Come What May

It was a cold, gray, January day.  All of the other kids were in school as it was a Thursday, but Kid A had checked herself out early.  It was her 18th birthday, so she could do that now.  She climbed into her newly-leased electric car and turned on her iPod.  The passionate and emotional voices of Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman spilled from the sound system.  The words blasted her ears and bombarded her heart.  The song lasted the exact length of time it took her to drive from parking lot to parking lot.  She took it as a sign, like a cardinal at the window or unexplained feathers.

Sheepdog and I arrived together.  We held hands as we walked into the waiting room.  I noticed a giant eel slithering inside a 75-gallon fish tank before I even saw Kid A in the corner.  The building smelled faintly of rubbing alcohol and burning things.  We all hugged and walked over to meet with her guy.  She gave him a piece of paper that had been folded and unfolded and looked at so many times that it had the worn feel of soft leather.  They spoke to one another in the language of creative people.  Then he scanned her paper into the computer and pulled it up on the big screen.  A lone sob escaped from my throat before I could pull it back.

Seeing his familiar handwriting up there, larger than life, I was caught completely off guard.  But seeing it a few hours later, permanently inked onto the slight wrist of my oldest child, it actually felt good.  After all she had seen and experienced and lived through the past few years, it felt right.  Well, as right as a tattoo can possibly be.

"I will love you until my dying day."

“I will love you until my dying day.”

His life story will always be a part of hers.  He left his mark on her heart.  Now his handwriting is marked on her forever as well.

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Today is the first anniversary of Braden’s death.  One whole year has gone by.  An entire year of holidays, and birthdays, and Mondays.  One whole year passed of experiences, and change, and growth.  One whole year of the regular and mundane too.  One whole year of memories made without Braden.  I feel like that is one of the worst parts.

I have thought of him so much over the past year.  Sometimes I think of him intentionally, like when I plant flowers in his memory.  I talk to him as I’m doing the work, updating him with new funny stories as well as the regular day-to-day stuff that’s been going on.  And when these plants inevitably die, I think of him again because I know he is playing a twisted joke on me.  All of my other plants thrive.  It’s just the ones that I tell him are “his” that end up brown and crispy.  I like to think that Braden enjoys our conversations so much that he is just making sure that I’ll keep checking in with him.  So I guess I’ll keep buying him new plants.  And I’m good with that.

Other times he pops into my consciousness accidentally, like when I recently came across the milk shake recipe for cancer patients that I used to make for him when his stomach could tolerate them.  It was made with protein powder and coffee and chocolate sauce and Haagen-Dazs ice cream.  It always made me so happy when he would finish one, because he was losing so much weight and what else packs on the pounds but the best ice cream on the planet?  I also find him popping into my head when I’m listening to music in the car, wondering if he got to hear that really great song before he died.  Or was he around for that game?  Or did he get to see that movie?  Or look at that blood moon?  As more and more time passes, the answer is almost always ‘no.’  Not while he was here with us on earth.

So, to officially and reverently mark the passage of one whole year without Braden, Sheepdog and the kids and I went on a short hike up the Indian Seats Trail at Sawnee Mountain this past Sunday.  When we reached the top, we found some rocks off the beaten path and we sat together as a family.  We overlooked the valley below and Sheepdog said some nice words and reminded us that Braden is happy and healthy now and we shouldn’t ask for anything more than that.  He also reminded us to be thankful for our own health and happiness and to make each day mean something.  Some of us spoke about happy memories and fun times with Braden.  Some of us weren’t able to speak at all.

There was a placard up by the Indian Seats that said mountaintops are considered sacred by Native Americans because they bring us closer to Father Sky.  I don’t know about that, but I certainly felt closer to my God and to Braden that day.  It was sacred and it was good.  Well, as good as it can be when somebody is taken away before we are ready for it.

Wish me luck for tomorrow… come what may.

The Hike

I held tight to my daddy’s arm as I walked fifty feet down the satin-lined aisle.  I stood beside an equally nervous Sheepdog and we both swore before God and our witnesses that we would ride it out through the good, the bad, and the ugly, forever and ever until we are parted by death.  Then we had a ginormous party.  It was a record-setting 96 degrees outside, well over 100 if you considered the humidity.  It was our wedding day.  And it was exactly twenty years ago.

This past weekend Sheepdog took me on a semi-surprise anniversary trip to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to celebrate our milestone.  I say “semi-surprise” because Sheepdog knows better than to try to take me on a vacation that I knew nothing about because I could not possibly prepare for such a trip.  I needed to know where we were going and what we would be doing and who was wrangling the entropy at home.  You say “control issues” and I say “practical preparedness.”  Whatever.

Now, it may be June according to the calendar, but it is still winterish in Wyoming.  It was cold at night (low 30’s) and barely got up into the 70’s during the day.  It was a little too brrrrr for my liking (my “liking” being anything having to do with the warm beach), but it was indeed perfect weather – and a beautiful location – for hiking.  So, after we took pictures with a moose on the side of the road, had a spectacular couples massage and some hotel room sex, we hiked the crap out of that place.

On the best day of our trip we hiked well over 11 miles, with a good 2,500 feet of vertical climbing.  Sheepdog calculated that for me on Strava… all I knew was that my hamstrings felt like we had hiked all the way back to Georgia.  We were in Grand Teton National Park, so we started off walking all around Phelps Lake, which took about three-and-a-half hours, including lunch.  Next we drove 15 miles north to Jenny Lake, which we first crossed by boat.  Then we hiked up to a spot called Inspiration Point, back down the mountain again, and around the lake back to our car.

When we returned to the hotel, we were exhausted but rejuvenated.  That one day of hiking in the woods together was incredibly meaningful and turned out to be more than just a day to us.  It was actually representative of our first twenty years of marriage in so many ways…

*  A mile on flat land is not too strenuous, but a mile uphill can mess with your head.

*  A turkey sandwich made with love by your husband tastes better than almost anything else you can dream up.

*  Sometimes the road signs will say “Rough Road” or “Frost Heaves.”  The best you can do is be alert and hang on tight for the ride.

*  Every once in a while you may cross paths with a girl who tells you she is going to jump into the lake naked.  It is okay that Sheepdog listens for her splash, as long as he is still walking by your side and holding your hand.

*  Occasionally you may also run into a boy hiking in just his underpants.  Discussing what you think will happen when he runs into the naked girl can provide lots of entertainment and giggles.

*  The weather may be too hot or too cold or somewhere in between.  Pack lots of options, and don’t complain about how heavy the suitcase is.

*  Bringing kids on the trip will change everything.  Sometimes you need to leave them at home with your sister.

*  Nobody likes a whiner, even if you get jammed in the leg by an unyielding tree.  Be tough.

*  Someone has to lead and someone has to follow.  Don’t be greedy about your position.  Share the responsibility.  But always let the man drive.

*  Wear good shoes.

*  Bring a book, but be sure to put it down sometimes so you can talk to each other.

*  If he carries all of the water, she will be able to carry the camera.  Nobody gets thirsty and everything is documented, so everybody wins.

*  You may think that you only like beach vacations, but the mountains just might surprise you.  You’ll never know until you try something new.

*  You forget the pain of the climb when you see the view from the top.  Especially if you are seeing it with someone you love.

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“In the name of God, I take you to be mine, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death.  This is my solemn vow.

I give you this ring as a sign of my vow and with all that I am and all that I have I honor you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Those whom God has joined together, let no one put asunder.”

Happy 20th Anniversary to my Sheepdog.  Thanks for sticking it out through all of the good, the bad, and the ugly.  It has been an incredible and inspiring hike.  Let’s keep going.

Wish me luck for tomorrow…

More of an Indoor Girl

Our family is composed of both extremes when it comes to the inside vs. outside debate.  I would live in a penthouse in the city if I could make it work with five kids; Sheepdog would live outside in a treehouse were it not called “homeless.”  Kid A loves taking pictures of things in nature; Kid B enjoys watching moving pictures on television.  Kid C leaps into the pile of leaves before she looks; Kid D wants to learn all of the facts about the tree on the internet first.  But both of them are up for almost anything in the out-of-doors, while Kid E complains about every last aspect of it.  Yet every once in a while the planets align and we nay-sayers cry uncle and we head out as a family to some remote place where the county flower is poison ivy but the views are spectacular and the air is piney (and DEET-scented) and we are all humbled by the awesomeness of nature.

This weekend we traveled to Tallulah Falls State Park for a picnic and some hiking and to watch the kayakers navigate the gorge.  It was perfect fall weather (sunny in the high 50s) and the leaves in northeast Georgia are experiencing extreme chlorophyll-deficiency, so the residual colors left us breathless.  An added bonus was that Georgia Power floods the dam every weekend in November so the crazies can ride the rush in their little boats of death (insane to do but extremely cool to watch).  The drive took over an hour and most of the kids watched “The Princess Bride” while Sheepdog and I talked uninterrupted like civilized people.  Almost before we knew it, we had arrived at a little cliff-side viewing spot/ antique store/ BBQ restaurant.

After a quick stop in the restroom, I was immediately approached by a bearded man holding a deep pot on the end of a five-foot pole.

“Bald penis?” he asked of me and the girls.  Sheepdog was still in the bathroom.

I protectively put my arms around the kids and moved them all behind me.  Simultaneously, my brain was calculating possible situational outcomes and I quickly realized upon looking into the pot that he was not some local pervert trying to harass the tourists.  He was offering us a soggy, cooked, traditional Georgia snack.

I honestly believe I might never figure out the whole deep-southern accent thing.  It throws me for a loop every time.  P.S.  Boiled peanuts are kind of gross.

The view from 1,000 feet

We checked out the view and decided to get back into the car so we could find the place where we could hike down the trails closer to the raging water.  It was conveniently just down the road as bellies were starting to grumble all around us.  We paid a minimal five dollars to park and soon set up our picnic lunch in a field next to some rocks.  They were perfect for sitting against or upon and also for having Kid E jump off and climb, thus guaranteeing that I would have indigestion for the remainder of the day.  Fortunately, no one got hurt during the meal and soon we were off, with nothing but a trail map, five kids, two adults, a backpack/kid carrier, a full water bottle, three pairs of extra sunglasses, sunscreen, bug spray, some light jackets, a packet of wipes, a couple of iPhones and a 35mm SLR camera.  Ah, the simplicity of nature!

First, we walked up from the information center to a place called Inspiration Point.  I was hopeful that this was more of a spiritual moniker as opposed to a carnal one.  I mean, hadn’t the peanut guy contributed enough depravity for one day?  Fortunately there were just a bunch of other people with cameras and dogs and walking sticks up there.  While at the point we got to see the remains of one of the towers that Karl (“The Great/ Flying”) Wallenda used to tightrope walk across the quarter-mile-wide gorge in 1970.  Crazy.  But the views were phenomenal, especially with my family safely behind the protective viewing fence.

After that we hiked down the mountain back past the main parking area and then continued on our downward trek toward the suspension bridge that sits just 80 feet above the rocky bottom, providing spectacular views of the river and waterfalls below.  To get there you have to climb down a little more than 300 grated metal stairs.  And unless you want to live out the remainder of your days like a troll under the bridge, you also have to climb back up.  Easier said than done.

By this point in the day we had hiked quite a way and some of the kids were getting tired.  But we didn’t drive all the way out here to hike just the easy part!   Kid E had toughed it out with minimal complaining and walked most of the trails so far, but he was definitely ready to ride in the backpack carrier for the remainder of our excursion.   Being no dummy, I offered to wear/ carry him down the steps.  It was no big deal except that after the first few sections I had to ask him to please stop chanting, “We are going DOWN the steps.  WE are going down the steps.  We ARE going down the steps.  We are going down the STEPS.”  He did not.

I then felt zero guilt when I asked Sheepdog to take his turn carrying Kid E on the way back up.  Even without a person on my back those steps were hard.  I refused to stop on the little resting benches.  I was panting like a dog.  To add insult to injury, Kid D ran the whole way back up.  Show off.  At least I beat most of the old people.  I considered it a great day all around.

If you pick 'em up, O Lord, I'll put 'em down. - Author Unknown, "Prayer of the Tired Walker"

The whole family had a fantastic time.  I even look forward to the next time we get back to the woods.  Maybe Sheepdog can make a nature lover out of this indoor girl yet!

Wish me luck for tomorrow…