Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Mountain

First of all, a word of caution to my brother--this is the one you were either dreading or looking forward to, depending on your mood! At least you knew it would be today...

I say that because today, after all these months of sideways comments, implications, under- and over-stating, I'm staring straight at the hero of my life, the hero of my siblings' life. Why? Because today is July 2nd, my father's 77th birthday. I'd like to say we'd be celebrating, if he'd have lived to see it. But we wouldn't be, because he wasn't much for celebrating something for which he had no hand in. To him, it would be just a day like any other day. But to me, especially in these last 11 years since he died, it's been fraught with meaning, like everything about my father.

So how do I talk about him? I've been trying to think. Do I tell you that he was the best father anyone ever had? He was, you know. I really believe that. I know, my kids think that Beve is. And I want them to. I thank God they do think so. Many of my friends have Dads or husbands who fit that bill as well, and fine, they can have a share in this pie. But for me, it was Dad. He was brilliant, witty, encouraging, a servant, my brother in Christ (Hallelujah!!!), stubborn, wise, loyal, had honor and integrity like a man should...
But I wanted to tell one story that would say something about him, and as I've been ruminating about it the last few days, it came to me what story that should be. This happened a decade before I was born, so I don't feature in it, but in a way, it's a lamp post, pointing to so many things about the man he would become, the father he'd be, that it says everything.

When Dad was 18 years old, he and 3 other buddies climbed Mt. Saint Helens. Dad was the most experienced climber--he'd already climbed Rainier, Adams, and been a part of a climbing club for a while. Shoot, Dad has a 4 digit REI membership number. He became a member back in the '40s when REI was a fledgling operation, housed in an old warehouse. Anyway, in 1949, Dad and these friends climbed St Helens on a clear spring morning, got all the way to the top, looked down on the whole world, looked down on their whole lives and saw that it was good, and started back down with hope and joy. They weren't roped up as they crossed a gently sloped ice-field, but Dad was still slightly leading. The next boy, Art, didn't follow Dad's tracks, but walked beside him, and in an instant, fell through the snow and into a deep crevasse, breaking both legs in the fall. And he had the rope with him! So two of the boys skied down the mountain as fast as their legs could carry them. And my 18-year-old pre-father dad sat on that mountain for hours, talking to Art, listening to him. Both of them knew by the end that help would not come in time, so Art told my dad messages for his parents, siblings and friends. When Art's voice finally petered out, and Dad couldn't do anything else for him--and when the sun was going down so Dad himself was also in danger--he left his axe and shovel shaped in an X, and skied down the mountain alone in the twilight. Hearing Art's voice in his head. The next morning the ski patrol brought Art's cold and broken body down the mountain.

Dad told me once that when he was in the navy and had the midnight watch out at sea, he would stand on the ship and look at the ocean, and could hear Art's voice echoing in the postmid-night hours. I wrote a poem about it in college that won rave reviews "Two bells" (I wish I could find it now). He never told me what Art said to him in all those hours, but it changed his life to have lived through it with him. It made Dad more intentional with us, I think. Able to listen to us, to fully engage. He didn't take things for granted, told us often and with sincerity, that he loved us, was proud of us, that he wanted us to grow up to do better, to be stronger, to be who he saw we could be. He was paying attention--even in the busyness of his own very demanding work, and very compelling avocation of the out-of-doors. Sure, he had his strong sense of right and wrong and the Boy Scout Law to guide him, but there was also something about those hours on the mountain that spurred him on.

Dad towered like Mt Saint Helens over our lives. In so many ways. He was the strong sturdy back we climbed, and the place we went to play. He led, and we followed. Or, he went behind, letting the slowest set the pace--so we stayed together. He was the place we went again and again, to relearn, to find out new things, to laugh, to cry, to simply be. He taught us everything --literally everything--he knew about surviving life on the mountain. About being safe, and about loving it. And didn't we all love being on the mountain?

When Mt Saint Helens blew, my Dad--generally a lover of all nature--said, "Nothing good ever came from that mountain." I think he was glad to see that mountain disappear.
And when he died, it was like a mountain had blown up in our lives. Ash rained down on us for months from the pain of Dad's death. Ash lingers in the crevasses still. There's a different shape to it now--the place where that mountain was is a crater. And though I've gotten used to how the crater looks, what it feels like to live with that crater in view, I miss the mountain. I will always miss him. He thought nothing good came from it. But I'm here to tell you, Dad did, and he was the best that mountain had to offer!


cece said...

thank you for sharing that story.
once again you've made me cry.
oh how i wish i had known your father.
what did you kids call him?

jeskmom said...

He was Daddy when I was really little, Papa-Daddy when I was a middle-schooler, and finally Dad--unless I needed something from him, like a hug or help! Then he was always Daddy. But in a way, that's what he'll always be to me--Daddy.