To Fly Away, Oh Glory!
My mother cries with the windows of our rental Subaru Outback.
We’d left for Spokane airport at six in the morning after checkout, taking highway 12 north through tall pine trees. The sweet timber we smelled sifting through the AC. And under a soggy sky we try to concentrate, but have difficulty relating to each other what it is we're feeling. We feel it. Together. And alone in thought. We're leaving.
Washington winter was upon us. The wheels whip, and the window is washed.
We were leaving Idaho for who knows how long, not knowing whether Grandpa Jim would live till the next week. We were leaving. And so she wept. My mother wept with the windows.
My mother wept with the Clearwater River winding within the valley of the Nez Perce's Mountains. Where Lewis & Clark traveled too. And the valley ain't so lonesome anymore for her. I hope.
It was snowing light. Snow reflected sunshine in a soft glow, but no harsh gusty blow. It was still. It was white. Everybody Loves The Sunshine played from a Spokane radio station. It was pleasant. It was picturesque; My mother sobbed herself to sleep, slumped in her seat, curled in the corner of the car. Her small body, her small breath, blew against the windowpane.
I love you.
She cried as well, when we walked through that open door, number 4 of that hospital high on the hill in Cottonwood Idaho.
There lies Jim, Grandpa Jim. His feet are bundled tight in blankets to the left of the drawn screen. His body stirs behind the curtain as Uncle Greg pulls the separation aside.
Jim’s eyes light up. “What a pleasant surprise.”
And I’ll never forget those startling eyes, milky for a moment, then bright blue.
And I'll never forget the creamy diaper about his bottom half.
My mother, through tears, speaks softly, “Jim Ashton.”
He holds his hand out to her. “My Goodness." His voice breaks apart. His lips quiver. "Lu. Is that you? Is that really you?” My mother he calls LuLu, like a child of his own.
My mother slides towards this man, this old hero of hers. She moves towards him with the magnetization of memory and love. Her tiny hands are enfolded in his ghastly white, wizened hands, hardened from years of fighting fires.
“What an absolutely pleasant surprise.” And his pale hands, reveal blue veins and tubes delivering LIFE, manna to that man’s body. And those hands, they tremble.
I see my mother sit on his bedside and hold his hand. I hear her whimper "I... I..."
"What a wonderful surprise," Jim says. He's gaunt, and the tubes up his nose muffle his mouth slightly, as he says again, "what a wonderful surprise."
He has refused chemotherapy.
I cried. I tried to hide.
But he had not died. Not yet.
But the way he was...
He had refused chemotherapy.
And the day before, my mother said “Jim Ashton,” with delirious reminiscence as we step off the airplane into the Spokane airport.
She’d taken airsickness tablets, and they took their toll on her. She walks with somnambulism. I almost have to lead her by hand, but I don’t mind. She's my mother.
“We’ll see him soon Ma.” I’m too tired to try and be cheery. I want a cigarette. Brief absences and abstinences from tobacco make me irritable.
She smiles behind broken focus. I don’t know what dream she was awoken from, but I bet it was some fond memory of Jim Ashton. That sometimes grump, sometimes gregarious step-Grandfather. The only maternal Grandfather I've ever known to love.
I lead her through the concord towards our bags and then to the car rental area. I sit on my suitcase. She sips a soda. We wait in line. It begins to pitter-patter on the large windows behind us.
We shuffle forward with our suitcases.
The car rental representative says he expects some storms. I thought then he was trying to pull wool over my head and spin me for a deal. But he was helpful, and a Cowboy’s fan, from Laredo Téjas, so I knew he was loyal even when the Boy’s chips were down. And they were.
He recommended a Subaru Outback; assuring us it would be well worth the “peace‘uh mind.” I thought, that, was exactly what we needed. Peace of Mind.
It turned out to be a delicious drive down to Kamiah Idaho, Kamiah, Kam-E-I. Just as he’d said, “that road down ta Kam-E-I is very beautiful, even in tha’rain.” He was right as rain. The plains glistened beneath the blackening clouds, and gray skyline.
We hydroplaned a little, but it was better than being in a plane on the choppy water.
We drove south through Washington State’s small towns called Spangle, Steptoe, Colfax, and almost at Albion my mother starts to weep with the windows.
She hides her face. “Just Jim.” She has stardust in her eyes, which she wipes away with her shirtsleeve.
“It’ll be all right Mama.” He’s only dying.
She streaks her mascara. “I know…” she stares out the window as salmon sunlight streaks over the clouded plains, and golden rolling majesty with blankets of shadow spreading, and crossing winds catapult low up inside the chassis' contraptions, “I’m glad you’re driving. I love you sweetie, you know that right?”
“Love you too Ma.” I put a hand on her knee. “I know it’s hard, but once you see him you’ll be glad you came.”
“I just want you to know how much I appreciate you.” She yawns with a smile.
“Why don’t you sleep a little?”
She sleeps for a while. She snores. This makes me laugh. My mother, to her dying day will say, “I don’t snore. That’s your father.” She seems like a little girl sleeping, nestling her head against the foggy window, her breath showing what snores look like.
Yeah, you DON’T snore, you croak.
I play a Road Trip CD I'd made, some old blues music and Jass. Outside of Clarkston, on US-95, I woke my mother so she could see the valley view. It was misty, and the road was black besides my headlights and red brake lights.
We came down the mountain, really rolling now, flying in fact, and I feared hydroplaning then, whilst passing a series of steep 18-wheeler Run-Offs. I imagined a truck driver activating the wings of his wild machine, and flying off the Run-Off over the misty Mountains for a better view of the vapor valley. High above humanity, as we were in the aeroplane to Spokane, he’ll say, “thisis the way ta see the world!”
We saw Clarkston’s town of neon before taking a left onto Highway 12 towards forested, night-lightless Kamiah.
“We’re following the Lewis & Clark trail now Ma,” I said after seeing a tourist sign alongside the rushing Clearwater River. We passed the Nez Perce Historical Park where Clark & Lewis stayed for a couple days and ate, and gathered their strength, “but we’re going the opposite way.”
“When were Lewis & Clark around again?”
This made me laugh. Oh just yesterday, I thought to say, but I thought it better not to bother my mother with sour sarcasm, especially now.
“Early 1800’s, turn of the 19th century.”
“Wow, you know so much.” Mama said.
“You knew that Ma.”
“I guess I did.” But I could tell she’d forgotten something so unimportant as Lewis & Clark. She was thinking of Jim again. She didn’t, couldn’t, forget Jim Ashton.
We drove as mountains climbed like rocky circling staircases, with twists and turns taking us aside the Clearwater River. BEWARE FALLING ROCK! A sign says.
Father warned us to be wary of Chief Falling Rock.
My mother slept once more. Then, as we came to Lenore, the clouds cleared, as did the rain, and I could see stars looming amongst the Lunar light, then obscured by headlights blinding me at terrifyingly tight turns.
I was jittery. The night made me nervous. I felt my eyes slouch, and my hands and elevated elbow numb.
I needed coffee and a smoke.
I decided to stop at the next gas station for smokes and coffee. As we pulled up, an old song on my Road Trip CD by a black street preacher named Blind Willie Johnson from Marlin Téjas, not far from where we’re from, called Cooley, came hoarse and coarse out of the speaker, and I couldn’t shut it off. My mother awoke when we stopped.
I said, “let’s wait a second to listen to this song.”
“…Dying will be easy, AHHH, Mmmmhmm, Dying will be easy, Mmmhmm, yeah, Dying will be easy, I…! Dying will be easy, Jesus gonna make up my, I’m dancing fiery, someone said I was lost… cross…”
“I’m going inside real quick okay? Want me to leave the car on?” The song stopped. I admit losing myself in the song, in its mad and mellifluously moaning moments.
“Can I get a coffee sweetie?”
“Sure, do you want to come in?”
“Yes, sure, it’ll be nice to stretch my legs.” She wiped her eyes of sleep and sadness. Out we stepped. It was a small gas station in the shadow of mountains. It was a well-lit place.
We went inside.
“I’m going to use the ladies room,” my mother said when I opened the door for her to enter.
“Okay, just don’t get lost.”
It was a small gas station store, as I said.
“Oh Cricket.” She pleaded in a pleasant way for me to stop reminding her of how she forgets.
Approaching the counter I asked for a pack of Marlboro Reds. The lady was wide behind the counter and bent to get it. “Can I see some ID?”
I’d just shaved that morning. “Sure,” I said.
Showing her she said, “okay, anything else?”
My mother exited the bathroom, not looking lost, but looking for the coffee.
“Ma you gonna get some coffee right?”
“If I can find it.”
The woman pointed the way.
“How much for two cups of coffee?”
“Don’t worry about paying for coffee.”
“You don’t have to do that,” my mother said as she poured a cup, “honey, tell her she doesn’t have to do that.”
“It’s all right, they don’t pay me enough to guard the coffee cups, take as much as you want.”
“Oh, thank you, very much, how kind,” my mother said coming to the counter with her cup of coffee.
“So just the cigarettes?”
“Ma, you want some candy or something?”
“No, thanks, I don’t want to stay up all night.”
“I don’t think you’ll have to worry about that,” I told her.
“That’ll be 7.28.”
“Throw in a lighter. Lost mine.”
“Okay, that’s 8.43.”
I paid, got my cup of coffee, unlocked the car and stood outside the gas station store and smoked a cigarette, bathed in the smoky bask, as some kids squealed into the lot, smoking cigarettes and hollering as they slammed the car to stop in front of the station and got out, doing funny drug-induced jigs and jostling each other.
I finished my cigarette to the filter and thought, I don’t know what I thought, something about cigarettes.
We drove in the dark to Kamiah. I spilled some coffee. We listened to Spokane Radio. We arrived at the Clearwater Motel. After getting our keys and getting situated we made a call to my mother’s stepbrother Greg.
Arrangements were made. We were to follow him from the motel up the mountain to Grandpa Jim’s Log Cabin, which is situated East of the Nez Perce Territory.
Greg knocked. My mother and Greg embraced. We exchanged handshakes. He said I looked so much older than the last time he’d seen me. I said yes, “I’m growing everyday, and unfortunately not the upward way.”
Before we began the drive we reminisced about when we’d visited Greg outside of Seattle, on our last trip to see Grandpa Jim in Idaho.
A sign at the bottom of the steep driveway said Prayer is the best way to meet the Lord, but trespassing will get you there faster.
My mother said, "Oh Jim." And I was reminded of what an old curmudgeon he could be. Incessantly sending inflammatory religious and political emails to my mother, who replied sincerely "thanks Jim." But he wasn't bad, just stuck up in these old mountain lion hills with horses that bucked me into bushes when I was a kid. And Grandpa Jim laughed, laughed loudly in fact.
Grandpa Jim had ten guns under pillows, hidden.
Grandpa Jim fought off mountain lions with a cooking pan.
Grandpa Jim did not believe in owning a summer fan.
Grandpa Jim thought God was a republican.
But when we got to Grandpa Jim’s house on the top of the mountain overlooking low-lit Kamiah, gentler memories flooded back. It was a dark night like this.
I left the guesthouse, connected to the garage to smoke a cigarette. I was fifteen, in the first year of my fascination with fire and smoke from the cigarette, and it was a crystalline night.
A crystalline night.
The stars I could see, and I was thinking of String Theory, undetectable dimensions, and a black hole's event horizon , which I’d recently read about in Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, which took me a long time to read, and as I stood smoking on the steep gravel drive, lights from the Log Cabin suddenly shined upon me.
As a wide-eyed doe kid I hid.
The man was a mountain lion.
I saw Grandpa Jim with his cane come out of the house. So I chucked the smoke. He hobbled, huge, and silhouetted, and I shuddered at his approach.
“Hey Cricket, you’re out pretty late.”
It was midnight. All the stars were in sight.
“You too Grandpa Jim.” I tried to keep conversation simple.
“How long've you been smoking?” His voice was gruffer than gravel.
I said, “I wasn’t…” defensive in the dark.
“It’s okay, I can smell it.”
And he stood next to me and stared at the cherry end that I forget to flatten and extinguish with sporadic stomping.
He stands serenely. He stares at the stars as if they're old found friends, only revealing themselves at midnight's moon memory.
“You know I use to smoke.”
I did know. He still had ashtrays with horses in the house. “When did you quit?”
“When your MiMi died.”
“After her battle with cancer, why… I quit cold turkey.”
“Wow. Was it difficult?”
“After fifty years, you betcha, but it was worth it. I know now it’s what your MiMi would’ve wanted. She hadn’t smoked for a long while before she got the news. But I still did. When she died, well, I had a mighty good reason to stop.”
“Yeah. I can imagine.”
And he didn’t ask me much more. There was no scolding. He used to smoke, I smoked, smoke, but even though it might’ve broke his heart, chipped a little away, he didn’t say.
I loved the man for that. Didn’t tell my mother either.
And so that night as we met up with the Ashton Brothers, Greg, Jim Jr. and Alfred, I came in with the stench of smoke on my skin and shirt as I shook hands all around. And rum was divvied up dry, Myer’s Rum, twenty bottles of the stuff in Grandpa Jim's cabinets, unopened, Myer's Rum, dark Island rum, my drink, the only drink I’ll ever drink, with an avalanche of ice. It reminded us of the J & B boat my MiMi Barb and him owned in Alaska. I had a picture of that tugboat.
My mother sat on the fireplace looking at old photos of her and Jim she'd been given. She cried.
Jim Jr. asked if my mother cried a lot. I went out for a smoke.
When I got back no one said anything about the stench of smoke on my skin and shirt, but their hearts might’ve broke a bit, chipped away, though they didn’t say, because Grandpa Jim was battling cancer from all those unforgotten years of smoking cigarettes and cigars.
We drank "to Jim!" We chinked our glasses.
Myer's Rum would be my drink for most of my remaining days. "To Jim!"
I was on that path.
We watched a slide show over a dinner of spaghetti. Well, they ate spaghetti. My mother and I, being anti-pork people generally, poked at collard greens and broke bread and butter.
I went out for another smoke. I smoke too damn much when I smoke. My lungs are most likely more charred than a chimney.
Staring from the outside through a window into Grandpa Jim’s room, I saw a picture of him leaning on a shovel.
He’s shirtless and sweating, covered head to toe in unearthed soil and ideas. He’s young. He’s got a great winsome smile. He’s ready to shuck life from the shell. He's smoking a filterless smoke like me.
I'm reminded of a story he told me. He was working with the sheriff's department, and they set up a roadside barricade. Ten good ol' boys with shotguns waiting for a perp who came screaming down the mountain right into their trap. They opened fire. Grandpa Jim killed the man with a blast from his shotgun. There's a picture of him standing next to the shellacked car, with a bullet-ridden boy.
In those old pictures there’s always a cigarette somewhere in the air, not necessarily Jim or MiMi, but they’re breathing it in. Their kids are breathing it in.
The Ashton Brothers don’t bother. They know better now.
My mother knows better. Her mother, MiMi, Barb, died from lung cancer when I was ten.
I know better, but I don’t. I still smoke.
And I wasn't going to stop smoking on this last trip to see Grandpa Jim, or for the multitude of reasons I should have. I could't quit cold turkey on his account.
My mother doesn't bother breaking my habit, and neither do I. It's all right Ma, I'm gonna die. Anyways. But I don't say this. I try to comfort her. But I can't cry with her.
There were many moments when I wished I could cry with her. But Jim didn't cry, so neither would I.
The worst was remembering being close to my Grandfather, with his three sons Greg, Jim Jr., Alfred, and my biological uncle Mark who'd arrived on the very last day we were to stay to say farewell- and talk politics- and my mother, all standing around, as I sat by his bedside to say goodbye, and I smelled of smoke, and he told me, "I'm so glad you could come Cricket."
And we watched the Cowboys play the Seahawks, as everyone told him what a great Log Cabin Jim's had been, that is was beautiful, that it was art, and that Jim's life was a work of art as well.
Jim's life could not be reproduced.
He was one of a kind. He was one of humanity's. And he was ours.
So we took a picture.
I could cry then. The sunshine strayed through the shutters as a nurse took our picture.
And later, that last day of our last visit to Kamiah and to Jim in Cottonwood, I brought some burgers, to make amends for that guilty feeling, when my Grandfather Jim, the man who'd saved my mother's mother, MiMi, from poverty in the 1970's, was dying from what I was doing, and there I was, bashfully reeking of death.
And my Grandmother MiMi, my memory of her, the woman who made great cookies and read my first short story at five-years-old about aliens, also died from smoking, and I reminded him, Jim, and my mother maybe, of that too.
I wish I wouldn't. And maybe I didn't, with those tubes delivering cleansing air to Jim's lungs.
He said nothing about the smell of smoke. He could not care for the fire.
We all detected death at Jim's door. It was not simply sad. It was not mere passing. It was uplifting. His life, and his energy, even on that deathbed, which it was, was effulgent. His last moments of life were a light cascading upon us, our breaths, and we ceased to breathe shallow, but breathed with him, slowly, by his side.
It was a cleansing air.
Our lungs filled with love, not miasmic melancholy.
We gathered together, around this sometimes grumpy, sometimes gregarious old man whom we all loved, and smiled, weeping a little whilst we reminded him who we were.
And we shared the air with him.
And we held his hands, each of us.
And we told stories.
And my mother. My mother, sometimes forget things, but I will be there for her, as she was there for Jim. To remind her, like we reminded him, that love makes a life linger after death.
And so I took this picture of my mother on that misty mountain, so that she may see herself shine, when the memory fades, or blurs into blackness.
And so I took this picture so I may be reminded that even though we will walk that deep and dark dale, that lonesome valley, as countless generations have done, we will not be alone.
And I am reminded that I didn't smoke that day. It was a small victory.
And so we drove to Spokane, with sunshine breaking the snow, and boarded the plane, and began to fly away, back to Cooley.
IN MEMORY OF JAMES C. ASHTON 1929-2014,
of the J & B Ranch, Kamiah Idaho.
and for my Mother, LuLu