Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Upward over the mountain

It was a warm Sunday afternoon, the first without thunderstorms in several days. I'd ridden my mountain bike to the top of Meyers Gulch, and was sitting on the "JDW" memorial bench feeling disappointed about my effort when my phone buzzed. It was my Dad, who only communicates by text when something upsetting has happened. It was the news we'd all been expecting for a while now. My last living grandparent, Grandma Homer, had taken her last breath. She was 88 years old. She died at home, surrounded by all six of her children, which was everything she wanted at the end. So this was good news. But it was sad news. A knot seized my throat as I directed a tearful gaze toward the Boulder Canyon Overlook, a sweeping vista of the snow-capped Continental Divide, accompanied by the quiet roar of construction traffic deep in the canyon.

This photo shows my grandma and me in 2001, celebrating my 22nd birthday. I gave her one of the "hippy necklaces" I braided from hemp and beads to sell to tailgaters at Dave Matthews shows in order to fund a cross-country road trip with friends, not long after I decided to forgo law school to do what I wanted instead. No doubt my grandmother strongly disapproved of all of these things, but she never said so. She wrapped the necklace around her neck and wore it proudly. Grandma, like everyone, was a complex human. She could be rigid in her thinking and stern, but she was unconditionally loving and compassionate. She was the hardest worker I ever knew. I was born a hopeless free spirit with little regard for convention, but possessing just a fraction of my grandmother's work ethic allowed me to achieve a few successes in life. I will miss her.

On Monday I was preparing to head out to Utah for the funeral, but I had what was more or less a free afternoon, and a surprisingly good weather window. For the past decade-plus, whenever I've experienced a personal loss, I've found catharsis in climbing to the top of a mountain. I climbed my heart mountain — Lone Peak in Utah's Wasatch Mountains — when my Grandpa Homer died. A month later, when my Grandpa Johnson died, I braved a swirling snowstorm and verglas-coated boulders to reach the top of Lima Peak in Montana. I climbed Grays and Torrey's — fourteeners in Colorado — when my Aunt Jill died in 2017. But on June 10, the day after my grandmother died, my right leg was still stubbornly recovering from an MCL/adductor strain, and I wasn't in good physical condition to climb mountains. I could ride a bike, but in Colorado there are few mountains where one can reach an actual summit while cycling nontechnical terrain. But there was one nearby — the soaring 14,100-foot summit of Mount Evans. The road has just opened three days earlier.

I set out from Idaho Springs in the late morning, hoping the persistent afternoon thunderstorms would relent enough to allow time to ride the 28-mile relentless climb, 7,000 feet of gain to the edge of the sky. The condition of the road was unknown so I took Beat's gravel bike, but spent most of those miles of frost-heaves, loose sand and lung-crushing grades wishing I was on my mountain bike. In all honesty, I felt lousy from the start. Maybe it was the high grass pollen count, or a hormone slump. Maybe it was poor sleep, or a weight of sadness. My legs were heavy, my knee stiff, my lungs weak. About five miles from the start, not even a thousand feet into the climb, I put a foot down and reconsidered. It wasn't my day. I couldn't imagine finding the oomph for another vertical mile-plus, climbing above 14,000 feet. But this ride wasn't for me. It was for my grandma. I mean, it was for me, to process the loss of my grandma. But she would have done the work. Even at the end of her life, gripped with the pain of terminal liver cancer, she continued to do everything for herself — upkeep in her large yard, housework, cooking. She couldn't bear the thought of depending on others. And she died knowing she never had to.

Grandma was an August baby like me, born on a sweltering summer day in 1930. She was the oldest of seven children, from a long lineage of Mormon pioneers. Her family lived on a farm in Hyrum, Utah, where she raised her younger siblings while her parents worked long hours in the fields. It was an impoverished existence during the Great Depression, all work and no luxury. When Grandma made peanut butter sandwiches with the generic stuff we didn't like as much, she reminded us that this was as good as "spreading gold on bread" to her. I grew to love this about her — all the little reminders that everything in our life was good, and worthy of appreciation. She married my grandfather in 1948, and my dad is her eldest child of six. I'm his eldest, and I wonder sometimes if this garnered favor from my grandmother that I didn't necessarily earn. She rarely criticized me, even when I made a number of unconventional life decisions. She always treated me as though I was someone really special. I think she regarded all of her 19 grandchildren this way, and had a way of showing particular appreciation for us as individuals.

Grandma was a no-nonsense woman who valued frugality and austerity. Wastefulness and frivolousness were not tolerated, which was always difficult for me — the grandchild who wanted to do what she wanted to do. One of my favorite memories is the tale of one of my grandparents' cows, Clarabelle. Every year, they raised and slaughtered a cow to distribute to the family. I was 7 or 8 years old and probably even knew this at the time; I disliked meat, and dreaded the white packages that showed up in the freezer after Christmas. But I developed a special affinity for Clarabelle, spending time picking and gathering weeds from the garden so I could feed her, pet her snout, and scratch her ears. One evening, while staying with my grandparents while my parents were on vacation, Grandma served a bowl of "calf stew" for dinner. I did not like stew, and was probably stalling at finishing my meal when Grandma decided to up the motivation by asking me if I remembered Clarabelle. Of course, I replied. Grandma's signature toothy grin spread across her face, and she pointed to my bowl. And I understood. At that moment, I finally understood everything. I recoiled away from the table and commenced bawling, which resulted in a heated standoff. I was not allowed to walk away from the table, but I couldn't bear the decree to eat more Clarabelle. I don't remember how this ended. I was fairly traumatized. My grandmother, having grown up on a farm, did not understand why I was so upset. This became one of those experiences that I think of as "a freeing moment of truth through hard reality," which I've come to respect and seek out as an adult.

My grandmother was hearing impaired, a complication of Meniere's disease. She experienced her traumatic hearing loss all at once, during an earth-shattering moment while sitting in a pew at church in her 40s. An extroverted and social woman, this became the hardest challenge of her life, causing her to feel isolated and alone. Instead of becoming bitter, she channeled her despair into community activism, and played a role in a number of laws benefiting the disabled in the 1980s and 1990s. She was also an avid walker, and was instrumental in the development of a pedestrian path through her hometown in Roy, Utah. But for all of her accomplishments, she was never one to brag. I grew up understanding that Grandma simply lived to serve. She rarely if ever did anything for herself.

The moment that had the largest influence on my life came on my eighth birthday, when Grandma gave me my first journal. It was a fancy book, hardbound leather with lined pages that smelled like a library, blank but brimming with importance. On the inside cover she wrote one of her favorite quotes: "Life not recorded or remembered becomes as ripples when they reach the edge of the pond, unseen and forgotten." I knew Grandma to be an avid recorder of life. She kept scrapbooks for all of her grandchildren, even as they grew into 19 enormous binders. She had stacks of photo albums, as well as a number of her own private journals. At the age of 8, I took grandma's words to heart and used a ballpoint pen to make my first record of life. For the most part, I've continued this practice ever since. The fancy Deseret Book journals of childhood became the three-ring binders of my teenage years, which became text files still stored on floppy discs (those may be lost forever), which became, of course, my blog and books. I'm not sure that I care whether I'm "forgotten" — I believe that's inevitable for even the most famous and loved among humanity, eventually. But it's valuable to connect with others in the present, which I strive to achieve through written stories.

Happy and funny memories about my grandmother distracted me through a number of miles, but as I rose into the thin air above treeline, I could no longer mentally meander away from my discomfort. Both legs were cramping and in pain, as I'd overworked the hamstrings amid a too-fast increase in cycling mileage. My right leg with its limited strength and stiff joint felt particularly desperate. At this point I realized I couldn't risk throwing a foot down, because then I probably would turn around. I didn't really want this summit, yet I understood that I needed it. The road shot skyward, skimming windswept talus and ten-foot-high snowdrifts. Every frost heave rattled my bones. Every hairpin curve sapped the last strands of strength from my legs. Or so I thought. I felt desperate to stop, just rest for a minute, but I couldn't do it. Pride, work ethic, stubbornness — all of the best and worst qualities I inherited from my grandmother — propelled me forward. 

The final thousand feet were impossible; I was dizzy, gasping, my breathing as bad as it had been when I was sick, my inhaler stashed deep in my pack because I hardly use it anymore. But I couldn't stop. There was a parking lot and a summit sign marking 14,130 feet, but I didn't stop there. I threw my bike against a boulder and stomped toward the true summit, another 200 feet higher and buried in drifts of rotten snow that threatened to swallow my bad leg. I felt so dizzy that I was seeing spots, and knew this was a somewhat bad idea, but superstition gave me enough confidence to tell myself that grandma would protect me. After all, she gave me this amazing day, not a dark cloud in the sky and a brisk but relatively mild breeze all the way up at 14,000 feet. The temperature was just a few notches above freezing, so the windchill cut deep, but I found it all exhilarating and satisfying. I crawled to the final high point and stood tall, buffeted by a suddenly strong wind. I stood tall, and sang the song that brings me comfort. "Upward Over The Mountain" by Iron and Wine. The lyrics are about mothers and sons and don't fit perfectly, but they mean something to me. 

Mother I made it up from the bruise on the floor of this prison.
Mother I lost it, all of the fear of the Lord I was given.  
Mother forget me now that the creek drank the cradle you sang to.  
Mother forgive me, I sold your car for the shoes that I gave you.  

So may the sunrise bring hope where it once was forgotten. 
Sons could be birds, flying upward over the mountain.


  1. It probably is not universally true, but sometimes I feel that previous generations were more selfless than today.

  2. What a beautiful tribute to your grandmother. Brought tears to my eyes. It’s easier than ever to see where you get your tenacity.

  3. Wonderful post Jill...having never met your grandmother, I can only begin to imagine her thru your stories. Having never actually met you either I can still safely say that you are the most driven and mentally tough person I know. I'd guess a lot of that comes from your grandmother, and it sounds like your dad has it in spades too. The things you have accomplished are staggering to me (and speaking of things you have accomplished, are you watching the TD? Lael is AMAZING! They are FLYING this year!) Glad your recovery is still progressing, and so very sorry to hear about your loss...cancer SUCKS! (lost my mom to Ovarian just a bit over a year ago and I miss her every day. and still can't believe she's gone).

  4. Your grandma would be (is?) proud of this post. It's evident...and not so far fetched...that her spirit continues to manifest through you. The triumphs and the "failures," she would tell you, are of equal importance. Your cheap peanut butter sandwich story reminds me how my mom, who lived through the depression, would mix up gallon jars of Powdered Milk to save a few cents at the grocery store...a most revolting substitute for creamy whole milk. I agree with Mary...we are a little more selfish today...spoiled?
    Beautiful post.

  5. A beautifully written tribute to your grandmother and her influence on your life. My Mom is 88 and lives with us. I think so many women of their generation "simply lived to serve" and "rarely if ever did anything for" themselves. My Mom is that way so I can relate.

    Wonderful to know that the journal your grandmother gave you, and the quote within, has had such a strong influence on your life. There is no doubt that you "connect with others" through your written stories. You do it so well and touch our hearts and minds in the process.

  6. @Box Cyn Blog...HA! Our mom used to mix powdered milk for the 3 of us back in the early 70's (to save a few $$)...we hated it so much that she finally relented to a 50/50 mix of real to powdered (back in the day Carnation was the only powdered milk...they've had Milk Mate brand now for a long time, which is WAY better IMO I take a small envelope of that bike/back-packing so I can have milk w/ my oatmeal for breakfasts). I had totally forgotten about the powdered milk thing!

    1. Yes, we evolved to a 50-50 blend keep the "peace." :)

  7. So sorry for the loss of your Grandmother Jill. A beautiful tribute to a wonderful Grandmother ,who will be forever in your heart.


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