My father and I reconciled last Christmas and on January 9th he passed away, and while I drove to arrange the funeral I concluded there was one thing I coveted above all else, one thing I was determined to find…
By that point, though, events were threatening to overwhelm me.
Unbeknownst to me, there’d been a frantic search on January 8th to find a relative, a search that concluded with a call to my hotel room in Missoula, Montana. The details provided tumbled between unknown and unclear until a doctor used the words I’ll not forget.
“…Likely a life ending stroke.”
My 9.5 hour drive home began with a snow storm. Halfway there came an update: “He’s passed.” Numb, I kept driving over the Wyoming prairie. Snow blew over the road and I wilted beneath a barrage of phone calls.
The calls continued well into the night…
Two days to rest and attend to personal affairs before driving again, each mile seemingly stretching longer. I stared at the Wyoming expanse and wondered why a man would turn away from his siblings and children to scale countless peaks?
Hours later I was taken in by his neighbors, people who were true angels. I stumbled through the labyrinth that was funeral arrangements and legal formalities and if not for their guiding, supporting hand I’d have crumpled.
One day, though, I was alone for about four hours. In the morning I drove to the cemetery to choose a plot. It was a well-developed area with trees and an exquisite mountain view. I stood beside a birch tree and knew I’d found the right resting place.
I drove up the canyon where he often climbed to see if a part of him remained. It did, but I still didn’t understand. My understanding, it seemed, was much like the many handholds he must have sought on the cliffs: just out of reach.
That evening I entered his garage where his possessions were stored to seek inspiration. He was a police officer once, but it was an occupation that for him was a means to an end. Vacations were for climbing. Retiring was the opportunity to move near the mountains.
Okay, he was a climber and enjoyed climbing. I get that, but it seemed there was a piece missing, a piece I needed.
His family relationships were long a shambles. His climbing relationships were excellent. He was admired and trusted. Over the +31 years he spent climbing after retirement he amassed a reputation second to none.
I fought tears through the mass that celebrated the man and his faith. I stood numb upon the breezy ridge where last rites were spoken over his casket. I talked at length with his climbing friends. The sorrow and loss in their eyes was unmistakable. They shared stories. They honored his memory with their words, both spoken and written. There he was in a picture with friends while on a river adventure…
It was an even longer drive home, the road snaking over the empty prairie, an emptiness that rivaled the void within me.
A day later I sorted through photographs, many of which were him upon one summit after another.
A memory stirred, but eluded retrieval.
I left the pictures, but they didn’t leave me.
We were so long apart that there was much I’d forgotten, but at the funeral others stirred memories, like how he was in the merchant marines when he was quite young. That was an event he little talked about with me, though I knew his time at sea instilled in him a great love for ropes and knots.
Believe me, when I was little I had to tie some of them until my head spun. To this day I’m fanatical about how I coil cords—as if they were ropes.
Such memories returned my thoughts to climbing. I hurried back to the pictures and the elusive memory stirred anew.
Pictures posed as if out of National Geographic…
I rushed to my computer where I found what I was looking for: Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay upon Mt. Everest in 1953. It’s first ascent. After my father was in the merchant marines. After my sister and brother were born.
I sat heavily and stared. Everest was an event he mentioned often.
Climbing, that obsessive activity I’d viewed as a salve to ease the mental illness that dogged my father most of his life, was something more. The climbing I’d viewed as extreme exercise was something more.
More memories came…
National Geographics piled everywhere. Stacked books devoted to climbing expeditions. The meticulous planning devoted to his summer climbing excursions, a passion he’d retained, or so I learned at the funeral.
My father had a passion for adventure that manifested itself in climbing.
Was it there all along or did it develop after he lost his father at a young age? I’ve no idea, nor do I believe it matters. Adventure…that I can understand, for it runs in my veins, too, though it has manifested differently.
All that was important in climbing was ingrained in him: self-reliance, determination, and the ability to weather the trials set in his way.
All at once I remembered my visit with him on Christmas more clearly…
Never had he aided his children in their endeavors, yet there he sat in obvious admiration while I described having returned to school to earn my bachelor’s degree. He marveled when I told him how I’d refused to surrender to my lung disease, even pulling an oxygen tank while I worked. He sat rapt while I shared that I’d had to beat depression myself because medications worked against me. He praised me when I related that I was embarking on a daring, and perhaps insane, plan to further my writing career.
The darkness that had finally overwhelmed him at 81 pulled back to reveal a sparkling in his eyes when I described my relocation plans. Missoula, I needlessly explained in my excitement, was nestled in the mountains and my heart was in the mountains.
I see now that his life ended when he became too fragile to climb and the medications flowing into his body bowed it. They were saving his life and killing his soul.
Two weeks after Christmas, while I walked the Missoula downtown and felt the mountains tugging on my heart he suffered a stroke and fell into a coma from which he never awoke.
Would I make the same choices he made in regards to family? Absolutely not, but I’m a different person on a different path.
In the end I came to understand that his soul was nestled in the mountains and that separation was akin to torture. That which made someone strong enough to scale a peak made them strong enough to face life. That was his creed and what he wanted for me. I also learned on Christmas that he loved me and was proud of the person I’d become.
I know that I admire all that he accomplished and understand that he had to follow his path or die trying.
And for this daughter that’s enough.
I love you Dad. Godspeed on your final climb.