This Is Not Just a Cloud

Embracing grief in the wilderness

Melissa Nolting

We're camped on a bluff, and the early afternoon sun is unrelenting. In this kind of heat, everything looks sort of washed out. My tent shimmers a couple of feet from the chasm, or at least what feels like a chasm, a miniature gorge carved by the stream that empties from the lake. Over by the lake, the forest is too dense to spread out in, plus the bugs, plus the snakes, and the funny thing about old growth is that the trees have taken such a beating over the centuries and are missing so many limbs that they don't provide the kind of shelter you'd find even in a stand of baby trees. So we're out in the elements. On the other side of the clearing, Aly and Mollie are playing with the dogs. The others are bushwhacking somewhere above the lake, looking for a nine-hundred-year-old tree.

Dempsey and I end up scooting our Crazy Creeks into the hollow behind my tent, where we wait for the shade to arrive. It's actually not my tent, it's my parents', the ageless gray REI wonder, still standing after more than two decades. I wonder when they last slept in it. Has it been eight years? Ten? At what point will it stop being theirs?

I'm reading a book by my friend Scott. Scott's going to be famous, I tell Dempsey; in fact he already sort of is, because he's not afraid to tell the truth. The theme of this book is a sound, I read aloud. It goes like this: Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.

“Hmm,” says Dempsey.

“Isn't it great?”

“I think I need more context,” he says.

“Here,” I say, gesturing vaguely at the ancient, fucked-up trees. “How's this for context?”

Dempsey rocks back and forth in his Crazy Creek.

“Whatever,” I say. “Tick, tick, tick. I couldn't ask for a better book to bring out here. As long as it doesn't rain, I'll be happy.”

We retreat into our usual cozy silence. Inch by inch, the sun begins to sink behind the crest of the tent. How grateful I am for the shade and the book and the tired legs. How grateful I am for friends who put up with me, friends who call me on my shit, friends who get me out of my apartment. How grateful I am, I realize with a start, for how quickly Mom died, that her dying didn't go on all summer, all year. That this weekend, in a way, was one of her final gifts to me—oh, but how can that be true? How can I be grateful for that? How can I be happy?

One answer comes in the form of our friend Jack's unmistakable tenor, echoing across the valley. “Up here!” Jack hollers. “Up here!”

Three silhouettes emerge against the cloudless sky: Jack, Russ, Brett. Past the poison oak, over the fallen trees, through the wildflowers, up the ledges, they've found their way to the top of the mountain above the lake. They've probably even found the tree. Their arms are raised. It is their hills, not mine, that are alive.

 

One week before she died, I was lying awake in her room, thinking about raisins. A watched pot will never boil, but we were quickly learning that stage four sarcoma doesn't obey the laws of physics. Over the thrum and gurgle of the oxygen machine, I could hear her slowly drowning.

I had a curfew all the way through high school. Midnight as a freshman, 12:30 as a sophomore. It got progressively looser as I neared the end, but one thing that didn't change was that, no matter the time, I was always expected to crack open my parents' door and let Mom know I'd made it home safely. She couldn't fall asleep, she explained, until she heard my voice. Their room was at the end of a long hallway on the second floor of our house. If I'd been drinking, I would stop in the kitchen and scoop a handful of whatever I found in the pantry into my mouth. Cereal, chips, or, if there were any, raisins: raisins were like tiny sponges, erasing all evidence of my evening in a matter of seconds.

I no longer chewed raisins to disguise my drinking, even though, for the past month, I had been drinking far more than was good for me. I had also been kissing her nonstop, kissing her every time I entered the room, every time she smiled, every time I accepted the truth of what was happening. One of the strangest things about the illness was that her breath smelled different. Sweet, unexpectedly fresh, as though the cancer blooming inside of her were in tune with the arrival of spring. It was the first week of April, and Portland had become terribly beautiful.

I sat up in bed, opened my laptop, and e-mailed my friend Andy to find out if it was normal for cancer to smell this good.

“Is she still eating?” Andy asked. Andy, a doctor, was online at weird times because he was in Rwanda.

“Well, she certainly hasn't lost her sweet tooth,” I replied proudly, almost defiantly, before admitting that it had been several days since she'd eaten anything other than applesauce or ice cream.

“Have you ever known an anorexic?” Andy asked, as gently as possible. “That sweet smell is one of the things we look for. It means she's starving.”

I blinked at those words, angry at Andy for thinking I was ready for the truth. Gradually, I realized her voice was coming toward me through the dark. “What are you doing?” she was asking.

“Sorry,” I said, closing my laptop, regretting its glow. “Did I wake you?”

“The blankets,” she said, picking at them.

I piled them at the foot of the hospital bed. Her fever had jumped to 102. I grabbed a washcloth, soaked it in cold water, and pressed it to her neck. I could feel the heat radiating from her skin. Every few minutes I rushed to the bathroom to run more cold water on the washcloth. When she was feeling strong enough to roll onto her side, I slid the washcloth to her back. All this time I was fighting the urge to wake my brother, or Dad, or Auntie Carol, but tonight was my turn, and they needed to rest, and what could they do that I wasn't already doing?

As the smoke from our campfire begins to curl skyward, I feel a drop on my forearm. Or maybe I'm just imagining it. “Did anybody feel that?” I ask.

“It's just a wet cloud,” Jack says, blowing on the fire.

“Come on,” I say, “you're not even looking up.”

“I wouldn't worry about this turning into anything,” he says.

Nevertheless, we quickly gather everything we've scattered around the bluff and throw it in our tents. If it does rain, I confess to Jack, I can't vouch that the ageless gray wonder will keep us dry.

Getting sick, such a pleasure when Mom was there to take care of me, has become the loneliest part of living alone.

 

When I was a kid, when we were new to Portland, I loved the rain. The idea of things just going on as planned, no matter how wet it got, was mind-blowing. In New York, all it had taken was a forecast and we were stuck at home. But out here, middle-school soccer was just a bunch of slide tackling in the mud. Sometimes we couldn't even find the ball, but the ball ultimately was beside the point, which was to get as dirty as possible. In high school cross-country I'd swim through the stuff with a wild-eyed thirst. But ever since I moved out on my own, it's been different. Wet clothes aren't so great when you have to go to the laundromat. Not to mention that getting sick, such a pleasure when Mom was there to take care of me, has become the loneliest part of living alone. I know I'm not supposed to say this as a Portlander, but the rain? It makes me feel vulnerable.

“This is not just a cloud,” I say, digging out my poncho. It's really starting to come down. Everyone's layering up around the fire, trying not to give in. Everyone except for the dogs, who know better and have already begged their way into Russ and Mollie's tent.

Whereas we humans, we may have whiskey, we may have stories to tell, but we've still got, what—two, three hours of daylight to get through? The fire is hissing sort of sadly, the coals rolling toward each other, looking for dry spots, then glaring up at us like why even try. “I don't think I can do this,” I tell my friends. I tell them I'm going to go stand under a tree.

They think I'm joking.

But I've already left the fire. My plan, I guess, is to stand somewhere within earshot, as if we're all just waiting for the bus and they're the dummies getting wet. But as I look closer, I notice that the trees at the edge of the clearing aren't just beaten up; they literally have no branches. It's kind of like being stuck in a crowd: you've got this illusion of shelter, but when you look up there's nothing there.

 

The hardest part of hospice home care was the change in philosophy, the fact that there were no more emergencies. Even when her fever spiked, even when she couldn't stop coughing up blood, the ER was off-limits. It was up to us and the growing pile of meds on the bathroom counter to see this through.

“Is that any better?” I asked, pressing the washcloth to her collarbone.

“You're so good to me,” she said.

I didn't deserve those words. I knew there was more I could be doing, things I was overlooking—ice cubes wouldn't cross my mind until the following morning. Caregiving seems so simple from afar, but when it's 2:00 a.m. and you're actually doing it, simple doesn't enter the equation.

After a while, she told me she was feeling better. “You can't just sit here watching me for the rest of the night,” she said.
But I have to, I wanted to say. Don't you understand? I'll never let you die.

Her hand found the back of my neck. As if I were the one who was sick. As if I were the one who needed comforting. The tears gathered at the end of my nose. I held my hands open but in the darkness I couldn't catch anything. “Darling,” she said, “you need to rest. You have your own life, too.”

For so many years, so many jobs, so many deadlines, and so many excuses, that's what I thought I wanted—my own life. Space. Independence. Freedom. All the big words. But fuck the big words. What I wanted was the courage to say a word I hadn't said in decades.

 

On the other side of the clearing, the path bends around the lake and into the forest. When we got here yesterday, I made it maybe a quarter of the way around before turning back, convinced that there was poison oak all over the place. This time, at least I'm wearing layers. Every fifty steps or so I pass a pink ribbon. The ribbons are tied to the undergrowth, probably the work of a concerned fisherman. There's no question that I'd lose the trail without them, but I'm too angry about the rain to think about the symbolism. Stupidly I take a swipe at one of the giant ferns, and it shakes itself off on my feet, soaking my shoes. Stupid, stupid, I say. No matter how deep I go, how many ribbons I pass, I can't seem to get underneath anything. The undergrowth thickens, the path narrows, but above me it's just wet air and bare trunks.

I blunder on and arrive at a fork. To my right, the path hugs the lake. To my left, it goes up. I don't remember this from yesterday, up being an option. Maybe I didn't make it this far. Maybe I didn't want to.

Tonight, though, I have a choice. And I choose up. That's where I find her. The one with the branches.

I've never hugged a tree before. Never gotten past the cliché, never dug my nose into nine-hundred-year-old bark, never knelt on nine-hundred-year-old roots, never allowed myself to feel all those slow, quiet centuries. It's so dry beneath her, the pine needles under my toes are crinkling like crepe paper. But soon all I can hear is my own grief. It's awful and elemental and unhinged and ecstatic. I haven't let myself go like this since the moment she died. I didn't realize how hard I was looking, or that it was even possible, but forty-five days later, here she is.

 

We were so far past the point where she could protect me, but she was never going to stop trying. These were still her arms. I was still her baby. This was still our bell.

Not long before she died, I managed to say it. We had just finished reading The Polar Express. It was spring, but all week long we'd been on a Christmas-story kick. Something about the fresh, expensive smell of Chris Van Allsburg's illustrations, combined with the smoothness of the pages, reminded me of how it felt, as a child, to stretch out in front of the fire, resting my chin on my hands. I'd barely been able to get through the last page, the part about the bell, the bell that almost everyone stops being able to hear.
When I said it, her eyes snapped open. Was she blushing?

I said it again, luxuriating in every part of the word.

“What are you doing?” she said, fighting back a smile. “Why are you saying that?”

I kept saying it and saying it. I didn't expect anything to happen, I just wanted her to hear it.

Somehow, she found the strength to lift her arms and pull me in. We were so far past the point where she could protect me, but she was never going to stop trying. These were still her arms. I was still her baby. This was still our bell.

 

Tonight, I'm ringing it again.
Mommy, I fold you into the soil.
Mommy, I breathe you into the bark.
Mommy, I mix you in with the sap.
Mommy, I send you across the lake.

When she is everywhere, I fall silent. How long have I been out here? The day is nearly gone, but it's still raining. I wonder if the others have stuck it out at the fire. I wonder if there's any whiskey left. I wonder if the dogs will want to come.

I'm running through the woods. I'm following the ribbons. Soon, I can smell the smoke. I can hear the voices. It's time to get my friends out of the rain.

Comments

3 comments have been posted.

I loved this. I was privileged to see my beloved mother out, too, reading Roethke's "Meditations of an Old Woman," a poem we'd loved together since she gave Words for the Wind to me when I was in fifth grade (Roethke taught at the UW nearby). Even though she was dying, she opened her eyes and locked her gaze with mine. I swear her eyes changed at the metaphors. It became a poem of permission. A month earlier, when I held her and told her I loved her again and again, then wept, she took her little hospice quilt and tucked it over my knees. Thanks for sharing your love of your mother and how you felt it again in nature. I do every day, and it's been six years. In nature is where Mom and I talk, still.

Kirie Pedersen | January 2016 | Ventura River near Ojai, CA

To love deeply means you some day will feel, most deeply, the loss of the person you love. Despite the pain, it is worth it-- to have loved. - G. Beres

george beres | August 2015 | Eugene, Ore.

Tremendously moving and courageous.

Peigi Huseby | August 2015 |

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This Is Not Just a Cloud

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