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The Wells Creek Route - Pushcart Prize Nominee

Updated on October 9, 2013
The Wells Creek Route
The Wells Creek Route

The Wells Creek Route was published in 2008 by The Rambler - a magazine of personal expression and nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

"It is always hard for us to narrow down the stories and poems in the magazine to nominate, but The Wells Creek Route really stood out for us this year. Thanks again for sharing your work with us."– Elizabeth Oliver, Managing Editor

"This is more than good writing. This is what happens when good writing, superior craftsmanship and honesty and courage all come together." – Dave Korzon, Editor

Unfortunately, The Rambler, like many excellent, high-quality literary magazines succumbed to the Great Recession. I am presenting it here on hubpages partly because it is no longer available in print, but also to start off the New Year 2011 -- to maybe reaffirm resiliency and hope.

The Wells Creek Route was initially written solely for "personal expression," for healing my spirit, or if you like, solely for my soul. Rather than present it in parts, as I was compelled to do with my Climbing in Colombia hub-series, I feel it needs to be kept whole. It is roughly 5,500 words, so if you intend on reading it in its entirety, you might want to print out this nonfiction story.

Formatting note: While I love that we are able to "publish" our writing online, I lament the loss of spacing, indentations, and other writers' tools. I have tried to retain the original formatting.

The Wells Creek Route

     Everything about this story is true; that is, it actually happened, and I am trying to relate the events to you as accurately as I can. If you don’t believe me, look at a map of the Wind River Range in Wyoming, and find Wells Creek. I could have renamed it; I could have renamed myself and my climbing friend, John Zavgren. I could have given us large muscles, glittery teeth, and shining hair. Lying used to be easy for me, and even now I would love to twist the truth a little, but some stories need to be told as they happened.
     After the Wells Creek route, I felt compelled to understand why I seek arduous climbs to solitary peaks. I thought about my dad, a World War II hero who earned a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, and two Purple Hearts. He didn’t talk much about the war, but my brothers and I proudly took his war medals to school, telling our own stories about how he captured a huge Nazi flag and liberated the concentration camps. When our turn came to fight in a war and be heroes, the politicians served up Vietnam. Though my brothers and I would have gone if we were drafted, none of us volunteered, and we gladly accepted our high draft numbers. After the last American soldier left Vietnam, Dad began telling us about his war, how his luck held when he was lying in a ditch with his dead friends. A full moon lit the bodies white, and he lay there waiting for the Germans to pass, listening to them empty rounds into the corpses. He clawed his way out and ran. At that moment, a lone cloud on an otherwise cloudless night slid in front of the moon and blackened the landscape. The Germans could only fire wildly into the dark as he escaped into the woods. War stories have leaked out of him bit by bit over the years: shrapnel in the head, holding the wounded colonel who begged him not to leave, blood all over, vomiting, hands shaking, an antitank shell thudding at his feet. Just when I think he’s out of war stories, he remembers another, and with a little prodding, he tells us about it. Except the concentration camps. He hasn’t been able to talk about them yet. He ends his stories with a laugh, telling us that we’re all very lucky. A stray bullet, a few inches off here or there, and he would’ve been dead, and we would never have been born.
     We grew up with badges of honor hanging from the image of our Dad, and knowing viscerally that those medals had something to do with why he woke from naps violently lashing out, sometimes smacking us in the face. We watched war movies in an effort to understand. We wanted to be just like him, but wondered if we would be able to stand alone against the enemy, and shoot, and fight, and sacrifice our lives. We were the sons of a war hero and though we didn’t talk about it much, we tested ourselves, seeking adventure, searching for those moments when we would share the same space with death and perhaps discover our own heroism. On a single day, my parents received a photograph of my oldest brother running the bulls in Pamplona, and they got word that my second brother was lost on the Canadian side of the Boundary Waters, and they received my mud-stained postcard telling them how the enormous ships in Baton Rouge had swamped the small open boat I was piloting down the Mississippi from St. Louis to New Orleans.
     I had to leave this desk for a while to play outside with my two-year-old. It’s cold out, windy, but Sam wanted to go outside. He stood next to me and looked at me with his very blue eyes and said, "Daddy, I want go outside."
, buddy," I said, "just let me print this out, one minute."
     "One minute," he said.
     "Yes, buddy, one minute."
     Sam opened the file cabinet next to my desk, pulled out a folder full of bank statements
, and flung it over his shoulder, the papers scattering, then he reached for another folder. I finished writing the paragraph about the sons of a war hero, then jumped up from my desk and rescued the title to our home from my son’s grasp.
     "Daddy, I want go outside."
     "Ask nicely," I said, shutting the cabinet drawer.
     "Please," he said.
, buddy, let’s get our coats."
     "Get our coats!" he said and ran
. I grabbed the coats and ran after him as he pounded on the sliding-glass door leading from my basement office into our small backyard, surrounded by woods. After wrestling him into his coat, we went out and played ball with no rules, except that we both knew we had to chase each other and fall and roll in the grass.
     Suddenly, Sam stood and stared into the forest.
     "You want to go exploring?" I asked.
ran toward the thick underbrush. I went ahead of him, pushing aside potentially disastrous sticker bushes, and we marched into the woods, out of the chilling wind, and found a small clearing where we sat and felt the silence of winter.
     For a two-year-old, it was a long time in that sun, warm on our faces, enjoying the woods, but for a forty-year-old dad, it was just a moment.

     Everyone has stories to tell; anyone could be writing this or something like it. I make no special claim to humor, courage, anguish . . . and in fact the only reason I am making this disclaimer is to protect myself from an overabundance of self-esteem, from being too full of myself, which very easily translates into being just full of it. I have known personal suffering, but I also know it pales in comparison to floods, famine, war, children dying. There are countless others who have borne far greater suffering than I. On the other hand, such things are relative, aren’t they?
     The decade was closing like the doors to a weeklong party, a youthful endorphin dance into adulthood. I scaled high peaks from Alaska to South America, kicking into the bright snow of smooth white cornices and peering over the edges of sheer cliffs, shimmering black rock lined with ice, fantastic glittering towers in sunlight, and I felt the adrenaline surge like a revivalist God singing through my veins, and tasted the rarified air at 18,000 feet. On Christmas morning, I drank aguardiente, "firewater," the national drink of Colombia. In Mexico, I dug my hands into cool, loose dirt from ancient graves, uncovering artifacts, anxiously anticipating the next moment, and the next, ending up flat on my back in a sweat, deliriously hallucinating Aztec hearts ripped from screaming men while rapacious amoebas delighted in churning through my guts. I suffered a little, but mostly I had fun, flirting with Tijuana whores, chasing Paul Bunyan women in Juneau, and skirting the edges of death while searching for my heroic self.
     John Zavgren, a mathematician, was the only one left at my decade-ending party. He was not married, and was willing to climb Wyoming’s Gannet Peak from the west. Even I was preparing to leave the party, succumbing to inevitable responsibility. On the twenty-second of November (a coincidental date), I wrote to my girlfriend: "I hike toward mountain peaks, and you call me home as I climb away from what I really seek." Then I married her and took her to Alaska for a honeymoon on Admiralty Island, leaving her alone in a cabin while I climbed Eagle Peak.
     In Wyoming, Zavgren and I hike the Highline Trail along the Green River and past Squaretop Mountain, the sun warm on our faces, bright blue sky with only the thinnest of cirrus clouds spindling off the peaks. The route must be nearby, but we see no sign of a trail. On all our maps, Wells Creek is marked as a "route," a dotted line toward the imposing west face of Gannet. We thrash through underbrush toward the sound of rushing water, then stop and spread our map out on a fallen tree. John pushes his glasses back, and I wonder how in hell he keeps them from falling into the woods, or down a crack in the rock, never to be found. No need for me to say anything because we’ve had this discussion before. He’ll tell me that, without his glasses, the rocks look like cotton balls.
     Zavgren once gave me his dissertation to "read." I skipped the seemingly nonsensical title and went to the first page. It said, "If . . ." followed by a frightening sequence of numbers, symbols, lines, circles, and so on in a mathematical blur. The text didn’t contain another actual word until three pages later, where it read, "then . . ." only to be followed by six more pages of astonishingly complex mathematics. I think it had something to do with probability, but after a few scintillating conversations about it, in which I understood about as much as a monkey understands red and green buttons, I never brought it up again. I should have asked him what the probability was that a cloud could save my father’s life, and maybe about a few other things that have been difficult for me to talk about.
     I follow John into a glen where Wells Creek meanders into the forest, its glassy surface shimmering green and reflecting tall pine. We take off our boots and wade through the icy water. Then we hike along the creek, and a narrow path appears under our boots as if by magic. John then points out that it has nothing to do with magic, that deviation from the path would be unlikely considering the sheer rock cliffs rising on both sides. We push through the brush, emerging between two huge boulders towering into the blue sky like pillars. We hike through the cool, shaded passage to the other side, where the sun is blazing on a talus slope, burning everything into barren, washed-out yellow waves of heat rising from the broken rock.
     We sit in the sun and lean our packs against the rock. The absence of weight from my back gives me a strange feeling of lightness, as if my feet will float up the route without me, and something about this sensation makes me start thinking about Greek mythology, which I am not prone to do. I think of the myth of Talus, a bronze sentinel who guarded Europa. When Talus caught adventurers trying to steal gold, he held them to his bronze chest and leaped into the fires of hell, and his laughter would blend in with the victims’ howls.
     I tell John this story, and I ask him, "Isn’t that where they get the phrase ‘sardonic laughter’? Something to do with the island of Sardonia?" I know John is a smart man and will come up with an answer. I try to do the same for him, when asked, and on rare occasions, we stumble upon an approximation of the truth.
     "But," John says, "I think Talus and Europa were on Crete."
     "Hmm. You sure about that?"
     John makes a comment about us being cretins. I laugh and respond that neither one of us is sure about anything; the sunshine feels good on my face and there is a cool breeze between the boulders in this mythological land.
     "Maybe we should camp here," I say, but as soon as I say the words, I know it’s too soon to stop. We’re in our late thirties, after all. I’m married, and my wife is pregnant for the first time, one of the reasons she isn’t with us. We will meet her and my unborn child and some friends at Big Sandy Lodge after our climb. John has a girlfriend in Boston who already has kids. He will eventually move in with her and they will become very serious, but they won’t get married until much later.
     We go on, and John takes the lead, following a line of dirt into the mass of rock fragments, some bigger than trucks, the entire slope narrowing to a pinpoint at the top where, presumably, we will pass beyond the cliffs and into the land of glaciers and snow fields at the base of Gannet Peak. As the incline gets steeper, John balances on a rock slab and leaps to another; when I follow him, I feel the rock teeter underfoot, sliding ever so slightly, then clunk just a few inches farther down the slope.
     John and I make sure not to follow each other too closely. When I leap onto a wobbling boulder and steady myself on all fours like a chimpanzee, I long for that glowing feeling that I often get when climbing, a feeling of great affection for the world. I have often muttered to myself something like, "I love it, God, I love it," repeating the phrase like a mantra. But now each movement is grueling and winding me tight, as fragments come loose and leave us lurching, and the hard thud of one boulder sliding into another keeps reminding us that we are no match for talus. Such danger does not allow time for affection. Even though this is just the first phase of our climb and we have yet to reach any sort of "base camp," we begin talking in terms of false summits. We keep thinking we see the end, the passage to Many Bug Lake, but the illusory sight recedes like a mirage as we scramble higher on the hard, unstable rock, straining beneath our god-awful heavy packs. The slope always seems to be on the verge of leveling out, but it’s just a trick of nature; and if you assume Nature is God, then it is a trick of God.
     John sits, carefully wedging himself partway into a crack, and he reaches for his water bottle. The boulder beneath my lunging right boot teeters and I slide to my knees.
     "Goddamn," I say, slumping down next to John.
     Studying the map, he says, "I’ve never approached by just a ‘route’ before."
     "I’m not sure I’ll ever want to again," I say.
     He points to the map and says, "It shows us following along this side of Wells Creek."
     We look at each other and say, simultaneously, "More like ‘Hells Creek."
     My one-week-old daughter just came into my office in the arms of my wife, who for the third time had her womb opened. Our son is taking a nap.
     "Look at her," my wife says. "Still sleeping. She needs to wake up so I can feed her."
     I watch my daughter yawn and stretch her tiny arms. She has long dark hair and looks like my wife in miniature.
I take some pictures of my daughter, in my wife’s arms, in my office, the two of them. A few days before the C-section, Kim had her hair cut short. In all the time I’ve known her, I’ve never seen her hair cut so stylishly, and now I see that her hair looks just like her daughters and I wonder about the chances of something like that happening.
My one-week-old daughter starts to cry softly, and my wife takes her upstairs for a feeding.
After our water break, we go another fifty feet, curving around the southwest cliff to see more talus, a steeper slope, and the sun arcing toward the horizon. A few late-afternoon clouds drift overhead, shadows traveling up the slope with enviable ease. Our sweat dries quickly in a cool, dry breeze as we push on, the talus suddenly gargantuan, piles of massive boulders blocking our way with Wells Creek snaking underneath them. I feel as if the huge boulders have fallen recently, at least geologically speaking. Had we been there when they fell, we’d have been catapulted into eternity, squashed like bugs.
     "We’ll need to rope up," I say. We don’t waste words. It’s late, and we have a long way to go.
     While tying on the harness and clipping on carabiners, I think about my wife and our unborn child. Then I climb, and it feels good, and I forget everything but the climb. The motion is fluid, and I’m synchronized with the Universe and God and Nature and Death, and I love it. At the top of the rise, I watch the sun sinking toward the west ridge and thank God we’re not in the cold shadows of the east.
     I dangle the rope over the edge. John ties my pack onto it, and I haul it up, feeling the rope burn my hands. Then I belay John up, and we turn to face more of the same monotonous talus that we’ve been fighting for the past six hours. We strap on our packs, moving in what seems like slow motion, and methodically ascend. Soon, however, talus again forces us to a halt. Wells Creek is now crashing from the top of a giant bronze-colored boulder, exploding into a pool before tumbling over the next edge. We are facing a sheer cliff rising hundreds of feet into the darkening sky. We must cross Wells Creek by traversing through the pool at the base of the waterfall. It’s a passage we must make.
     "Turn that on daddy." My son points to the old computer still sitting on a table in my office.
     "Okay buddy."
     "I do it," he says, and presses the buttons before the computer has had a chance to warm up. It beeps error messages. "Beep! Beep!" he says.
     He sits quietly for a few seconds, and I try to write myself across Wells Creek to remember, and maybe get rid of some things. But then he stands on his chair and looks at all the photographs on my office bulletin board. "Who’s that?" he asks.
     It’s a picture of me with him on my back, in his "tough carrier" backpack. He was one year old. Now he’s two. Half a lifetime later. In the photo, he is laughing and I am looking back at him also laughing. We are playing a peek-a-boo game. "That’s me, your dad," I say pointing, "and that’s you."
     He points to himself and says, "That’s you."
     "No, that’s Sam."
     "That’s Sam."
     "That’s right. Remember?"
     "Remember, Daddy?" he says, "Remember?"
I look at John and say, "We’ll need to rope up again." He agrees, understanding the situation. It won’t be long until the sun slips beyond the ridge and the temperature drops. The rocks heated all day by the sun will begin to cool, gradually at first and then rapidly. We need to get through Wells Creek before that happens.
     I pull off my boots, shirt, and shorts before tying the rope around my waist. With bare feet curling around jagged submerged rock, I plunge into the icy waterfall, frantically grasping for handholds, the water pushing me into the narrow pool, white swirling surges spilling over the edge and disappearing. Pounded by the torrent, I sink up to my neck, heaving and gasping, a slight backwash drawing me back toward the waterfall. With the sun receding into the horizon, I make the cold traverse. On the other side, I fix the rope around a boulder, pulling it taut. We make several trips back and forth through the icy water, one hand on the rope, the other carrying our gear above the water in small bundles.
     Shivering in the dusk light, gear heaped in a jumbled mess around us, we stare at the rope, still tight across Wells Creek.
     "I’ll get it," John says, knowing that I’ve been in the water longer. "Why don’t you scout ahead?"
     But I give him no chance to object as I again wade through the frigid water, remove the fixed rope on the far side, and tie the loose end around myself. John belays me back across for what I think will be the last traverse of Wells Creek. As I emerge from the dark pool, John makes a remark about me being heroic, and it sounds strange in the cold air, not at all accurate.
     I frantically pull on dry wool pants and socks while my teeth chatter and John disappears up the slope. The rock is a dark grayish-blue in the failing light, and shadows appear everywhere. I stand and look around. There is a small, somewhat flat area with shattered fragments sticking up like spears but, by comparison, it’s level. A wrong step, however, might send either one of us careening about thirty feet onto the jagged, precipitous incline.
     John returns and says, "It gets better. We’re almost there. But we’re going to have to cross again."
     But I can’t stop shaking, and I say, "Let’s bivouac."
     We heave relatively flat chunks of rock into place, constructing a platform just big enough to allow us to loosely pitch our tent, the poles bent awkwardly, jammed into cracks, and the nylon roof sagging. John cooks us grainy cereal and rice mixed together into a pasty substance that sticks in our mouths and is hard to swallow.
     A breeze flaps our tent, and stars overwhelm the horizon. How many stars? How long to visit them? Can we travel at the speed of light? At one point all those questions seemed important to me, but they’ve receded into my past, and now I stare blankly at the bright starlight.
     We crawl into our sleeping bags, our bodies wound tight, and we try to sleep on the cold rock. Lying like a corpse, teeth clenched, I hear something faint but unmistakable: rock fall. Rocks hitting, braking , ricocheting. Long silence. Then more rock falling out of the darkness and crashing down around us like artillery shells. The rock fall continues, and we both know that the other is wide awake, eyes unblinking, tight, trying to relax on the uneven slab bed.
     "Hey John?" I finally say.
     "You don’t suppose our nylon tent will stop one of those rocks?"
     "No," he responds, "won’t even slow it down."
     But it’s hard to figure. Why didn’t we hear anything during the day? Why at night when everything cooled down? Wouldn’t the rock stay frozen in snow and ice? Maybe they aren’t in snow or ice. Maybe the rock becomes brittle in the cold air and breaks off. Maybe there is someone up there.
     "Maybe," John says, "we should go on in the dark."
     "Hmm. You feel like I do?"
     We wait, both listening, and it seems like a relatively long time before the next hit, fragments shattering.
     "I guess," John the mathematician says, "we should just take our chances here."
     A few months from now, I will want to go back to that moment and ask him to recalculate our chances; save some luck for later. But it will become a moot point, because the odds must be shoved further into the past, to some nebulous moment when my wife and I reveled in our passion and love for one another.
     John and I try to get comfortable, but it’s impossible, and we push our heads near the flapping nylon door at the edge of the cliff. Another crack; I’m sure I see sparks. We stare into the night, waiting for the next one, lulled into the possibility of sleep. A falling star streaks across the sky, and I wonder what the chances are that a meteor will hit the earth, hit Wyoming, the Wind River Range. Something lands nearby with a crushing sound that makes me wince, and pebbles pelt our tent like machine-gun fire.
     I pray to see my wife again, and my unborn child. Please, I pray, off and on all night, to the sky full of stars and meteors, and the unforgiving rock, and directly to God, please let me see my wife and my unborn child.
     I waver in and out of this restless slumber, my body jerking me awake and plunging me into sleep, over and over, until morning finally comes, with long shadows stretching down the previous day’s route. John and I pack quickly and climb the talus slope to one more crossing of Wells Creek, but it will be in warm sunlight. We look back at our camp, a small area of broken rock at the base of a sheer cliff rising into the sky, and I ask, "What are the chances we’ll ever spend the night there again?"
     "Nil," John says.
     We slog along a narrow snowfield past Many Bug Lake, and John comments, "How many bugs squashed?"
     We approach Gannet Peak, but we decide not to attempt it. Rather, we follow the path of least resistance up Mammoth Glacier to the Twin Peaks. We only approximate the exhilaration of reaching a summit, trudging to the snow saddle between the peaks, and we peer over the edge into Titcomb Basin, where, near the beginning of the decade, we once camped together before climbing Fremont Peak. Then we hike the Tourist Creek Route back to the main trail, which feels like an empty superhighway.
     We throw our gear in the car and drive around the high plateau on mirage-like back roads, and we forget about Wells Creek. We meet Kim and our friend Lynn at Big Sandy Lodge, and even though Kim is pregnant, she and I hike into the mountains, a long way up into a meadow full of red and yellow wildflowers. We sit together, holding onto each other at 10,000 feet, my hands on her stomach, and we feel the faint kick of approval from our baby while a warm breeze gently stirs the flowers. The three of us are happy there.
     But right now I am listening to the rock fall in my mind and I need to write about our baby. I now know that I must confront it directly and write about it, at least as a form of catharsis. What point you can get out of it is problematic. I also know that courage involves telling the truth. Our crossing of Wells Creek was a mere wisp of geologic air, and it had very little to do with courage.

     When we got back home, the doctors told us that our baby wasn’t growing at the proper rate to fall within statistical norms for babies in their seventh month. Ultrasounds came one after another, my wife’s round belly jelled up slick and cold, and the pictures showed that our baby was undeniably alive. They also showed that our baby was a boy. The doctors assured us that if there was any sign of trouble, they could take our baby early. A premature baby had an excellent chance of survival, they said, a better chance outside the womb than in it. We rejoiced and hugged and fell on our bed, happy and joyous in anticipation of the future. We searched for a name. But as each week passed, our son did not grow as the doctors said he should.
     On the historically significant date of November twenty-second (also the same date I had written to Kim), our primary care physician said we needed to go to the hospital for a "non-stress" test. They jelled up Kim’s abdomen, attached a monitor, gave her a joystick, and told her to press the button every time the baby kicked. Kim pressed at the faintest hint of a kick, but despite her efforts, the doctors rushed in, surrounded her, and told us that they needed to take our boy now. Kim and I, without previously discussing it, both agreed upon his name -- Benjamin Richard May.
     I watched them cut her open and slide our son out into the world, and I kept telling Kim how amazing he was, what a beautiful little boy, and I kept repeating it, trying to convince myself that our son was normal, all right, beginning his journey into health and happiness. But he wasn’t okay; his skin was the color of gray clay, and his silence was more piercing than any newborn wail. The white coats took him away and returned without him, telling us that he had a separated palate but otherwise seemed okay "externally."
     Later, when Kim was in the recovery room, more white coats appeared. It seemed they were multiplying. One doctor, whom neither my wife nor I had ever seen before, stepped forward to tell us that our son was a very sick baby. Chances are, the doctor said, he would not live.
     They wheeled him into the room on a gurney so Kim could see him through the plastic oxygen tent and the tangling array of tubes connected to his paper-thin skin. Kim was lying on her back like my son; she turned her head to look into his beautiful face, then reached across and pushed her hand past the plastic cover and touched his little hand.
     Kim will tell me later that she wishes she could have held him. She will tell me more than once, and I will try to tell her what he felt like in my arms. She will tell me about the last month of the pregnancy when she had to lie on her left side all day long in bed, how she sang Christmas carols to Ben. For many years, she will tell me about this, and the thought of them alone together like that will continually break my heart.
     The white coats wheeled my baby into an ambulance and drove him to Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center, and I followed. The doctors there all agreed that he was very sick and that he probably had a genetic defect called trisomy13; they showed me a picture of another baby with the disease. I looked at the picture, read the explanation, and said, "I suppose they call it ‘13’ because it’s unlucky."
     I asked the doctors about our son’s chances, and they told me his chances were virtually nil. Even if I could have saved some of my Wells Creek luck for that moment, it probably would have done no good. We needed the luck at conception. So I told them to take off the tubes and let me hold my son and let him die in my arms.
     A white coat said they needed approval from the hospital director for that, but "in this case, it won’t be a problem."
     While I waited in an office, I noted all the religious icons on the walls of this Catholic hospital, an inordinate number of bloody sacrifices in such a small room. A priest dressed in traditional black and surrounded by white coats entered and solemnly asked me how I felt. "Fine," I said. He insisted that I needed to tell him how I really felt. After I insulted him, I told him nothing, and he departed, shaking his head much in the same way I’ve seen experienced climbers shake their heads at novices on their way up dangerous peaks.
     A doctor handed me a phone, and I listened to the horribly abrasive voice of the director telling me that they had to give Ben every chance in the world to make it on his own. I was told to drive back to the other hospital, to be with my wife, twenty miles late at night on the superhighway. They would call me if something happened. I argued quietly and very logically, but I knew in my heart that religion could at times defy common sense. "We want," the abrasive voice said, "to give Ben every chance we can."
     I drove back to the other hospital, where I stood at my wife’s bedside and repeated the lie I’d been telling her for months: everything would be all right. Then a white coat appeared to tell me that my son was dying and that I should return immediately to Cardinal Glennon if I wanted to hold him. I went, immediately, alone on the dark highway. When I got there, I watched them disconnect things. And then I held him.
     I still hold him. He is wrapped in a blanket, his small body warm in my arms. I tell him how much I love him and how much his mother loves him, and I feel his tiny hand grip my finger. I hold him very close. I weep and tell him how much we will always love him.
     Later, we will be told that it is not trisomy13, that it is instead another genetic defect, a 4p minus chromosomal abnormality. And after genetic testing, Kim and I will find out that we are normal. Really. We will receive a piece of paper to prove it. We will be told that neither one of us has any chromosomal abnormality, that this could have happened to anyone and that the chances of it happening again are unlikely. We will be told that the odds are about one in 20,000, that it was a chance occurrence.
     My two-year-old son pushes open the office door and runs in, carrying a small ceramic statue of an angel. The statue was given to my wife shortly after Ben died, and I had paid little attention to it. In Sam’s other hand, he has a cup of sliced apple.
     "Here, Daddy," he says. "Want some?"
     "Sure, buddy." I take a slice of apple and say, "What else do you have there?"
     "Baby Ben. See?" He holds up the statue, and I carefully take it, feeling the warmth from Sam’s hand in the ceramic. And though I’m not a religious man, I set the angel on my desk.
     Sam runs out of the room and reappears hugging a big ball in his arms. "Want to play," he says, and drops the ball; it bounces across the carpet. I hear our newborn stirring in her crib. Kim is taking a nap. I try to watch Sam, listen for his little sister, and finish writing at the same time.
     "Baby’s crying," my son informs me.
     "Yes, she’s hungry."
     "Yes, buddy, you want to help me feed her?"
     "Okay," he says excitedly.
     He takes my hand, and we go upstairs.

Wind River Mountains
Wind River Mountains
John Zavgren
John Zavgren
Jeff May
Jeff May
Many Bug Lake
Many Bug Lake
Gannett Peak
Gannett Peak
Dad, Sam, and Sarah
Dad, Sam, and Sarah


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    • Cocoa Fly Fishes profile image

      Cocoa Fly Fishes 6 years ago from Wherever the fish are!

      Dear Mr. May...

      You've taken a series of challenging, sorrowful events & made them into a beautiful story that's even more beautiful for its truth.

      Bright blessings to you & Kim, & your kiddos.

      Warm regards...Cocoa Fly Fishes

    • Jeff May profile image

      Jeffrey Penn May 6 years ago from St. Louis

      Cocoa Fly Fishes -- Thank you so much, you understand. That makes me feel good, and I appreciate every comment you've made. Sam is now 20, and his litter sister is 18. It goes so fast. They are both beautiful children and we've told them all about their older brother Ben. Thanks again, Jeff.

    • Cocoa Fly Fishes profile image

      Cocoa Fly Fishes 6 years ago from Wherever the fish are!

      Dear Mr. May...

      So much about this piece must be celebrated! Your honesty, your skill as a writer, & the beauty with which you allow each difficult & each sweet situation be what it is in the moment, as it is, as it wishes to be seen for itself.

      There's a bit in quantum mechanics about particles also being waves & not being any particular place until we observe them.

      There's a practice in Buddhism that suggests quieting the mind & being fully present in the moment in peace, no matter what, allows us to see what is as it truly is, if we keep with the practice.

      You've trumped both physics & Buddhist practice: you've given us pure moments here that are as they are, & through the pain & the delight, by turns, we've seen something real, true, & therefore excruciatingly gorgeous.

      With a heartfelt "Namaste", I bow to you, your lovely wife, your family, your climbing friend, & especially little Ben, who really did infuse this with a special energy. *wow*

      Okay, I'm sniffling, crying, & very deeply touched by this experience you've shared & the exceptional skill with which you've shared it, & I must say that using the device of "then" & "now" was a powerful artistic tool in your capable hands.

      May you & Kim & all those you hold dear have more beauty in life than grief, more joy than sorrow, & more truth than absurdity, as you enjoy many more years together.

      Warm regards & great gratitude to you & yours...Cocoa Fly Fishes

    • Jeff May profile image

      Jeffrey Penn May 7 years ago from St. Louis

      Thanks again kathryn.

    • kathryn1000 profile image

      kathryn1000 7 years ago from London

      Yes,I suppose so.I like the way you interweave your two stories.Very beautiful

    • Jeff May profile image

      Jeffrey Penn May 7 years ago from St. Louis

      Thanks kathryn, and I enjoyed hearing about your little adventure, hanging on... that's what we all do from time to time, isn't it?

    • kathryn1000 profile image

      kathryn1000 7 years ago from London

      I find it difficult to say anything after reading that.I found it very moving and beautifully put together,I liked to see the photographs too.You are a wonderful writer and also I imagine a wonderful human being.We don't have such nig mountains here but I and some friends had a very scary time climbing the Langdale Pikes when we were 16 yrs old.We didn't even tell anyone where we were going.A marvellous feeling standing on the top of the world seeing lake Windermere and Coniston water stretching out below.An eagle's eye view.My feet slipped going up and I was left hanging on by my hands for a few moments.I was the last too.

      What crazy girls we were!


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