Every night before I go to sleep I look at a stack of picture frames on my dresser. They sit across the room from where my head hits my pillow. In the photos from top to bottom are my dad and me, as a baby, my grandparents and me on my high school graduation (no, not my wedding day) and my grandpa and grandma when they were young.
There are only two men in this particular collection of photographs – and both, as of this year – are dead.
I didn’t mean to set it up as the last thing I see before I go to sleep and I’m not sure I’ll keep it this way. Every night I see their faces and every night I feel that rush of saltwater behind my nose. A quick sting and then, warmth flows into my eyes but doesn’t spill over. I blink to contain myself from really crying but in the same note, I don’t let myself look away. For some reason, that feels weak. So I gather myself and turn away when I’m ready. It’s only after I’ve reminded myself that it’s okay. That I’m alive. That I learned from each man. And most importantly, that I’m not alone – despite the singular loneliness I feel about losing them.
Recently, and before my grandfather died, I made him a photo album of pictures I took while living in Oregon. He slowly flipped through each page and asked me questions and complimented my photography skills, constantly saying, “did you really take that?!” As I write, I can still hear the tone and cadence of his voice. The book was filled with sunsets and wildflowers, blue rivers and waterfalls, green moss and glassy lakes. The further he got through it, the more silent he became. My last few photos were of me climbing South Sister in the Three Sisters Wilderness – one of my favorite and most life-giving adventures. A day I felt Pure….Joy….
When he was finished he looked up and said, “You really made it, kid. You outclassed us.”
I’ll never forget it. How he said it. It’s something I was never trying to do. Make it, yes. Outclass them, no. I never felt like I had to. My grandfather was an arbitrator and honestly, the best, most honest man I’d ever met. He worked hard because he had to his entire life. I could never dream of being better. But, it was something he wanted for me. And those photos, made him proud that both he and I had succeeded in his eyes. There was such happiness there, but sometimes, I wonder if those photos also made him sad, that he didn’t get the chance to explore wildly – that no one was able to afford him those epic adventures – like he and those after him did for me. I’m not saying he was begrudging me – he would never do that. I’m saying, I wonder if in that moment, he felt both joy of prosperity and the heartache of loss.
It’s complicated – but I know what that feels like.
It’s why, at the end of the night, I can’t look away from their photos either. Pain can be overwhelming and at least for me, it sets in first. But if I wait, underneath it all, there is a deep sense of love and admiration and happiness, if only for the fact that I got them both for the time I did.
The truth is, I would have never been able to do it, or anything else, without him. It’s why I made him that book in the first place. What I wish I would have told him then was, he was with me all along. Every step and stumble and false summit, he was there. Walking across that boulder field and the deep blue glacial lake. Every second spent at the top of that peak basking in the sunshine. He was there then, too. And the next mountain I climb, I’ll be bringing him with me as well.