—The river is electric cold, laughing shallow over rocks, whispering in deep pools; the hot August night air meets it– a cloud forms far from its brothers in the sky and floats between the narrow banks. I dive through fog into a memory of winter. Breaking the surface I breathe cloud. There is no world beyond this moment, nothing to do but this. I climb steaming onto mud and rock a million miles from tomorrow and appear suddenly at the side of the road. A couple flashes by in a car, faces sudden and gone. I laugh out loud at their surprise.
Thursday, 8 August
A quandry. My mother, one of the last elders of our family tribe is in the hospital, in ICU. Having taken a fall and suffered a concussion, she is nonetheless feisty and impatient with the interruption. She’s suffered no neurological damage; “sharp as a tack”, they like to tell us. But she also weighs in just shy of ninety pounds and is a mere three months from her 88th birthday. We say death can come at any moment, anytime and in all sorts of ways, but when we reach Mom’s age it becomes that thing I’ve always wondered about–what will it feel like when my natural life span reaches that any day, any minute I could die place? I’m due to fly to the Himalayas in less than a month–I’ll be gone for nearly two. Mom could die before I get back from this journey–her fall drives the fact home and begs the question, “Should I go?”
My father died when I was in my twenties; suddenly, badly and way before his time. The morning after I got the news I walked at dawn, still in the liquid gel of deep shock, down to the creek that flowed through the land I lived on in northern Idaho. Before feeding into the Priest River just to the east, Ole Creek cut across the hayfields and meandered through the trees below our cabin. It was April, snow was still melting off the mountains. The headwaters of the creek were just above the hayfields; the water was high, wide and determined. It was nearly ice, barely melted, snowmelt cold.
I stood on the bank and tried to still my mind. My thoughts roared and wrangled with each other separate from me like lunatics behind glass. I was outside my body and couldn’t find a way back in. Finally, I stripped off my clothes and waded naked into the water. My breath caught and held, slowly sneaking back out, testing the air before drawing back in again. I stood until my legs were numb, then went further, numbing belly, breasts. Finally I drew a slow breath and sank below the surface, allowing the cold to take over, to suspend my thoughts like stunned bait, to insist on being my only experience in that moment.
When I stood up, my mind was quiet, the unwanted gossipers and small talkers gone, the radio unplugged. The sun was breaking over the ridge, the rays through the tall larch and fir reached me where I stood and lit my wet skin with soft light illuminating goosebumps and hair on end. I gathered my clothes and walked to the cabin where I stood next to the fire in the woodstove and watched the steam rise off my bare skin. Felt my blood come out of hiding and move tentatively then with confidence through my veins. Back in my body. Back in my body.
The Green River flows just below the land the where I now live, in Vermont. It’s a feeder stream for the Battenkill and the headwaters aren’t far up the mountain so the water stays cold–really cold–all summer. Last night, hearing that no surgery would be required to release the pressure on my mother’s bruised brain, I was relieved but still so uncertain. I walked down to the river and waited for the invitation I knew would come. The trees bent over the surface, their roots straining to hold back the steep cutbank on the other side. The rumble of a distant jet gave me pause; I imagined myself flying away across the ocean to the highest mountains in the world, the horses and people I’ve dreamed about for so long. I whispered to the trees, “Should I go?” They opened their wide arms and beckoned; the river, like a good and trusted lover, pulled back the sheets. In the near-dark, I dove in.
Thursday 15 August
A week passes. I sit here writing on the porch, drinking tea. A crew is down along the road that my long driveway joins, putting in a new power pole as they readjust the grid in this small and isolated valley; the noise is apologetic, the men local and kind. Last night the temperature was in the forties–fire in the woodstove, long johns and all the windows open–I drank in the warmth and the cold, both, and slept on the porch. The power pole speaks today of the wood I burned so casually at midnight. Yet the fire was sweet and I gave thanks; I give thanks now. Everything with its two sides in this life. In a dream, a rehab crow that lived on the front porch all last summer returns vividly, walking around next to my bed, talking and preening. So real, so really here that when I open my eyes I’m surprised to find that Crow is gone. It’s dawn. My breath steams in the first light of morning and I pull the covers over my head, then resurface. My barefeet touch damp wood. The day begins.
Yesterday, Mom was moved to rehab. I picture her now, curled on her side, in so much pain, working to get better, working to stay here with us awhile longer. Maybe years. But who can know? Each day is a universe. I reach high over my head, stretching in the chill morning air, arching my back, looking up through my hands, fingers awake, reaching. Mountain. Hands to heart. E ma ho!