on her own. I felt your lessons every step along the way, as I went to thrift stores to buy clothes, furniture, pots, and pans to provide for my children. Or, when I breathed new life into an old stove, by tearing out a broken heating element and climbed over salvaged stoves in the snow to find another one that matched. Each time I peeled the layers of paint, stain, wallpaper, or veneer off of walls and furniture and made them new again, I stood back and felt the pride that you have known for years.

And, now, here we are standing on the precipice and I cannot breathe life back into you. Damnit.

But, I know that this physical existence is just a small part of our spiritual life together and that I must simply be thankful for these past 49-years that I was lucky enough to feel your touch, hear your voice, and experience your love.

Thank you for that father and for showing me what it is to live a life well, with nothing but love as your guiding principle.

I’m here dad. I’m not going anywhere. I’ve got nothing more pressing to do. There is nothing more important in my life. I am here. Hold my hand, do not fear, and let’s take this next step together. You are not leaving me, you are simply coming back into my heart to stay so that I have you closer than ever.

So, I will not say farewell, but instead welcome. Welcome back into the place that you created. Rest easy here and know that I will care for you as you have for me these past 49-years. I will never leave you, but together we will face whatever comes.

All my love my dearest Pappy – your Spider Monkey.Wish You Were Here 008

Can I Have This Dance?

The memories flow now silvery blue in my mind, a little girls dress rippling softly over his head and a voice declaring to all who would listen, “he’s mine, I saw him first.” Thus, began a dance that has lasted nearly half a century and one that I know I am blessed to have enjoyed for so long. I hold in my mind a picture of an auburn haired girl nestled in between two men, one with a cropped 70’s beard and sideburns and the other bespectacled and gray. Her face is radiant with a smile that shows these two men are the most important in her world and this place is the only place she wants to be in the world at that moment. Walter C. Zollars Sr. and Walter C. Zollars Jr., those were the loves of her life at that tender age of five or six.

The water flows through my mind, washing over memories like river rocks, softened and rounded with time. Laughter bounces off the ripples sounding hauntingly like the water moving downstream. Oblivious to its flow and lost in the current, visions dart around like so many wild trout, searching for sustenance. Pappy is wrapped in an old patched flannel blanket, and we are stacked around him, like so many cords of wood – his six children. But, I am closest, tucked under his arm. He is recovering from an accident that would have taken a lesser man, a man who had nothing to live for. Not this man, though, this man, whom I still can see being wheeled past me in the emergency room, covered in sheets soaked with blood. This man fought through dozens of surgeries, having his entire face rewired, an eye removed and a new socket put in. This man would not go down because he knew that sitting at home in a bed, surrounded by all those pieces of wood, was a woman who needed him. They’d gotten into this mess together and it was the two of them against the world. So, he fought, and he survived.

Diving back into the cool depths, I let the icy chill settle on my shoulders as I stare over a video screen at his pixeled image and am haunted by what I see in his eyes. He is letting go, I can see it. But, he is waiting. He’s waiting for me and I know it. He cannot bear to speak, because it hurts so badly and he no longer wants to feel, it is all too much. And, I know what that is to not want to feel and my heart aches for the umbilical cord that we must sever. Because the time has come for him to bow out and for me to continue the dance without him. The waters carry us, no matter our resistance, down to where they empty into the great sea and that is where he is headed. We both know it and we both cannot accept it.

So I stay low, dug in to a nice little back eddy, tail against the bank, facing into the current, watching for disturbances on the surface. As the ripples spread, I rise towards the sun warming the surface and break through to remember again. Laughter, there was so much laughter, and all of it without regard for convention and often meant to flaunt in the face of convention. Irreverence, I was taught, will help you to see clearly, to see outside the box, to better understand why rules are made, and to always keep life’s craziness in perspective. Reflection too, there is no better way to learn, grown, and become better than to observe your reflection in the face of your actions and of those you love. Reflection is key to self-growth, self-understanding, and achieving all that you were meant to be.

Dreaming comes easy to me in this new world where light never really reaches and I am lost in a dance that I thought would never end. Recently, I was with him, and we were in this big silver building with all these stairways and industrial windows that looked out onto a vast landscape. We were going through this building together and he was distraught. His father was dying and he couldn’t bear it. I was following him and trying to comfort him. Out the window, I realized when I awoke, flowed the mighty Kootenai, the river of his boyhood. And, I remember in my dream, that I kept looking out the window and knew that if I could just get him there he would be OK. I settle upon this thought because I did get him there, this summer. He was sick, his mind failing, and I was the one to rescue him from the Emergency Room in Dillon where the police had picked him up. He’d left Arizona, searching for something in Montana and I’d rescued him.

The one thing I did right this summer of what I did not know was to be our last time spent together,  was I flew his 86-year-old sister up and the three of us took a road trip to Libby to see his 89-year-old sister who lies dying from Alzheimers. The trip from Kalispell to Libby was one I’ll never forget. From passing our namesake, Roger’s Lake (my great-grandmother settled there), to our arrival on the outskirts of Libby, it was a flood of memories for the two of them. My only regret is that I didn’t record what they had to say, all the places they remembered. The spots they’d camped, where my grandpa homesteaded, the places they’d gone to dances and parties. Then there was the singing, the beautiful old songs, all of which bespoke a love for this little corner of this grand state. And, I could feel the roots grow underneath me, pinning me to this place along with them. Then there was an evening spent with cousins I hadn’t seen for 30 years and sharing tales of the two Walter Clay’s (my father known affectionately as “Uncle Bud.” The humor, it turns out, is a family trait. I lose focus for a time and the current grabs the side of me, pulling me further downstream as I struggle to regain my concentration and find another holding spot.

Suddenly, there is a knock on the door and a little auburn haired girl comes in and says, “Mommy are you allright?” as she climbs onto my lap. “You shouldn’t cry on your birthday,” she says. And, as I hold her and tell her that I am just sad about my dad, I realize that I am for her what he was for me. I am her rock, her best friend, her absolute everything. And, I realize, that I must let the current wash over me and I must let it carry away a part of me that has held and grounded me for all these years. But, mostly, I realize that while it feels like the core of my being is being pulled from me, that is just the love he gave and it is the love that binds me to my two little bugs.  Thank you Pappy for the dance.