As I topped the rise on I-24 coming home from seeing my dying father in Ohio, it was in the closing days of winter three years ago. Below me in the valley at the foot of Pikes Peak, the sun shone and gilded everything at the feet of the hoary-headed mountain that glittered like a diamond-studded ermine beneath the clear sky. Above the valley the sky was the blue peculiar to Colorado. The sun ruled alone, no clouds to attend it or cover its face, and the air rushing through the open car window was fresh and clean. I was home. At 11:45 a.m. as I topped the rise and drove down the other side, that was my only thought: I'm home.
I didn't know until I walked into my apartment, unloaded the car and sank gratefully onto the couch how much things would change in the next few minutes. All I knew was that I was grateful to be back in my stuffy apartment with the blinds and curtains closed.
After I shut and locked the door, opened the curtains and blinds and raised the windows, and after the fresh crisp air rushed into the room, I called my mother to let her know I had arrived safely. It had been a rough trip, longer than I had anticipated, with part of the journey spent sick in bed with a bad cold. It seems every time I leave Colorado I return with either a bad cold or some new strain of flu, and this last trip was no different. I spent a few days with friends in Missouri and spent almost all of them in bed. That was all behind me and I was home, anxious to find out if my father was still hanging on, and so I called.
I knew from the sound of my mother's voice my father was gone. It was in the trembling trill of her hello. "When did he die?" It was at 1:45 p.m, the same time I topped the rise to see the glittering valley below me and knew I was home. My father had hung on until I was safe, until he knew for certain I was home. That was three years ago on March first, but his death was the beginning of my awakening, my spring.
Spring came late three years ago, winter reluctant to relax its grip on even this sheltered valley. The skies darkened and the cleared, shedding snow and then rain like a deep cleansing breath, and then the snow came back with bitter howling winds and heavy, wet snows that stung like needles on all exposed skin. The weather mirrored my feelings of grief and relief: grief at my father's death, that anchor in my storm-tossed wanderings, and relief that his struggles and pain were finally over, that the gnawing of rabid rats on his bones was finished and he was free.
Like the uncertain spring, I was uncertain of how to get through the days of picking up the phone to call and share a joke or listen to him tell me what his roosters and chickens were up to this week. He was gone and, even though I knew the fact of it, like a phantom limb still reaching, still trying to connect with something tangible and solid, he was still there.
Winter reluctantly gave way to the soft scented warming breezes that coaxed pale greens, yellows, pinks and whites from empty branches and snow dappled ground and spring blossomed in earnest. Grass raised sere brown tendrils, testing and tasting the air, then springing to vigorous life. Tulips and crocuses popped open and ragged yellow flags of forsythia flew beneath cloudless Colorado blue skies. Life emerged slowly and the fox, having regained its color, still in its ragged winter coat trotted up the sidewalk toward its hidden den with a hapless squirrel dangling from its lean jaws.
My father died before he had a chance to see the spring, his ashes long since cold, but it was his gnarled and work roughened hands guiding mine as I wandered the aisles of Rick's Garden center, inhaling rich compost, moist earth and the overwhelming aroma of flowers and budding trees and familiar herbs. Among his favorites -- irises, lilies, lilacs, roses and bushy-starred allium -- I added rosemary, lavender, thyme and violets. The berries, vegetables and fruits would come later with the opening of the local farmer's market on Saturday mornings where I would use what my father taught me to pick and choose to make his -- and my -- favorite meals, as hungry for life as he had been and unwilling to waste a single moment.
The wheel of the year turned, the soft pastels of spring giving way to the deep greens and flashing hues of summer that would enrich and blaze with glorious fire in autumn before the stark, dark silence of charcoal smudged skies and silence of winter when the promise of life sleeps beneath the soft, cold, white blanket of winter.
My father is gone and yet not gone. Like the cycle of the seasons, some part of him lives on, a carefully planted corm or bulb entombed in the autumn that sleeps and wakens with the return of the sun and the warming breezes of spring to come back to life and stretch greening arms beneath the upright head of the pastel-shaded blossom. He returns in my thoughts and memories and I hear his laughter every time I see his ever present smile in his pictures, his fingers twisted with age and lined with earth. I know his hands and his smile will be warm with welcome when it is my time to join him. In the meantime, there is the promise of spring and green growing things that smell like sunshine, rain and memories waiting to be plucked.