Hiked around Alpenglow with three real women and then played hockey with another nine and I'm feeling pretty lucky and thankful for all the me-time.
Time with friends instead of family.
Christy not Mom.
And I love my husband for not making me feel guilty for our lopsided weekend.
I love him for a lot more than that.
Here's the short list of why I love Nick Jordan:
I knew the moment I walked into the classroom for Expedition Leadership and he looked up from his newspaper with those brilliant blue eyes.
When I first met him we both drove Subarus, ate vegetarian, listened to Ani Difranco, and wanted nothing more than to be away from civilization in the tundra, river beds, and woods.
When we walked at the same pace during our 15 days hiking beneath the Alaska Range, we carried our homes on our backs and asked each other questions.
What are your dreams?
Do you like to dance?
What's your favorite thing to cook?
What's your family like?
He grew up as the child of educators, just like me, and I love his parents, as I do my own.
I have never known a more patient man.
Nick didn't let his ego keep him from learning how to skate in his twenties, so he could play hockey with me and my family, and he still plays today.
Before children, Nick chose to work as T.A at a preschool for children with disabilities, and he is the only man I can imagine parenting my children with, ecspecially Elias, as we fumble along this road where too many miles stretch between stones.
Nick can renovate a house and bake banana bread, build a mean fire and touch me in the exact right spot.
And I could go on with my list but I think instead I'll pour myself another glass of wine and walk out to the garage to find him.
I've been working for a month now, but I'm still not adjusted to the change of routines, from the openess of summer days to the every-minute-counts school schedule.
It makes me a bit crazy. Always does.
There is not yet snow in the mountains but its a coming. Whether I'm ready or not.
So too the darkness.
And I know I will adjust, I always do, but there is something about September that hurts.
The loss of green and days without end. The return of a schedule that dictates my time. Only seeing my family when we are all in a hurry in the morning or all frayed at the end of the day.
And the school year looms so large ahead.
As does winter, months upon months of bitter cold. Snow and ice and waking up with the stars.
And yet here I am, alive, able to lament over the rotating earth that moves us farther from the sun.
I sit here in my comfortable house with so much more than I see.
Elias, the boy I could hold in the palm of my hand, can now wear my shirts. The adult smalls may be long on him but they fit Elias in the shoulders, which are as broad as mine from years of walking with his arms.
And don't even get me started on the strength of his grip. Believe me, when he squeezes, it hurts. And when he grabs his sister's toy it practically takes two of my hands to get his one to release.
I recently spoke to his 5th grade class when he wasn't in the room and when I mentioned how strong Elias was in his upper body, a boy said, "I know he almost twisted my arm right off."
That's my boy.
On a recent evening blow up when he chased his sister around the house, angered by the clash of her creativity with his concrete, I told Olive, "Lock your door!"
Nick and I stood side by side and told him as we do often that it is OK to be mad but it is not OK to grab, squeeze and hit people.
"Go punch your bean bag if you are mad. Squeeze it and kick it and get out your frustration. You have a right to your anger but not to hurt people."
He didn't follow my directions but he did walk over to the futon and sit down, he brought his legs up criss-cross and looked down at his hands.
"Are you done?" Nick asked.
"Yeah," he replied without looking up.
The next day as I walked down the hall at school a new staff member said, "Your boy is so sweet."
"He can be. And he can be really challenging."
"Can't we all?" he said.
Elias charms most adult who are not asking him to perform a specific task. He walks up to strangers and brightens their days with his questions. He is both overly friendly and overly curious in a world where it seems like fewer and fewer people even look up when passing to say hello.
And man, do I love him but there are times when I don't like him at all. When he gets that look in his eyes and his voice changes and he comes at me or my baby girl or the man I love with his too-long nails, ready to rip our faces off because he doesn't think Olive should hang the spent flowers I clipped on the Mountain Ash tree.
It is that unpredictable switch from creative backyard play to chaos that keeps me up at night. That keeps me from leaving my two children alone for more than a moment. That keeps me feeling a bit crazed.
On a recent neighborhood ride, Olive pedaled ahead of Elias on her two-wheel bike and stopped in the middle of the sidewalk to look at something. Elias's skinny legs pedalled his recumbent trike as fast as he could with no plans to stop or go around his sister. Nick and I walked too far back to intervene and could only yell, "Don't run over Olive!"
But he tried to anyways.
To pedal right over her leg when she fell to the ground and by the time I reached him with my angry Mom face he swung his arm at me and cried, "But Olive is always ahead of me! She's always in front!"
And for once I heard his anger instead of responding with more of my own and said, "And I bet that makes you mad that your little sister is faster than you."
"Its ok to be mad about that. Her bike is faster than yours and her body cooperates more than yours, so yeah, she is a faster now. And that should make you angry. But you know what, you are faster at other things, like remembering street names and directions. We all have different strengths and challenges."
And I just wish I could be this calm and responsive all the time. That I could hear what he is needing beneath the rampage. That I could speak to the under-layers and not just to the visible aggression.
But too often I respond from my own well of tired frustration and stir up the situation instead of settling it down; especially after responding to inappropriate behavior all day long in my work as an elementary school counselor. I sometimes feel like I left my patience and compassion back at the school door.
But I all I can do is keep trying to respond in a way that releases anger instead of fueling it.
And keep hoping that Elias's violent outbursts are just another phase he will outgrow, because as I said in the beginning, my little one pound baby boy is so damn strong.
And oh so sweet.
When they fall over a cliff calling our name and we know our hands won't reach them in time.
When they walk away from us, through a schoolyard door, and we can't follow them inside.
When they pass through an invisible wall, while we remain trapped on the other side. When their decisions and actions lay beyond our reach. When we realize we can't save them...
Maybe this is what we are here to learn. Over and over again. That we aren't in control.
And we can beat ourselves up with finely crafted barbs but this was never our show to direct. We don't write the script. We can try to pry back the layers but there will always be more mystery inside than meaning. More questions that hang above us like clouds that may or may not rain.
I took Olive for a jog around University Lake yesterday after Elias's first day of school. I needed to run so I convinced her to ride in our BOB stroller instead of jogging along with me. I wanted to push her and not think about my son wearing diapers in 5th grade. Pound out my anxiety about another school year of balancing my role of school counselor and Elias's Mother in the halls of Airport Heights. I wanted to look at the mountains and the water and just move my body across the well-worn trail.
Half-way around the lake, Olive wanted to get out, so I told her we'd stop at the beach and let Tonsina swim. Up the hill from the beach I spotted a good stick at the edge of the trail and stopped running to pick it up.
I looked up in time to see the stroller rolling backwards towards a small cliff to the lake. I saw Olive's face, eyes wide, my name on her lips, and as I lunged, the stroller slipped down, past my reach. The BOB flipped over twice before downed trees stopped it from falling in the water.
I scrambled down after and as I held Olive in my arms on the side of the steep embankment, I repeated, "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry." I checked her body to make sure nothing was broken and found only scrapes and bruises.
When she stopped crying she said, "I want to go home Mama."
"I know Babe, that was really scary."
Olive nodded and I carried her up the hill, holding onto a tree to help pull us up the steep incline. I gently put her down on the trail and said, "I'll be right back after I get the Bob."
Amazingly, no one walked past during this whole ordeal, though we had run past several groups of dog-walkers. And I guess I'm a bit relieved that my Mom fuck-up didn't include multiple witnesses, just my daughter, who after four and a half years knows I'm full of faults.
When I finally muscled the stroller up the embankment--(not realizing till we got back to the car that my keys and phone fell out and lay hidden in the brush)--Olive held my hand and we slowly walked together down the trail. "That was my mistake Olive. I forgot to put on the brake. I messed up and I'm so sorry. I know it was scary."
"I'm kinda hurt but kinda OK now."
I smiled at my strong little girl. "You are so brave. I love you Sweetie." And it was fine that she didn't want to get back in the stroller and that our pace resembled a tortoise more than a hare because she was OK.
And so is Elias, OK, even if his processing speed, movement and development are nothing like his peers. Even if I cant stand beside him to smooth out every social encounter. Even if I can't catch him every time he falls.
And as we all know, he falls. A lot.
We all do.
"Mom," Olive said as we walked out of the woods and into the field, "When I fell it was a little bit scary and a little bit fun."
And that's childhood, and parenthood, and this painfully beautiful life of ours. A little bit scary and a little bit fun. If we take away all the scary we rob our children of the fun.
When we let ourselves grieve, little by little, joy returns.
Due to Elias's visual impairment and cerebral palsy that affects his balance and motor planning, he falls a lot.
I mean, countless times a day.
Especially now that he's choosing to walk around more often without his canes.
He can get from point A to Point B but he doesn't take the most direct line, as his gait is like a combination between someone who just downed a few liters of vodka and the most outrageous stereotype of a gay man's walk.
But, yes, he walks.
And so he falls or almost falls a lot.
Luckily, he generally has a good sense of humor about it.
(Unless he's hurt then he tends to swing his arms at the first person who responds to help.)
Last night, he fell out of his chair at dinner, ended up on his back on the floor with his legs still on the chair, and he laughed so hard he got us all laughing, looking down at him, our whole bodies shaking with joy, before I finally realized I should probably help him up.
Olive promptly "fell" too but it wasn't nearly as funny.
Elias started creating new verbs from whatever causes him to trip or get stuck or fall. I've been trying to keep a mental list of them all.
When I water the garden: "Mom, I got hosed!"
When he falls in the yard, "Mom I just got grassed."
We are taking care of our neighbors' dog and today he said, "Mom, I almost got Djangoed."
He has also been among other things, "poled", "rooted", "lilaced", "fenced", "curbed", "bushed", "potted", "tree-ed", "signed", "tabled", "gardened", "wicketed", "rosed", "trucked", "roped", "wagoned", "sidewalked", "lillied", "dogged", "chained", "rocked", "ferned"...
If only we all found as much humor in getting stuck, such joy in falling.
Remember this, if you happen to get "Monday-ed".
You stand shoulder to shoulder at the mouth of the Kenai River, where the fresh water joins the salt of the Pacific, and jump three foot waves holding a five foot net attached to a ten foot pole. You love this subsistence sport known as dipnetting. And you feel crazy doing it.
You wait alongside thousands of other Alaska residents for a Sockeye salmon to swim into your net. Not the net inches from yours. Not the net at the front of the line. But yours. You want to be the chosen one who interrupts the Red’s journey to its childhood home.
You silently talk to the fish. Please, you say, please find my net amidst the rest.
You wait. And you wait.
You talk to the people around you, as diverse as they come, an eclectic group of ethnicities, ages, and backgrounds, all wearing the same uniform— waders or hip boots, Gortex and fleece— all of you hoping the next fish lands in your net.
“Yeah, have you caught any yet?”
“No. But at least its a nice day.”
“Yeah, Im hopeful they’ll come with this tide.”
“Hope is all we got.”
When you dipnet, or participate in the Kenai River personal use fishery, you camp on the beach of Cook Inlet where the glacier-fed river meets the Pacific, with up to 15, 000 other hopeful fisher-folks, your tents packed together like sardines, a carnival scene on two strips of sand and mud less than a mile long, the most crowded of camping experiences, all of you united by fish. And like at a Dead Show or a Super Bowl, you are driven together to step outside of your regular lives and respond as one. You may not cheer and clap but you all stand together as a crowd and wait for a salmon to hit. As diverse as you are, different languages and colors of skin, you are all the same. Waders and nets.
And when one of you loses a fish at the shore, you may question the person’s technique or their equipment, or their reaction speed, but you all feel the person's pain. You've been there before.
We’ve all lost something we wanted, arrived empty-handed, heart shattered, when we expected to be full. When tragedy strikes our tendency is to deny or blame, or to try to rewind time, like Superman, reversing the rotation of the earth to save Lois Lane. When it happens to someone else, we question their decisions, label them, we distance ourselves as a smokescreen to keep us safe. Like the way people praise you for raising a child with special needs. God must have chosen you because you have the strength and patience to parent a child like him. If there is something special about you, then maybe it couldn't happen to them. But it could happen to anyone. Chance. Luck. The fish that swims past a thousand nets, and gets caught in yours.
And you better be ready to respond. To accept what the earth gives you. That is really your only choice: To accept or not accept.
You lick the salt from your lips, remnants of waves far bigger than you, waves too large to jump, too fast to move away from, and too strong to turn your back on, waves that catch you off guard, and leave you feeling wild and raw.
You stare at the light on the water, the volcanoes in the distance, Redoubt, Spurr, Illiamna, and St Augustine, as the sun rises higher above this crowded beach scene, the mountains that overlook the frenzy change from pinkish grey to white. You observe all the various people down the line, Alaska Native, Samoan, Hmong, old and young, all waiting with a net similar to yours, different sizes and styles, but with the same intentions. You turn and watch the action on the beach where thousands of families camp, process fish, play in the sand, eat, drink… and wait.
Your children are back there somewhere, Elias and Olive, watched over by the tribe that joins families every 2nd or 3rd week of July for fish camp, eating meals communally, taking care of each other, the way it should be. You know Olive is playing with the other kids, building sandcastles or racing up and down the beach; her older brother, Elias, well, you just hope he’s not in melt-down mode. Hope he’s not overstimulated and lashing out at the people who love him, squeezing arms and faces as he attempts to fight his way free from social structures beyond his understanding. You choose to place your trust, your re-sutured heart, in your community of mostly transplanted Alaskans—and you let go as you strain to hold your net upright against the outgoing tide. He’s ok. He’s fine.
You can’t feel your fingers, your arms ache, your bladder’s as full as your stomach’s empty, but you stand chest high in the water for hours, waiting for the rush of a salmon swimming full tilt into the net you hold, the adrenaline surge as you yank, flip, and drag that net to shore, hoping it emerges on the beach with a ten pound sockeye thrashing within. You promise to say thank you before you kill with reverence, showing your gratitude for the bounty of food these speckled salmon deliver.
Salmon fillets, salmon cakes, salmon burgers, salmon tacos, salmon quesadillas, smoked salmon, salmon pesto pasta, salmon scrambled eggs, salmon salad, salmon lasagna, jarred salmon, salmon sandwiches, salmon jerky, salmon quiche, you name it, you’ll eat it, all winter long. It’s one of the many reasons you love Alaska.
As an Alaskan resident, and a family of four, you are allowed up to 55 red salmon as part of the Kenai River personal use fishery, and it doesn’t take a whole lot of skill or fancy equipment, all you need is a giant net and a willingness to stand in the 50 degree water holding the long pole against the tides
And in this day of microwave dinners and take out meals, there is something almost sacred about fishing for food, about catching your own lunch, and honoring its life before slitting its gills. It is the feeling of honest to goodness work that doesn't involve computer screens or meetings or systems or processes you can't feel and taste. It is the feeling of sore calves from standing on tip toes in your attempt to stand as far out as the much taller men, from jumping the waves to try to keep the water out of your waders. Sore shoulders and back from holding the large net against the current, from lugging the salmon ashore. And this sacred feeling is heightened when it is a communal act, a unique Alaskan ritual each July, during which you have the opportunity to fill your freezers with salmon fillets, ground and smoked salmon for the long winter months ahead.
So you wait for that feeling. You’ll wait in the water for hours.
You remember the first fish you killed all by yourself. You caught it during low tide, out past the mudflats, without Nick or any of your friends by your side and too far back at shore to help. And it was a big fish, no King, but at least ten pounds.
You’d killed fish before-- one or two--but never alone. Never without the moral support of Nick, or your friend Gavin, to talk you through it.
The fish flopped out of the net when you dragged it to shore so you dove on him, coating your fleece jacket with mud. Nick had given you a big rock to knock him on the head and a knife to cut his gills but they lay in the wagon twenty yards away. So you crouched there, in the mud, on your fish, feeling its warmth, unsure how to get the slippery fellow to the wagon. You decided to tangle him more in the net and drag him to the wagon, so by the time you reached the rock you were both covered in silty mud as he continued to flop around, fighting to return to the Kenai, to his traditional migration back to the waters of his birth.
You stood over this prehistoric-looking creature and apologized for the rock and for your own inadequacies when it comes to performing a quick kill. You wanted to harvest this fish to make salmon patties and filets, to fill your freezer with meat, but you didn’t feel comfortable killing it alone. You worried you were doing it wrong. Making it suffer more than needed. Did you hit it hard enough or too hard? Did you cut the gills enough to let him bleed out or just enough to torment the poor fellow? What the hell are you doing anyways? And isn’t this the way it goes? When it comes down to it, we are always alone with our questions, always wondering if we are doing it right. Are we capable? Are we good enough? Are we OK?
You look up to see a robust Polynesian woman you met earlier walking towards you with her wagon. “You got a fish?”
“Yeah, but I don’t know if he’s dead yet,” you said, anxious to pull someone else into this circle.
“Oh here,” she picked up a rock twice the size of yours, leaned over your fish, and whacked him good and hard. “There, he’s dead now,” she said with a smile.
You thanked her, picked up your net, and returned to the water.
“Was that your first fish?’ the smiling man next to you asked.
“No, but it might as well have been.”
The next three fish that hit your net all got away. And you can’t say you let them, but you can’t say you tried real hard to flip your net over either--you weren’t sure you could kill another, not without someone to be your witness.
Fast forward a few summers to the time they lifted the 11:00 pm curfew due to an exceptionally strong run and you stood in the water long past midnight catching and killing fish.
"She's got that big-eyed primal look," your friend Pili told Nick. "I don't think she wants to stop."
You could hear your daughter Olive screaming from the tent, protesting bedtime without her Mom. Your son Elias sat by the fire, having crawled out of the tent an hour ago, over-tired but too curious to sleep. You knew Olive would settle easier if you took off your waders and climbed in the tent with her.
But you were catching fish.
Red salmon that shimmered silver in the dusk. Big ones that hit your net hard and fought to escape as you muscled the net over and dragged them to shore. They flopped on the beach as you silently thanked them, before bonking them on the head with two hard strikes.
"One to stun and one to kill," your friend TJ said. On the biggest ones, you sometimes needed a third or fourth hit to stop them from flopping in the net as you bent down to untangle them.
Primal instincts pulled at your core like two tides, one outgoing and one coming in-- you felt compelled to return to your children, as their comforter in the night, but you also embraced the role of provider, catching salmon as the half moon rose.
Nick is up there, you thought, when another nine-pound fish struck and your adrenaline spiked as you fought to turn the five-foot net over against the tide. The thrill of seeing the fish jump, of successfully landing it on the beach. The knowledge of wild Alaskan salmon stocked in your freezer all winter long.
One more. You’ll just catch one more....
Reni, who like you, fully caught the fishing bug on this trip, walked back into the water with her ten-foot pole. "Nick and Gavin don't want us to catch anymore fish," she said, referring to her father by his first name, seeming more and more like a peer than an eleven-year-old girl. "Every fish we catch is one more they have to clean."
"Right," you smiled. "One more and I'm done."
"Me too.” She said as she maneuvered her net into the water like a pro.
Earlier in the evening, you and Reni caught a fish together as your nets tangled underwater when the salmon swam your net into hers. She took the lead in untangling the smaller female and as you stood by watching her unwind the net from the fish's fins you had to restrain yourself from helping. And you realized she will only grow more competent, more independent, more able.
All our children will, even the baby bird newborns who seem so helpless with their eyes still closed, mouths searching, they too shall grow. And so shall our children with injured brains and miles between stones, they too will grow more competent, more independent, more able.
And as you stood next to Reni, chest-deep in the ocean, jumping waves and laughing like you did as a child on the Cape, you felt another hit, your eighth of the night, and you dragged it to shore as Nick walked down the beach to meet you.
"I need to go to bed," he said, his hood up, shoulders heavy.
"I know. Are the kids finally down?"
"Yeah, Gavin got Elias down and Olive fought it but finally conked out too."
"Thank you, Babe. I can deal with the fish," you heard yourself saying, the girl who could practically cut her pinkie off with a butter knife. "I can have Gavin show me how."
"Good," Nick said, "You can do it."
And for once, you felt like you could. Like you could do anything, anything at all. No matter what the world threw your way, you’d take it on and not only survive, but grow stronger still. As the earth slowly rotates, we evolve, whether we realize it or not.
You pulled your orange sled alongside Gavin’s and asked if he'd show you how to head, tail, and gut your fish. Gavin, a seasoned outdoor guide, is a good teacher, clear and patient; with headlamps on, you worked crouched down on the beach, facing each other. His fish clean and precise. Yours bloody and ragged. In your rush to get back in the water earlier, and catch another big one, you’d forgotten to slit their gills and bleed your fish, and you finally understood why this step mattered. Compared to Gavin’s tidy work station, your sled looked like a massacre scene. The blood coagulated quickly and smeared instead of washing off.
It was almost two a.m. and you felt more awake than you had in years. Alive and full of your own blood, blood from your ancestors, passed down to your children, blood that allows you to do crazy and beautiful things like hold a net in the edge of the Pacific and wait for a salmon to find it.
To create children who test you and break you and re-make you a thousand times a day but try as you might you can never catch them in your net, never keep them still, they swim on to underwater worlds you'll never see, following their own blood down uncharted streams, bound and free.
When your own son arrived four months too soon, you knew you couldn’t return him to your womb, and in that moment your sense of being in control shattered. You could not save your son so you handed his care over to a medical community that resuscitated his stopped heart and somehow, with the help of science and machines, hope and prayers, and your little boy’s will, got his one pound body to breathe. And despite dire predictions, he survived.
Years later, he holds himself upright with the help of forearm crutches, which he uses to poke a recently cleaned salmon carcass on the beach. ”Mom, how do I un-dead the fish?"
How do I go back in time? How do I start over? How do I get a second try?
"Oh Bud, you can't. But if you figure out a way, you'd be one wealthy man."
"When I'm bigger, I can go out there. I can fish too.”
And you know you will find a way for him to participate, because his determination over rides his disabilities every time. And you know you will be here again next summer and the summer after that and as long as the salmon are plentiful and subsistence is possible because its about more than camping and fishing, but about reconnecting with the natural cycles of life. Love and death, fear and hope, solitude and community, on the shores of the Kenai and Cook Inlet Sound.
So you hold tight to your net and wait.
The quiet camaraderie of standing in the water with others makes the frigid temperatures more bearable. That and the persistent hope that any second a fish will hit. Oh, and once it does, no matter how cold you are, or if you had just been ready to take a break, you find yourself wading out again. One more, you think, one more.
So you wait for that feeling.
You remember the woman who caught a giant King back when the run was strong and you could still keep them. She caught a seventy-pounder and you couldn’t help but wonder out of the hundreds of nets waiting, why hers? I mean is it luck or fate or timing or equipment or skill? Or is it just standing in the right place at the right time?
TJ says Audrey catches so many fish because she was born in Alaska. You think Nick catches fish because he was born with an abundance of patience. Gavin caught one, after a long null period, when he closed his eyes and thought, “I could take a nap. Or maybe I should say a prayer to the fish god.” Bang, one hit, before he could even articulate his prayer.
"I think its chaos theory," you say to Nick and Gavin, as you ponder how to predict the patterns of the approaching salmon, and the science behind catching them in your dipnets. Its random and luck and just being in the right place at the right time. We can point to our height or our stance or our tools or our place in time as factors in our bounty but perhaps we can't pinpoint the cause.
Just as you can’t claim there is something special about you for parenting a child like Elias. You parent Elias by following his needs. You learn as you go. The strength comes from the experience of loving him, not from some innate goodness in your soul. You are not a chosen one, just randomly selected. And you chose to accept.
You feel a salmon hit and turn your net over as he jumps out of the water in an attempt to flee. You drag the net along the rocks underneath your feet and walk back towards the beach. You cheer when you finally land the large Sockeye and dance around the net. Thank you, you tell the salmon, thank you. You lay your hands on silver scales and study your first fish of the season longer than normal after waiting so long. Thank you, thank you, you repeat, before raising your handmade wooden “bonker" and hitting it twice on the head.
You slit the gills with your bare hands, using your forefinger as a knife, and then carry this gift to the ocean’s edge to clean off the sand and silt. You hold the sockeye salmon that found your net amidst the rest high above your head and smile at your family and friends who wave and cheer from the campsite above.
“Yay Mom!” you hear Elias say. “You did it!”
You smile from every fiber that makes you alive. Then you turn and walk back into the water, wielding your giant net like a direct line between family and sea, and you silently thank your own version of god for this rich salty life of yours.
I combined some older posts into this essay and am hoping to submit it for publication somewhere. I would love your feedback.
Thanks as always for reading,