Where do ideas come from? How does this genesis occur? I’m serious. Who is in charge of these bastard thought children running amok? Do memory and desire hook up quick and dirty one night and boom…the “let’s go camping to mourn the anniversary of the loss of our son” idea is their love child?’
All this to say the three of us ended up on top of a snowy mountain in Garibaldi Park on the afternoon of July 2. I knew I didn’t want to be at home that day, or the next, but… snow camping? After a huffy puffy, sweaty, slippery, slushy hike up, over and across we arrived at Elfin Lakes back country campground. The journey up was tough but spectacular. We started in the green, traversed a fair amount of brown and ended up in the white and blue.
The pictures I had googled a few days before showed sunny wildflower meadows, spectacular snowcapped mountain vistas (far away… in the distance) and people swimming to cool off after the exertion of the 11 km uphill trudge. What actually presented when we got there tired and hungry with soaking wet socks was arctic blue icebergs in said lake. “I guess I didn’t need to bring my bathing suit” deadpanned my 12 year old daughter. She’s a good sport like that.
Checking in that morning at the entrance gates we asked “is there anything we should know?” The wholesome looking Park Ranger leaned closer to our car window and said “Well, the snow starts after about six kilometres, the tent platforms are all just about visible by now.” “What? Snow? It’s July!” was all I could manage. “Ya,” she said “I know, we had five meters up there late this season, it takes a while to melt.”
Nothing could be as challenging as this year had been for our family so we just sort of looked at each other, shrugged and carried on up the gravel road to the parking lot. We would deal.
I loved the hike. Every simple, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other step of it. When we were surrounded by hundreds of miniature white butterflies I loved it. When we stopped at the Heather Hut shelter for lunch and ate the power cookies Lyla had baked the night before, I loved it. Seeing my husband Cam and our daughter walk side by side with their heavy packs through the woods chatting about Lord knows what, I loved it. Every time she asked “how much farther” I loved it. When we first stepped onto patches of snow and filled our water bottles from the icy creek, I loved it. When we passed Asian tourists wearing mosquito nets and crampons I laughed and loved it. Their packing list was apparently very comprehensive.
My two hiking partners are fitter than me, their pace a little quicker. After three hours or so we had some side-hilling to do through a slide area before the gentle descent to the lakes. A space of a few hundred meters opened between us; white, glimmering and pure. Then the two of them disappeared into a stand of tall evergreens. All of a sudden, I was alone. A shiver brushed my skin as I stopped and breathed heavily under weight of my pack. Blue sky above, puffy clouds who’s names I can never remember… cumulus, nimbus, cirrus? Jagged triangles of snow capped mountains across the severe valley, verdant forests below. Breathtaking, in a few different connotations.
I stood on my own two feet and felt my heart pounding behind my ribcage. I was wearing one of Holden’s t-shirts. The one with Fidel Castro smoking a cigar on the front. We had picked it up at a street market in New York when he and I went there for his sixteenth birthday. It still had the yellow sweat stains under the arms and around the collar and it smelled faintly of him. My eyes welled up with fat, salty, hot tears as I realized I was feeling something so peculiar it scared me.
I was happy.
I hadn’t felt the sensation for a full year. My heart felt buoyant. It was such a foreign feeling that I actually laughed out loud into the fresh mountain air. The empty void that had been encased in black, thick, ugliness for so long was pumped up and glowing like a party balloon. For the sheer beauty of this place and the journey we were taking that day, I was happy.
We arrived at Elfin Lakes with sore, wet feet, aching muscles and a certain level of pride. It had been a strenuous day but we made it. Our reward was the spectacular view of Diamond Head with her cloudy halo and dark mysterious sisters in tow. The Garibaldi Range is powerful and majestic. We shovelled off the snow covered section of our tent pad and set up camp.
We weren’t exactly what you might call ‘prepared’ for the elements so we stripped off our wet, sweaty clothes and put on every other dry item of clothing we had along. This would have to do.
We melted snow to make tea and prepared a curried chicken and rice dinner I had prepped using a dear friend’s spiffy food dehydrator. It was actually pretty tasty if you like your chicken ‘jerky’ style. We were so hungry, we didn’t care. If it was curried shoe, we would have eaten it and asked for seconds. That’s when I realized I had forgotten the two beers I was going to sneak into Cam’s pack that morning. Oh, well, I’m still fairly conflicted about drinking anyway. When your son dies of a drug and alcohol overdose it doesn’t really make sense honour his passing with a beer.
As we settled into our sleeping bags for the chilly night ahead I packed away the little shrine I had set up on our wooden platform. Dark clouds were boiling all around us and I didn’t want Holden’s picture, ashes and other mementos to get soaked in the night. I couldn’t seem to get myself to blow out his candle though, so I just left it there, exposed outside our tent door. Last year at this time, he was still alive. I my heart I wanted that candle to burn and burn and burn forever.
I tossed fitfully while memories of Holden snaked through my consciousness. I tried not to reenact his last moments but rather, conger happier times. We had so many of those. I prayed to fall asleep and dream of him. Maybe we could be together again, just for a moment? The rain pelted in rhythmic waves as the mountain winds rattled our flimsy tent. I could see the glow of the candle like a lantern through the wall of our shelter. Its flickering warmth was comforting on this blackest of anniversaries.
Deep in the night the rain kicked up another notch and the temperature dropped so that freezing pellets now drummed the fabric above our heads. There was no way a candle in a glass jar could continue burning under those conditions. The powerful mountain storm had dimmed his light. The darkness was complete. I thought “he’s gone, in the night, just as he was one year ago” and cried softly there in my sleeping bag. Husband to the left, daughter to the right. Symbolically, it made perfect sense.
Next morning, groggy and stiff I unzipped the tent door, put on my boots and crawled out onto the platform to see brilliant patches of blue against fluffy cotton. I extended my arms up to the sky and then down to stretch out my legs and happened to look at my feet. There, waiting patiently was the candle, still burning. Still softly alight even after the powerful forces of nature tried their best to extinguish it. He was with us. He always will be.
We found a private spot with a big memorable rock we could easily find again. Lyla made a beautiful chalk mandala for her brother the artist. We read messages from friends and family who had sent them along and some passages from books and teachers who have helped us grieve during this long year of sorrow. We acknowledged the loss of Holden and all of the pain we have felt in his absence this year. We told him how much we treasure him, love him and forgive him. We asked for his love and forgiveness too.
From: The Wild Edge of Sorrow” ~ Francis Weller. “It is indeed the mark of the mature adult to be able to carry two truths simultaneously. Life is glorious and tragic. To deny either truth is to live in some fantasy of the ideal or be crushed by the weight of pain. Instead, both are true, and it requires a familiarity with both sorrow and joy to fully encompass the full range of being human”
You were so good at both Holden. Sorrow and joy. I am so glad for the vast oceans of both. I pledge to honour both as well on your behalf my sweet son. May the deep sadness all who love you have felt so strongly this year soften to a tender melancholy. This grief is our new relationship with you. While we move and learn and change and grow we will carry it always in a secret place in our hearts as a reminder of our love for you and yours for us. This is our way of keeping you in our world. It is an exquisite honour to be carried along by another. To enter another’s heart is a great act of devotion.
You mattered Holden. You mattered to so many. Your presence in our lives affected us. We laughed with you, a lot, we were annoyed and frustrated by you, we learned from you and were charmed by you. Now we grieve your absence with the fury of a dark winter storm on a mountain. But you will not be extinguished. You still matter and you always will.
I can hear you making an existential joke about it “Hey Momz, how can I matter if I don’t have matter? ” And I can also hear your goofy, deep chested laugh and see your scraggly beard.
Where do thoughts come from? In this case I would say they come from a heavenly source. A guiding light who thought maybe we needed to be on a snowy mountain together, just the three of us. To feel the cold and to behold the everlasting light.