In 1985 my wife Linda and I were married in a church ceremony and then an outdoor reception in the backyard of her parents home in Addison, IL. It turned out to be a picture book day with friends and family in attendance. Yet weddings are dizzying affairs. People from all corners of your life converge in one place. The groom and bride whisk through vows and greetings, toasts and dancing, then land together in a hotel room to begin life together, perhaps with the honeymoon.
Our choice was to hold off on the honeymoon for a month and make a trip by car to Glacier National Park, a favorite destination of her parents and one of the most beautiful places on earth.
We drove 13 hours the first day to camp at the Badlands, a national park in South Dakota. The landscape is moonlike, hot and dry. The wind blew steadily and it was everything this young groom could do to put up a tent in which to sleep that first night. Some fellow wandered over to "help" of course, a nd I bristled at the inferred suggestion that the tent would not go up under my own supervision. It did get up somehow.
As we were preparing to cook our first meal, the park ranger came by to instruct us that no ground fires were allowed. "We have this small grill, can we use that?" we asked. He told us to put it up on the table. So we did. The small grill heated up fast with coals and we set out some bread on the table in anticipation of cooking up some chicken. The bread quickly turned to toast, literally, in the hot, dry air. Some coals fell down through the grill and we burned a hole in the table. We'd done what we were told, but it was probably a failure of communication all around.
We drove out to Yellowstone next and camped in an area where there had been bear activity. Grizzlies are the glory of Yellowstone and Glacier, but with the glory comes risk. We hiked with bear bells dinging as we went, and wore the plastic rain gear we'd purchased to keep away the rain.
The trip north to Glacier followed the giant spine of mountains leading to the northwest part of Montana. Pulling into Glacier is a dramatic event. It was then and remains today a park with mountains that seem to jump up from behind its own foothills. Romantic and awe-inspiring, Glacier was a perfect spot for a honeymoon.
We stayed in a cute cabin a couple nights and went on day-hikes, learning our way around the park and its cool valleys. Then we hiked into the wilderness to camp overnight at Otokomi Lake, up in the mountains. There were bear maulings at the lake at one point in time, and our bear bells and rocks clacked together seemed like thin protection against the threat of grizzlies. Then my wife informed me that her period was coming on, and that's never good news in bear country.
We managed a meal cooked next to the remote lake. Our belongings were hung in a pack 16 feet in the air and we changed clothes after eating and cooking ou r meal, because bears smell food and come sniffing if you have any trace on your body.
The little tent was set up amongst rich green fir trees that allowed a peek at the lake. The sky fell to twilight and the trees on the ridge above turned black and jagged. We slept with one ear out for sounds and years later I'd see a cartoon in The Far Side that described how we felt about that night. The cartoon pictured two bears looking at a pair of campers in their sleeping bags. One bear holds a paw up to shield his voice and says, "Look! Sandwiches!"
The final leg of our trip was a drive up to Waterton on the Canadian side of the park. The hotel sits on the far north end of a long lake between two swooping sets of mountains. The very idea that this lake and its bed were carved by ice, glaciers to be exact, is beyond human comprehension, yet there it sits, windswept and bold. "Deal with it," the vistas seem to utter.
Linda and I wandered out with our cameras to ta ke some pictures of the hotel, and of each other. The photo of her in her black top and purple skirt, tan skin and golden hair is one of the most stunning images from our marriage. Behind her the mountains stand like witnesses to our lives together, and the lake. You can almost see the breeze behind her yet she appears joyful and serene in her place.
My son Evan discovered that photo of Linda in our Glacier album and posted it on Facebook the night of her Memorial Service. My daughter noted that Linda always seemed tan, like a coconut when she was young. "I guess that makes me the inside of the coconut," my daughter chuckled wryly. Her fair skin does not tan easily. Linda would always say, "You have beautiful skin Emily. Be glad for that."
Such are the journeys of life and discovery that our experiences converge in intense ways. The eulogy delivered by my son at the Memorial service was so replete with combinations of humor and love that there could be no additions or subtractions without diminishing the message. He captured all the years of our marriage and her motherhood with well chosen words. In essence he painted a picture all could appreciate; that Linda was a loving and heartfelt mother and teacher, gardener and lover of nature.
You can see that somehow in the picture of her standing in front of that vista looking south to Glacier National Park. She is ready for what comes next, yet time wraps its arms around her. I envision her in such a place now, but what can we really know? It satisfies our urge for eternity. And that is enough for me.
And what more could a husband and father, son and daughter, sister, brother, mother and friends ask of one person? She gave herself to life, as our pastor said in his sermon remarks, and that is a gift indeed, and in deed.
I hope you know this is not just romanticizing a wife lost to cancer. Our lives were not perfect and she would be the first one to tell you that. Yet the untold struggles and the mountains we climbed were what made it all matter. There were bears and fears. The sniff of blood on the wind, it seems, is what even us humans must survive. It was one wild trip, our honeymoon, and our marriage. We would not have had it any other way.