It's 100 degrees, with the slightest breeze grazing my cheek. I look down at my Old Navy flip flops, a staple of my summer footwear, and wish I was wearing the sneakers that are crammed in the bottom of my suitcase. The climb is less than a half mile, but there is prickly sagebrush and at least two rattlesnake holes along the way. Sturdy footwear would be better.
Visiting family takes planning, not only because my husband and I have children, but also because we live 3,000 miles away from most of our loved ones. Calling on my father takes extra consideration. In the summer it means sunscreen, water bottles, and preferably, sneakers.
When my dad died five years ago, we buried his ashes in the hills above my small hometown. His marker is a simple stone, worn smooth by the mighty Columbia River. His name and his birth and death dates are engraved on the flat, gray surface, and the rock is situated in front of a wooden cross made by my younger brother.
Climbing the desert landscape to pay our respects on this sweltering day, my mother wonders with a smile, would my father enjoy the extra effort it takes to brave snakes and extreme heat in the summer, and below freezing temperatures and snow in the winter, just to say hello? We decide that he would. He enjoyed watching people squirm. I am like him in that way.
"Papa Mike sure has a nice view!" my 6-year-old breathlessly declares once we reach the top. He hops on the grave marker to make himself taller, and fiddles with the Delta flight wings he always wears on airplane travel days. We have just completed our cross-country travel not two hours ago, and Dad is our second visit, right after stopping by my grandfather's house.
"Get off that," I scold, not wanting my boy to be unintentionally disrespectful.
"It's okay. He can stand on it." My mother corrects me, reminding me that my father wouldn't at all be bothered by this display of childish exuberance. I picture Dad, watching us with his smiling eyes, and his slow, subtle smirk. He would enjoy having his grave marker being hopped on by the boy who is not only his grandson, but also his namesake.
Grief is tricky, and visiting loved ones who have left us is rarely as simple as it seems.
I'm sad. Sad because my boy is climbing on his grandfather's grave, and not on his lap. Sad because I know how much fun my kids would have with this grandpa they will only really know through pictures and stories. Sad because my trek up the hill is threaded with the guilt of our infrequent visits.
I am also happy. I take comfort in knowing my dad would love his spot overlooking the valley, with not much more than the wind and the coyotes to keep him company. He was an observer, always needing to have his back to the wall so he could see what was going on around him, and he took great delight in people-watching. His quiet hill, looking down on our town, is perfect.
I take in the rustic cross, the beautifully simple marking stone, and the gorgeous view of the valley cut by the river spread out in front of me. These are the rewards of making the climb, but it's not the reward I long for. I always hope to feel closer to my father when we are on his hill, but I rarely do. I'm not sure why this continually surprises me. I know he isn't there, but I still feel the disappointment of reaching for something that is just out of my grasp.
My father's presence in my life is like the wind. Sometimes subtle, like this breeze on my cheek. Sometimes still. Sometimes powerfully roaring, an unexpected storm. I climb the hill to pay my respects, and to touch his stone and his cross, because it's all I have left to touch. These two things that were never his in life give me little comfort, yet I continue to make the pilgrimage.
"When I die, I want to be buried up here with Papa Mike," my son decides. "I like it up here."
"I like it up here, too." I agree, sweeping aside all of the complicated topics my boy touched on with his declaration.
We stand quietly, my husband holding our 4-year-old, and my son next to my mom, and gaze out at the valley that is no longer my home, and I realize the similarity between expecting to see my hometown as it was when I was a girl, and hoping for my father when he isn't here.
I watch my son slip his hand into his grandmother's, and my husband set our daughter down so she can walk, and we make our way back down the hill.