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I wrote this 20 years ago one summer evening, after a day of hiking in the mountains of Montana with my brand new baby. It’s all about letting go– something I am learning all over again as she enters her senior year in college and my son, his junior year in high school. Deep breaths to all mothers out there who are facing empty nests…
It is summer in Montana and it is past our collective bedtime, but we are driving into a sky glowing burnt orange, steel green mountains not yet silhouettes. The days are full here, too full, maybe. There is a three month panic to be scantily clothed and to wave the limbs around in hot air, in water, on a sweaty horse’s back. Suddenly there is so much sun after so much snow and grey matte sky and it’s a drug we agree to take in overdose. I don’t wear sunblock. Neither does my husband. We slather our baby in it, but let the undersides of our arms rest on the hot black paint of the car door while the tops– all the way to our fingers– in-between our fingers, bake in high-noon sun; then on our foreheads and backs at the lake in sparkling water, on hot rose rocks, on alpine trails, in meadows of lupine, Indian paintbrush, yarrow, huckleberries. With red and purple-stained skin pulsing sweet dried sweat over the throb of cooling highway, we cover our tracks back, turning off fourteen dead, fifty injured in a bombing today in an Israeli market; hold hands, try to find the moon.
Look. A star, I say, letting go of his hand, pointing. Yeah, he says. Two of them. That one’s bright. I wonder if it’s a planet. Wondering, I reach back for my baby’s hand without looking, craving a little loose bundle of fingers. There is a soft sigh from the back seat and I get my offering. Everything to her is this kind of sky. A chirping squirrel is still as full of wonder for her as the stars popping out over the blue Jewel Basin one way, the pale orange still hanging over the Canadian Rockies, the other. I close my eyes a moment; a small prayer in honor of squirrels. I want wonder.
There is heartbreak in all this. I fight to be there, under the gaining stars, not to consider the end of this day’s light a misfortune. It doesn’t have to be a death. It doesn’t have to make me think about tomorrow. I flirt with the story of the market bombing– picture a mother handling tomatoes, her son slipping an orange into his pants– fight the image of their bleeding bodies lying splayed and still in the dirt, covered in blown-up tomato pulp. No. I hold my baby’s hand tighter and weave a few of her fingers into mine. They’re sticky with huckleberry juice. I feel the stinging of sunburn on my back, minus an X. I mouth, I am here…I am here. The wonder does not have to be scary. She’s not scared. She is singing. I peek back to see what she is doing with this closing darkness. She is fingering the window. Counting stars. Feeling glass. Drawing pictures with her saliva. She is where I want to be.
I look at my husband’s face. It is the color of the Whitefish range: the last coal. He likes the window down halfway. He likes total silence. He is driving. He is where I want to be. Earlier, in the hardware store parking lot, I wait in the car with my daughter asleep in her car-seat, checking to see that the seatbelt is not cutting off her breathing. How can she breathe slumped over like that, her head to her belly? But she does– I can see her shoulders rising and falling. In-between checks, I stare at puddle mirages in the hot pavement, at women in passenger seats on the diagonal, all lined up; babies sleeping behind them. They are checking too, staring at mirages. One by one they click into ready position, their husbands walking proud and purposeful with a new hammer, a bag of fertilizer, dandelion killer. I am waiting for bear mace– red pepper spray, as if that would do anything, a grizzly bear bounding at us, our baby in the backpack singing to the bear, a cliff behind us, my husband reaching to his belt for his pathetic weapon. Play dead…play dead…play that woman and her son with tomatoes all over them in Israel, frozen, watching paw over paw hurl toward me over lupine and Indian paintbrush and yarrow, huckleberries. But I don’t know about the market bombing yet. And there is no bear. But I don’t know that yet either, sitting in the car in the hardware store parking lot.
The day is done. Pepper spray– check. Pants and a sweater for later– check. Teva’s for the beach– check. Sunblock for the baby, three extra diapers, wipes, baby food, sun hat, a change of clothes for her, life vest– check check check check check check check. Back pack, fanny pack, water bottles, trail mix, sunglasses, camera– all checks. Bathing suits, towels, beach-blanket, rafts– yep. A cooler full of cold beer, sandwiches and whole milk in baby bottles– done. Gas– we’ll get some. Where are my sunglasses? Have you seen my sunglasses? Oops, forgot the keys. Where the hell are my sunglasses? On top of your head. Oh. We need bear mace. That stuff costs forty bucks…you have a better chance being killed in a car wreck than by a griz, anyway. Put your seatbelt on…we’re getting bear mace– we have a kid now. All right all right all right.
The day is done. We used everything but the pepper spray. I look at my husband, still losing light at the same rate as the Whitefish range, and feel safe and in love with him for carrying the baby in the backpack, the mace on his belt, pumping the gas– little things he wouldn’t want to know I loved him for. Little things that free me up to think about breathing and seat belts and bleeding bodies covered in tomatoes, and grizzly bears. I let go of my baby’s hand and reach for his again. He is where I want to be.
It’s all stars now. They call it big sky and they’re right. What are you thinking about? I whisper. Nothing, he says. I sit there and try to think of nothing, watching headlights come at us at seventy miles per hour on my baby’s side, pull at my seatbelt quietly to see if it would really stop me, nothing…nothing… I look back to see if she’s asleep. She is. I reach my hand back and rest it on her chest. She is breathing. Nothing…nothing… I put the same hand on my shoulder and feel the hot from the sunburn. My mother has had five melanomas removed from not wearing sunblock. Nothing…
I am left with my breathing. Check. My heart beat. Check. A raven sky. Countless lights twinkling…God, they really do twinkle. Twinkle twinkle little star– I figure out that it’s the same tune as the alphabet song. And then I am left without songs, because one of the stars loses itself in dust and falls right in front of us, right on the highway. We pass where I think it has fallen and look for stardust and leftover glow, but there is just an old cracked double yellow linesee that? I say. The star? he says. And I look for another; pick one and stare at it, ready to see it go down. But the longer I stare at one, the more I see all around it, and none fall, and it doesn’t matter, because I’m going deeper and deeper into the biggest sky I have ever seen, and I have lived here for years now, and I’m not thinking about that either. I am lost, in star after star after star after star…after star. After star. And I am there, wherever that is.
If you would like to take a break this fall and live the writer’s life in the woods of Montana, find community, find your voice, and maybe even find yourself…check out this video and info, and email the Haven Writing Retreat Team asap to set up a phone call!
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