“I was a kid. Eight years old and ecstatic to finally be allowed to accompany my father on his annual trip up north. No more than a hike really. I couldn’t tell you why I was so excited, but I can tell you that what I learned that day was essential to who I am now.”
The sun hadn’t yet risen when my father woke me. He had already packed our bags so all I had to do was shoulder mine and follow him. My only job that early was to not fall behind. My tired eyes almost appreciated the dim early light. The overcast sky made the damp air chill and my father encouraged me to put on the jacket he packed for me. I refused for no logical reason until my fingers began to grow numb.
After three hours, I was ready to quit and go back. My logic was that to return meant a three-hour walk by myself and also never learning why my father took these trips alone every year. My mother had refused to tell me, saying “One day your father will take you. Then you will know.”
I looked forward to it. Asking every year if I could go. Every year he said no. I began to think he would never take me. This year was the first time I didn’t ask and didn’t expect to go. He never told me. He just woke me up.
The clouds had dissipated and the sun was peaking when we finally turned from the roadside path and into the woods toward the mountain. By this time, I had walked the sleep out of my body and replaced it with a creeping ache. The only thing worse than my feet beginning to hurt was the lack of food in my stomach. I held out knowing my father would stop when he was hungry too. Just before I couldn’t bear it any longer, he tossed me a nutrition bar and we kept walking. It didn’t help much but after a while my stomach finally quieted down.
We climbed as evening began to set and it was nearly night before we stopped. I was too exhausted to care about anything more than food or sleep. He let me rest while he started a fire and set up our tent. He settled in and started making dinner by setting a can of beans in the embers near the outside of the fire. The throbbing in my feet had dulled a bit when he asked me to gather wood for the fire. Enough to last the night. He asked gently which caused me to answer in kind before I even realized what I said.
Night had fallen and with a full stomach all I wanted was sleep. He could see me drifting off and would poke me with the charred end of the stick he used to tend the fire. He’d look at me and shake his head. This kept up for a few hours and I was nodding off yet again, my shirt already covered in soot, when instead of poking me he spoke.
“I think it’s time,” he said.
I opened an eye and was thankful to finally go into the tent and sleep, but that wasn’t what he meant.
“I’m sure you’ve wondered what I do up here every year.”
I perked up a bit. Hoping he would tell me his secrets.
“The truth is I come up here every year to learn from your grandfather.”
The confusion must have been visible on my tired face because he smiled one of his rare smiles.
“There is a tradition that runs in our family. We are tied to this mountain and every generation has come back to our town when they are near the end of their lives. You’ll find the graveyard filled with our ancestors. All you need to know is…” another, brief smile, “…you can always find help atop this mountain. What do you remember of your grandfather?”
I didn’t remember much. He died when I was two years old. All I could remember was white hair and a stern look. I didn’t want to tell my father that, so I just shrugged.
“That’s what I thought. I could tell you about the time he owned a bar in Tennessee. Or the time he was hit by a car while out for a walk and he asked the driver if they were okay. I could tell you a hundred stories, but a story is like a photograph. It only captures a few minutes. It can’t tell you who someone really is. It gives you a precise moment, and we are each made by millions of moments. You may be too young to appreciate this, but I thought you might be ready. What do you think dad?”
I began to realize my father had gone insane, but then a shot of adrenaline raced through my system as a man walked out of the trees near the peak of the mountain. I thought it was a stranger coming to kill us but my father greeted the man. They hugged, something I’d never seen my dad do to anyone besides my mother. My eyes were starting to hurt and I had to force myself to blink. They sat down. I studied each of their faces in the firelight. They looked as if they could have been brothers.
“He may have recognized you if you were older,” my father casually said to my deceased grandfather.
“Perhaps,” my grandfather said, “but it was hard to move when I was that old, and no one wants to be old. We just don’t have a choice in the matter. I do now.”
“Fine. Maybe it’s better for him that you came like this. Now, let’s get going before the sun catches us.”
I was too afraid to talk despite the hundreds of questions running through my head, and they effectively ignored me as I listened to them talk about all sorts of things. They made efforts to include me, but I was too shocked to react.
I saw a new side to my father that day. He talked about things I never knew he was concerned about, let alone even thought about. He opened up and I began to see him for who he was and not what he let the world see of him.
They finished talking as dawn began creeping to the horizon. They stood and hugged. I never moved from my spot by the fire. My grandfather came over and squeezed my shoulder. Then he walked into the woods toward the peak of the mountain. I wouldn’t see him for another year.
“I never really appreciated the small things my father had done for me. Like letting me sleep while he got everything ready for me in the mornings, driving me around, supporting me in his reserved ways. He took great care of me and never complained. I always thought he didn’t care much because he never said much. But every year I was reminded and even when he went back to his old ways after leaving the mountain, even when I eventually forgot how open he could be, I truly knew who he was. I guess what I’m trying to say is, if I fall into his habits, don’t ever think I don’t love you.”
I smiled at my son and hoped he didn’t think it was a rare sight. He was starting to nod off despite the fairly one-way conversation. “I think you’re ready.”
“What do you think dad?” I asked the figure who walked into the firelight from the forest near the peak of the mountain.