This is Brooke speaking:
A number of months ago on this blog, in my account of the IMCU, I said that three important things happened there—the appearance of the lama, the interactions with the nursing staff, and certain conversations I had with my stepson Michael. I want to continue to explore the conversations with Michael, since they were transformative for both of us in this process. Peggy Fletcher Stack has alluded to those conversations in her second Tribune article, for which the site was just posted, but I’d like to give an account of them in more detail here, blending my voice with Peggy’s as we write.
These conversations with Michael took place late at night: the first in the IMCU, after I was no longer intubated and was able to talk, sometime last December, and the second about two or three weeks later, in Rehab. The theme of these conversations evolved over this period of time, and the second conversation built organically on what we discussed in the first conversation—and, indeed, it seemed as if there had been very little time between them, they were so closely connected.
We talked about Michael’s childhood, his relationship with his mother Peggy, my perceptions of his character as an adult, and we ranged over recollections of trips we had taken with Peggy and his sister Sara (of whom more in later blogs), when he was spending summers with us in Salt Lake City as a child.
The room was almost completely dark; I was lying in bed and he was standing above me, his arms folded and his stance balanced on his heels. That’s when I told him I had always thought he was a natural caregiver, and that all the EMT and paramedic work he had done over a period of almost 20 years was an expression of the deepest part of him. That’s when he opened up, and I opened up too. We started by talking about his complex relationship with his mother, and about differing perceptions of painful events in his childhood. That morphed into accounts of trips we’d taken when he was young—to Wheeler Peak, for instance, when Peggy and I had picked the kids up on the lawn outside Dennys’ after their class at the airport, then set off to drive across the west desert, when we camped beside a lake at 10,000 feet, just below an area of bristlecone pines, and when he got a fishhook stuck in his hand. Then there was the trip to Alaska, when we went as deck passengers on the inland ferry, up the coast from Seattle, getting on and off the ferry completely spontaneously until we finally found ourselves following a guide named Mark Jensen, carrying a rifle out onto a glacier, just in case we encountered grizzly bears. We went on a plane so tiny that the first trip involved just the pilot, a guide, and Michael; then the plane came back to pick up Peggy and me. We saw eagles on the way back, as we rafted back down a river, the name of which we’ve long since forgotten but whose appearance remains vivid in memory.
But now Michael is over 40 and travels on much bigger planes, conducting the medical software business he co-owns all around the world. He spends a lot of time on planes: from Seattle, where he lives, to Chicago, to London, to Kuala Lumpur, and once a month to see us in Salt Lake. (When I thank him for coming to see us, he always says, it’s the least I can do.) On some one of these planes, he had a realization—you could call it an epiphany—about himself and me.
He said he’d realized—while he has flying on a plane, at about 30,000 feet—that he needed to tell people what they meant to him before they died. (This had something to do with not being with his stepmom Sue when she died.) He didn’t exactly say, I want to make sure you know this before you die, but I think he thought it. He wanted me to know the important role that I had played in his growing up—in particular, in initiating him into some kind of manhood, by taking him on wilderness trips, by going to Alaska—he realized that he needed what I was able to give him in his life, the out-of-doors stuff, the energetic stuff, the adventuring--but he had not realized it until then.
I said, I’m very grateful for your saying this to me. I see that moment with him as part of the Shakespearean romance of this narrative, where suffering produces new sorts of insight, where families are reconstructed and reunited, where the roles of fathers and sons—whether biological fathers, or new fathers, like me--where the roles of fathers and sons or fathers and daughters are not necessarily biological but work on another plane.
But of course this is a hard realization too, to acknowledge that much of what I’d meant to him as a kid is stuff I can’t do with him anymore. I can’t take him hiking; I can’t do exotic traveling; and if we tried to go to Alaska it would be him pushing me around in a wheelchair on the deck of an ocean liner populated by largely by elderly people who view Alaska from their deck chairs. The possibility of all that wonderful outdoor adventuring is gone. And it meant so much to him, that little kid, growing up in the world.
Of course, we all recognize that onrushing age puts an end to these things anyway. He’s over 40 and consumed with running his company; he can’t go off to hike around glaciers in Alaska following guides with rifles, at least if his BlackBerry won’t work there. I’m 67 and although there would have been a great deal of physical adventure left in me for, I think, at least ten more years, still age would eventually take its toll. So what is lost was becoming lost anyway, if it’s just about the wild outdoor part.
But what remains seems now even deeper than what we had before, call it spiritual, call it emotional, whatever you want. It seems like a new kind of adventuring, if you can call it that, that we can both participate in. It’s simple, but new and profound: we can talk to each other now, really talk. This isn’t a story about a prodigal son coming back home or a difficult father mending his ways; it’s about what happens when you can’t do any of the ordinary forms of adventuring together and both realize that the only thing you can do is talk. It gets deeper, better. Strange, but I don’t know whether this could happen in any other way.