your one wild and precious life
Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place. ~ Zora Neale Hurston
Oh my, how is already the first week of December? Which means it's going on winter, and all the wild, sometimes harsh terrain that comes with that.
I came home from visiting my father in the hospital a few nights ago, immediately put down everything, and put on Joni. I could simply put her on repeat starting now, and listen to her over and over again until the New Year. "It's coming on Christmas/they're cutting down trees/they're putting up reindeer & singing songs of joy and peace/oh but I wish I had a river to skate away on."
And so it goes. All those achy, vivid longings that surface this time of year, whether you do the holidays or not. They sort of pop up like white-lit evergreen, or some misty rose jukebox in the back burner of your heart. I can't help but want to take it all in, to soak in winter-flavored things: cloves and pine; a rind of orange in a deep, dark, crimson tea. Frankincense candles at night, then silver laced dreams that arrive into some soft, morning fog. And I also just want to run away. I wish I had a river so long I would teach my feet to fly. Something like that.
Before I was from Asheville, I was from New England, which meant the coming of winter didn't just mean Christmas and settling in to get out of the cold. It meant getting outside. When I was little, and living in the the Boston area, we started skating around this time of year. Some winters we didn't take off those skates until things thawed out, which felt like June, but perhaps it was more like April, early May. I don't know if this was because it was a pre-global warming era, or if New England is just super cold. Either way, it felt like winter lasted a long, long time. That meant we skated whole, whole lot. It was one of the best gifts my parents ever taught me, specifically my dad. Learning to skate at such a young age was access to some kind of freedom, and as I found my way up and onto that ice, I got that feeling quick, and I was hooked. Skating is some special kind of magic. When I do it, it really is something close to flying. It becomes some place I can go inside myself, but also be completely open. I am wrapped tight in a million layers, but high on the world, and free.
I'm not like the sportiest person you've ever met (ha :) but there is nothing like the feeling of sharp blades hitting a clean-as-daybreak piece of ice. Leaning into that that ice, that's suddenly so solid and weight-bearing, makes me feel my power, my size, my life. And as a kid, even though I knew it wouldn't always last — that in a few months, or by the early summer I knew we would be swimming in the very same lakes we were skating on, it was sturdy as rock for now, and that was everything.
And then there's my dad. He's way more from New England than me, grew up in Melrose, Massachusetts throughout the school year, and then stayed with his extended family at Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire in the summers. He's the real deal. I even got my name from the White Mountains up there: Mount Moriah. Anyway, my dad Steve loves skating — I will admit possibly more than me. He loves all the outdoor sports actually: hiking, swimming, sledding, cross-country skiing, and I've even seen pictures of him in snowshoes. But skating is one of his truest loves.
If you know my dad, and especially if you knew him in his prime, then you know that he's built pretty tough. He's a strong, rugged guy, the kind of guy you'd imagine lifting a pick-up truck with one hand rather than doing pirouettes on the ice. Perhaps that's why skating is the perfect love affair though. Some sweet alchemy. I think the ice is one of the places my dad has allowed himself to feel graceful, elegant, and like some part of him was exceptionally light, free, and endlessly alive.
In my childhood, we would sometimes ride out to the arctic, winter world of Maine and New Hampshire to skate on the lakes and ponds that were frozen enough to support the weight of a car. And we would just go at them, for hours, voraciously, not minding the cold at all, perhaps feeling invigorated immensely by the way it is when you're outside in winter. Some flush of color in your cheeks, some heat coming through, some blue that's not quite gray in the sky, some jolt of life through your veins. That's where I learned that the winter when you're really moving in it goes straight to your blood, like liqour in the night. And it's amazing.
We would bring hot coco filled thermoses, along with piles of scarves, hats, long underwear, and explore the very inlets and edges of those water-worn lakes we swam in the summer. We watched whatever birds were still lingering this far North in late December or January, and my father would skate backwards so I could still talk to him, or be pulled by him, until I got the gist of it. He often told us a story about how one time, he saved a little girl from going through the ice. That she had fallen through, and he pulled her out, just in time, just before she went blue. There was danger out here in this wilderness, for sure, but we were with him. We were with Steve. Even if something were to happen, he would be right there to pull us out.
So, skate we did. He was always the first one on, and the last one off. Later, back in the warmth of the car, it would often be just starting to snow, and Paul Simon's Graceland might be on the radio — wasn't it always on the radio, or in someone's tape deck those years? — and the golden halo of the headlights would settle into the white night. I don't know if I yet got the concept of things changing so quickly. Things changing before you even realize you are in the middle of something beautiful happening in your life, some moment that would haunt and invigorate you for a long time after, but I did get that I didn't want that feeling to end. I loved the end of those days on the ice, with the blood pumping through our chests, and the cold of our breath still fresh on the windows of the car, and my brother already passed out beside me in his car seat. I didn't want to ever be anywhere else than heading back to Boston through the snow, with everything all right in our world, flying through the winter night.
My dad's a lot older now. I will admit it's been hard watching my hardy, powerful, father transform into something softer, leaner, humbler, someone who needs me more. I find myself wanting to find a cocoon to go into again like the car on those nights. Or perhaps something warmer: a shawl cut out of sea air, that I could gently wrap us in, just in case.
My dad had emergency open heart surgery less than a week ago. If they hadn't caught onto it that day, that week, he might have had a heart attack, and possibly one that would have killed him. Which is surreal, and chilling. It's also something to marvel at. We still have him. We might not have. He's alive. He might have been dead. I almost passed out the day of his surgery, waiting to hear the news, as the hours crept by slowly, too patient, too endless, too much time to fill.
My mom, my husband, and I and some close friends spent the last few days by his side in various hospital rooms, which were all a little different, and all pretty much the same. There isn't very much color in a hospital room — a light blue gown, an off-white blanket, light wood colored laminate floors. There are the bright lights of all the monitors, which you can't take your eyes from. Blood pressure cuffs measuring every slight change. 108/65, 110/71, 90/55. I remembered the same numbers from when I was in labor and being watched closely, so closely, and sometimes we would just get lost in the screen, in the numbers flashing like traffic lights, in the beeping, in the nurses coming and going, so much so I would forget why I was there. I was having a baby. My father almost had a heart attack. In the same place there's people being born, in another room someone is dying. Once last week, I was pulled into one of the little breakout rooms, one of those rooms you go into sometimes when you're with someone at the hospital so the doctors can report some news. For a moment when they called me in, the whole world stopped. I know sometimes when you go into those little rooms, you hear the news you don't want to, and you don't come out the same person.
Fortunately, the surgeon was there to tell me that he needed this pretty extensive surgery, but his heart was strong, even if his arteries were clogged. The first thing the surgeon said was "Man, your dad is a wicked smart guy." That's the thing about my dad. He can give a top-level heart surgeon an education (he knows a lot about everything) in the same way he could skate, seemingly without effort, just something he picked up along the way.
Over Thanksgiving, right before this all unfolded, we were sitting around the table with several people in my family talking about love. I don't remember exactly the specifics of our conversation. Perhaps it was about having kids, since that's a topic that often comes up these days, now that I'm a mother. About how hard having children is, but how much meaning it gives us. How sometimes I wonder why anyone does it? And of course, my dad starting quoting Rumi. I rolled my eyes, because sometimes my dad knows too much, and before anyone else can discover it for themselves, he's already throwing Rumi poems down on the table like it's a bible passage. I love it, but can't always handle it.
Love is not a subtle argument
The door to love is devastation
The door to love is devastation?! Please, dad, save it for another time. "Dad," I said at the Thanksgiving table, "love is not always meant to be that hard!"
True, yes, love is not always supposed to feel so hard, but we all know it often is. I let that quote sink in over the past couple weeks, and I find myself thinking more and more about it, and being re-amazed that this thing we crave, we seek, we desire so badly can be both freeing, and devastating. That the harder we love, the more risk there often is. That skating outside is magic because there is an element of wild, there is a chance you'll fall through. My dad could have died. That the people we love the most are the same ones we are so scared of losing. I've often thought if anything were to happen to Evie, then that's it. That would be my end, too. If I didn't die myself, I'd have to go on a pilgrimage of some kind, to find the meaning of anything again. I don't know if I can love someone so much, and also not know that they will be permanently with me. And yet, and yet. That's how this works. We love even though it's not forever sometimes. We love even when it breaks our heart. We love even when there's cracks in the ice. We grow older, our children grow up. We lose the thing we were just so certain we had. Rumi is right. My dad is right. Of course they are. Love isn't a subtle argument. If you let it in, it will blow you open. It will blow your mind. Like Paul Simon sang to us on those winter drives to Boston, "Losing love is like a window in your heart. Everybody sees your blown apart. Everybody feels the wind blow."
Of course, as much as love will shred you, it will simply open you up. There's so many things I want to write about my dad and yet, this is what came out, for now. I can feel all the words under me like some huge and forceful wave I'm pushing back against, because I know if I go there, it would be too much, too much for now. He's alive. He's home. I made him and Evie banana pancakes at my breakfast table yesterday, and his heart is mending. His eyes are still the same slate blue as the ocean near the end of the day, gray blue eyes that are also mine, that are the same color as those winter skies at the lake back then. The doctor said he could possibly live decades more. And yet, I can't really fathom that, in the same way I can't fathom losing him.
I don't know what these next few weeks will be like. It really is coming on Christmas. Ben did cut down a tree yesterday, a small one that is perfect for us. We have a pond here in Fairview, but it doesn't freeze nearly as much as it would if we were up North. Maybe a day, sometimes two each winter if we're lucky. It's not the same, at all, and the winters here are easier, if not as stimulating. We stay inside more, and say it's cold when it gets down to 40 degree. Once the pond stayed frozen for two weeks, and it felt like it would never end. We caught a glimpse back into those early years, living part-time on the ice. But I sure hope it freezes this winter. It would be damn nice to get on some ice sometime soon.
My dad is home. He's OK, for now, even though I'm still up at night checking my phone, texting my mom and him several times a day. He keeps talking about wanting to go to the beach for Christmas, which feels like another kind of strange, even warmer, even less like it used to be, but it would be nice to see the water, see that blue gray that's the color of my world, in whatever form we can right now.