While we drive to the ranch I watch out the back window at the sunset, glorious in pinks and golds, setting the wheat fields on fire as we race along the highway. It’s long enough to make my neck hurt after awhile, but I can’t make myself move, can’t force myself to break the spell that’s keeping me here, petting Dexter’s head as he breathes slowly, in his dog way, while my Dad talks about his Dad and all the sadness that’s left there. I think about what that must be like, to not have your Dad like you and I can’t imagine it, which is something I think would make my Dad happy to know. At the very least, he hasn’t made the same mistakes that his Dad has. My siblings and I live in a world where we have a soft place to land, someone to guide us and give us rules, and of course, we’ve always had lots of love. What else do kids need? I wonder, because really I don’t know, and I don’t know if anyone knows for sure—but it seems like my childhood was a pretty good place to start. The problem is, of course, I think while the highway is fading into a thin black ribbon, cascading behind us, rippling through the hillside and out into the sun while we head into the dark, that eventually you stop being a child even though you still have your family. The reason this is a problem is that you have to learn how to be a part of a family when you’re all adults. It changes things, it really does. I wonder, as dusk settles in and deer start dotting every field, at what point you stop needing your parents? Two huge bucks appear, eyeing us while they pose in the lower fields, and Dad tells us they all come down at this time of year to the open fields because their antlers are in velvet and very sensitive, so they avoid the timber, where branches are thick. We pause by the side of the road and then keep driving towards the ranch, hitting Condon before dropping back down into the canyon and wending our way along the river. Never is the answer here, I think. You never stop needing your parents, which is I think, one of the hardest realities of life we all face.
Fossil is the same as it always is, although cooler now that the sun has pretty much gone down and night has started creeping around the edges of the houses and the trees. Highway 19 welcomes us in, the burned tree a talisman and a practical marker for where our gate is. When we pull in, gravel crunching under the wheels of the truck, Rachelle spots a huge herd of elk eating in our lower field. Quick, my Dad says, quick how many were there? We stop, barely breathing, Dexter’s nose pressed against the glass and look for their big bodies shadowed in the grass and trees. One bull is there, although I don’t see him, but Rachelle has sharper eyes than I do and she spots him. I can barely see in the daytime, so now that it’s almost full dark I’m pretty much useless, although I imagine I can see the curve of the road as it follows the lower field, and I can pick out the outline of the ridge against the sky. Little pricks of light are starting to hover above the horizon, guide lights in the night. It’s almost been a year since I stood on this same porch and looked at the sky, hoping for a sight of my Grandma. I think of my Dad and how he needed his Mom, and still does I think all the time, even though she really only nailed one of the three.
It doesn’t seem like a year ago that I was leaning on the rail, thinking about Brian Doyle and all those stars. It seems like it was both yesterday and a lifetime ago, that it all happened to a different person. Maybe it did. It’s been a big year for growing in this family, of figuring out how we’re going to live and love each other. And I think part of it is because in the last year we’ve seen, I’ve seen, my parents become people. Not just my Mom and Dad, but Claire and Nathan. And it’s horrible, a painful thing sometimes, something you want to rail against. I’m lucky, I think because I’m 23 and just finding this out, although there have always been glimpses of those people—when they’ve been angry at each other, when they’ve dropped a piece of your life puzzle, and when they’re desperately sad. Some people find out too soon, that their parents are just people and not Gods, not the sun and the moon, not the reason for why the world turns. But when you start growing up, the way it should be, you start becoming a person with wants and fears and hopes, dreams and love of your own, and you recognize that your parents and your siblings and everyone around you have their own wants and fears and hopes and dreams. When you start to grow up all the pain and sadness and lost hope begins to reveal itself to you, the injustice in the world, the death in life, it all becomes apparent. Your Dad cries at funerals and your mom tries to put him back together, and they talk about the things they still have left to do before they die too. But will I ever want them to stop being those raw, complex beings and go back to being only my parents, my Mom and Dad? Simple, my soft place to land? Yes, always.
All this that I see. But still, this weekend at the ranch, I don’t believe it, not really. Here we are all together, my life still revolving around this sun and moon I have been so blessed with, my sister and brother anchoring lights in the little constellation we make up. And so I leave the drive behind, smell the juniper in the air, wake up early and we go for a family walk.