Sam’s relationship with her father was complicated. There was an intensity so deep and corroded that each small moment became monumental. Some times that was good, and others it was hell.
On any given day, the stories told about Sam’s relationship with Gerry could be different. Their love was apathetic, instrumental, menial, delusional, rotten, fluorescent, angelic, demonic. It was whatever it was. It just was.
By the time Gerry passed, he was a lonely soul. Him and Sam’s mother, Tricia, had parted ways years before, and ties were cut with Sam. He died alone in a small home along a river listening to Springsteen’s serenades for the disenfranchised.
When Sam received the call about funeral arrangements, she hadn’t the slightest clue what to say. Her answers were unintelligible, and she was shaking and nodding her head to a cell phone, as though movements as a form of language could be understood through sound waves. Shock, happiness, disaster were all formulating in her head like a twister. She hung up and cried deeper than she had since she was a child.
The next time the funeral home called, Sam said to cremate him. Why she said that, she didn’t know, but it seemed right. In her mind, they were walking up Sugarloaf Mountain on those quiet Sundays when the world seemed molded for them. Two people who always envisioned an idealized world that never materialised. A dream told through a bedtime whisper. But on those mornings when the world slept off a nasty Saturday hangover, they took to the mountain. They smiled at each other. Talked about things that never in a million years would be uttered to anyone else on God’s green earth. Because on those days there were no secrets. Just two half-souls becoming whole.
It took them close to an hour to reach the summit, and there they would overlook their town. A town that told their story like a Greek Pathos. What they saw filled them both with regret, and the possibility of restitching all the torn seams that seemed so viable a few hundred feet above the ground. Then Monday would arrive. And with it, the true realities of life would rear its ugly face, and the resentment of what life could have been if not for the other, would again erase the peaceful Sunday’s magic spell.
But when he died, Sam just thought about the Sundays. The past had a way of enlarging the good and deflating the bad. Sam supposed that’s what nostalgia was. A past-fantasy that never really existed, but maybe, in some ways, it did.
Her father was sitting on the tallest rock with a spray painted heart and the initials of two young lovers. Sam was standing in front of him. Those moments where he wore a face of deep thought. Deep intellect. A side of himself that he never revealed in front of his family, or his coworkers, in fear of ridicule. Ridicule that he was trying to be someone he was not. He was a labourer in an industrial town. That was all. That was it. But in front of Sam, on those trips, he was whoever he wanted to be. And on the mountain he was a Sunday philosopher.
“You know, Sam. The mountains, the wilderness, the breeze coming off the river. That’s how people are supposed to live. The freedom to be amongst nature. You’re not a slave to anyone except the elements. And even those you can overcome. The world wasn’t supposed to be smokestacks, polluting towns. Chemicals giving people cancer. People telling people who they are without a clue. Ya know? It was supposed to be freedom. The freedom of the wind in the air. The path paved just for you. Not for everyone else”
Sam would nod and agree. Agree with the idea of a world without borders. A world without judgment and suppression. A world where people were allowed to be free. A world on top of a mountain on Sunday. It was perfect. But perfection was such a small flame that in Sam’s experience, always burned out before it could grow large enough to light the sky.
She would sit on that mountaintop, praying to a God she never believed in, to please freeze time. “Please, God, just let me savour this moment. Let me live inside of it. Let me die here, in the company of the only one who ever truly understood me.”
“Sam, can I ask you a favour?” The voice of her father echoed inside her head. “When I die. I want to be free. Free amongst nature. Not in a coffin. Please. Never a coffin. Can you do that for your imperfect old man?”
Then, she realized why she had said to cremate her father. There was no way to tell if that memory was real, or just her imagination creating answers to questions that she could never answer otherwise. But she knew she had to go back home. She had to go back to the top of the mountain.
And that’s what Sam did. On a hot mid-July Sunday, a bottle of water, a backpack with the ashes of her father in a spiraling flower urn, and heavy thoughts of days gone by, she climbed the mountain for the first time in fifteen years.
The maple trees rising above her head like old friends. The snakes slithering through the fallen leaves, and the skittering squirrels and chipmunks, provided a comfort she had forgotten about. A comfort that the city, an office, a cubicle never provided. A life she had run away from out of fear. Fear of something she didn’t understand. Fear out of becoming her father, when she already knew that location wouldn’t change that fate.
As she reached the summit, the familiarity of it all nearly brought on a fit of panic. Sam looked around and saw nothing had changed. Nothing, except for her father being in her backpack instead of on that rock. That rock with the initials still carved into it. LJ loves PT. Sam wondered if they were still together now. Still in love. She actually felt like she would die if they weren’t. She needed them to be, so she told herself they were.
Sam placed the backpack on the steel grate on the edge of the mountain, looking over a town that hadn’t changed much except for the diminishing clouds from the smokestacks. “I’m sorry, dad,” she said to the urn, feeling silly, and saddened by the fact that she was speaking to a clay pot. Feeling saddened that inside of it was filled with sand. Sand like the beach of New Haven, except it was her father. A man who was larger than life. The biggest man she’d ever known, in stature and presence. Now he was grains of sand. “I’m sorry, dad.”
Then Sam raised the urn up above her shoulders and looked down at the town. The town filled with ghosts and demons of the past. But the same town filled with the biggest love she’d ever known. A feeling of wanting to stay and never see this place again played an evenly matched game of chess inside her heart.
“Dad. I know now. That I was you. And you were me. And that was a problem. We hated so deeply, but loved so deeply. The problem was that we could never find that middle ground. That place where most people live,” Sam said. “Our gift, our curse, was that we loved too much. We hated too much. We needed life to provide what we knew it never would. At least not in the long term. In short, sporadic spurts, it would. And in those, I’ll live, dad. In those, you will too. I love you. I hate you. I am you. I hope that you find peace amongst the trees. Amongst the sky. Amongst the freedom that nature brings. I love you.”
After the ashes fell over Sugarloaf like the sands of time, she slung her bag over her shoulder and took off down the mountainside.