I grew up hiking. My dad was from Juneau, and we returned there nearly every summer to visit his family. It was usually the four of us—my father, mother, brother and I. The air always smelled of something foreign—something clean and sweet, something un-suburban.
Inevitably my father and brother would lead the way. They were sure-footed. Goats to my fawn. My mother by my side, we hit an easy pace, our conversation ebbing and flowing, the occasional song. We would dream of the summit and the picnic that would await us. Ham sandwiches, prepared by my grandmother, spread with butter instead of mayonnaise. The candy bar I got to pick out myself at the store.
When my mother died, we went back to Juneau. My mother was gone, but my dad’s was not, and he wanted to be with her. That biological pull. The pilot going down, his last word, “Mommy!”, preserved in the black box.
We went for a hike. But this time, it was different. My brother and father hung back so I wouldn’t be alone, slowed their pace to stay with me. I tried to pick my pace up, feeling bad about slowing them down. But their steps felt clunky, altered. And mine felt labored.
As we continued up the mountain, my throat began to close. I did not want to climb like this. I didn’t want to slow anyone down. I didn’t want to be stuck back there by myself. I didn’t want this to be our family now. I missed the family we had before.
I broke. I sat to cry next to the trunk of a red cedar, and begged them to go ahead. My dad knew why I was crying. Of course he did. After making sure that I really did want them to go on, they went.
I cried for a while. A long while maybe. I cried until I could no longer smell that sweet air. I felt the permanence of my mother’s absence. It seemed insurmountable.
But I was on a mountain, after all. The metaphor was not lost on me.
Alone, I stood up and kept walking. I got to the timberline, where the trees thin out and stop, no longer having enough oxygen to keep growing. The path turned into a switchback, and I worked my way through the Vs, all the way to their points, not allowing myself to cut corners.
At the last “V” there was a steep climb, and then the summit. As I neared it, I saw my brother and father beginning their descent. They had finished their buttered sandwiches and were on their way back down. They cheered when they saw me, and we—the three of us—reached the summit.
My son, seven, a confident swimmer, was overcome by the waves. He didn’t go under, but he was overwhelmed. The waves kept coming, and coming, as his little body fought against their unrelenting immensity. He struggled to the shore, his exuberant smile slightly dimmed.
“I’m about ready to go back,” he said.
We packed up our pails and seashells and smoothed rocks, one lonely crab leg, and weaved our way back through the sand.
Along the way he confided to me. “I felt so weak.”
“The ocean doesn’t care,” I empathized. “It doesn’t even know you’re there.”
When I was his age, I went under. I was surfing along the waves with my brother and father when I got knocked down. I struggled to break through the surface. When at last I did, just as I was opening my mouth to get that breath of air, I was knocked under again. My mouth filled with sea water, my eyes trying to make sense of the underwater world, I lost sense of up and down. I couldn’t find the sun.
Strong arms pulled me out. I remember them belonging to the lifeguard. My father insists they were his.
Back at the towel, my mother sat reading a book, unaware. My teddy bear lay serenely, blank-eyed, hoarding the sun’s warmth. He was comforting and familiar, almost hot. I closed my eyes against this small, solid, worldly comfort. Hearing the menace in the ocean’s roar. Still tasting the acridity of salt on my tongue and in the air.
“I felt like a seashell,” I overheard my son tell his sister that night.
I should have asked what he meant. Because he was tossed to the sand? Because he felt small and breakable? Because he felt, for just a moment, that he was less than human—something disposable?
The next day he went back in, though he did not drift quite so far. We walked back along the shoreline, our toes among the seashells. The terrible, calming rhythm of the sea unintentionally dictating our cadence on the walk back home.
After college, my father, brother and I went for a hike. It was not an easy one, and required us to cross a shallow stream over a path of rocks.
The thing with stepping stones – they’re slippery. They may look like liquid sliver, as the thin sheen of water over them is reflected by the sun. But they’re not. They are of more basic stuff. Of stone and water.
I was second this time, my brother bringing up the rear. When ahead of me, my father slipped and went in. I just stood there, mouth open, until my brother—whose path I blocked—yelled: “Help him!” He was fine, already nearly up on his own, and after shaking off his embarrassment, we continued to the summit.
It seems unfair, doesn’t it, that these moments of frailty are often the most firmly entrenched?
Or maybe it’s a perspective shift. It’s not frailty but tenacity. That despite the knowledge that we are mortal, we are small, we are discardable: we are persistent. Even after realizing this. Even after unbearable sadness. Even after embarrassment. Even after.
Ali Wilkinson lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and three children. She blogs for run.knit.love.