By Nancy Townsley
The father bends over the son, just as he did so many years ago when the boy was asleep and he murmured prayers for him, tenderly pushing his sand-colored bangs aside while asking the deity he used to believe in to make the child good and wise and kind. He would watch the comforting rise and fall of his boy’s chest and listen to his shallow breathing on those late nights, after he had finished reading and writing in his knickknack-crowded study, something he could do even with the TV blaring. Wedged between the philosophy and poetry sections on his bookshelves sat a faded Pinocchio puppet with two broken strings, the Yoda beanbag that used to make his daughter laugh, and a ball made entirely of rubber bands, all remnants from when his life was more Presbyterian, “decent and in order” as the church liked to teach, crowded with tasks and responsibilities that required him to keep a calendar with to-do lists scribbled into it, lest he lose his way.
In one corner of the room, next to the door, a wooden hummingbird with its wings spread wide hung suspended from the ceiling in a vain attempt to fly.
But this day, and this hour, are radically, horribly different. The son is cold, mostly frozen, like meat just taken from the freezer. His eyes are shut, ice still clinging to their dark lashes. His angular face is contorted and bruised black-and-blue. His fingers are curled, as if they’re grabbing at something, and stiff to the touch. There is a large patch of dried blood on the side of his head, the result of untold trauma. He is still, lifeless. The boy, now a man, is dead.
A search party has brought his lanky body down from Mount Hood in a large black bag and laid it on top of a picnic table inside an equipment-maintenance barn. It is icy outside, and snowing. It has been twenty hours since rescuers started looking for him, more than a day after he went missing. The men inside the shelter implore the father not to look, but he cannot look away. Please, he says, I have to see my son. Two of them relent and step to the table, one on either side, grasping the bag’s canvas handles so the corpse won’t slide off. The shorter man with the wiry red beard and a few errant pine needles still sticking to his jacket unzips the covering and peels it back, then motions for the father to approach. The father blinks back a blinding wetness from his eyes and feels his body convulse in sobs, though he hears none of the sounds it makes. To him all is silent.
The father does not yet know the circumstances of his son’s fall from the mountain, and it does not matter. Death has taken him, mercilessly and without warning, minutes after he snapped a perfect photo of a brilliant orange sunrise at 7:42 a.m. on a clear day in mid-winter, an image the father won’t see for several days, after the recovery effort is complete and Jonas’s camera is secured and emptied. He hopes it was quick, and that his boy — such a good boy! — did not suffer. He hopes his son remembered at least one lesson he taught him during the martial arts classes he hated as a kid, how to roll into a fall so it hurts less. He hopes his last thoughts were serene and panoramic, with snapshots of his own two children or visions of his yurt along the John Muir Trail clicking through his head. The medical examiner has been called in. He’ll arrive within hours. What hour? This hour? What time is it, anyway, and what difference does it make? A surreal scene has unfolded, the pale landscape buzzing with rescue rigs, two-way radios and Sno-Cats, television news reporters, somber faces, whispered questions. Where would you like the body delivered? Will you be notifying his next of kin? Can we get you a hot cup of coffee, or is there anything else we can do?
The merry-go-round is turning, faster, faster, and everything’s a blur. Nothing makes sense. Dazed, the father cannot move. Would someone like to speak for the family? He blows his nose, gathers himself and goes outside to face the cameras.
When Jonas was not quite five, the father almost lost him for the first time. The boy was wan and feverish when he picked him up from daycare, whimpering in the back seat of the station wagon as they drove to the hospital. Doctors swiftly determined through tests and much prodding and poking that he had a partially necrotic kidney. There was a surgery the same day to remove the dead portion of the organ, followed by a couple nights on the pediatric ward, with Jonas and his big sister sharing a blanket and watching Looney Tunes together as he recuperated.
The father thought Jonas’s kidney went bad because he had been in utero at the time of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident in the spring of ’79, when radioactive gases and iodine spewed into the air in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, just a few miles from their home. He wondered if his eldest son’s attention-deficit issues could be blamed on the disaster as well. The drug Cylert helped keep Jonas in grade school, but as he got older it didn’t blunt his burgeoning interest in concepts beyond what his preacher father taught from the pulpit on Sunday mornings. Even growing up in a God-first household — “Church is something our family does together in the same fashion that it eats together or plays together,” the father would remind him when he balked before worship — Jonas managed to internalize the idea that kindness and compassion were qualities to be elevated over the pursuit of holiness. In that way, he transcended religion.
“He was a humanist,” the father told the assembled sad-faced mourners at Jonas’s memorial service. “Jonas believed that caring openly and authentically for others spoke more strongly than any scripture, a philosophy he and I came to share. He was, simply said, the kindest person I ever met.”
Home movies peer up from a wooden box in the basement, their cardboard sleeves with hand-printed titles inviting the father to open them, shove them into the VCR and sit with them a while. He knows they contain snippets of Jonas’s life — his penchants for skating, deep-wilderness hikes and BMWs, pictures the father isn’t able to face. He has descended the stairs in order to tinker, to work with wood again, to get away from himself. But he cannot escape marauding thoughts of his firstborn son, separated from this physical life forever, his battered body submerged beneath the warming earth, lawn mowers moving earnestly over the mound on this early summer’s day. The father reflects on the impermanent, and how Jonas would chuckle at the irony that put his resting place so close to the cascades of peonies and impatiens snaking over the top of a nearby retaining wall. He was always allergic this time of year.
After the affair and after he laid down his ordination — sunk to his knees in the murky mud of betrayal and redemption, attempts at reconciliation, explanations that didn’t want to be heard and apologies that weren’t welcome — the father felt, among many other feelings, that he had forfeited much of the life he’d built over twenty-five years. Like waves in an undulating ocean, the good memories would roll toward him and then recede, daring him to wade into ever deeper water in order to reach them.
Sitting at the mahogany desk in his study, the father would think of Jonas, bowing his head in gratitude for his life and ways. The wooden bird on the string would twirl.
Jonas’s mother insisted that the undertakers dress him in a suit, an incongruous thing to the father’s way of thinking, especially a black suit and a tie, garments Jonas had only worn to his wedding nine years before. He’d married the first woman he’d slept with, a history major and five years his senior, and gotten her pregnant almost right away, a discovery that made Jonas giddy with anticipation and at the same time scared him out of his mind. At the ceremony she wore a cotton floral-printed dress over her five-months-along girth, the picture the father keeps in his wallet reminds him, though he remembers little else from that day.
After the baby, and through the making of another, the relationship slowly began to erode. At times Jonas was afraid he might actually flee, were it not for the two loves of his life, one in size ten high-tops already and the other who wore Jonas’s baseball caps every day, rain or shine, because they smelled like his dad, a reminder that at least some things could be counted on in a home that had seen far too much strife. One spring when his youngest child was five, Jonas passed every test required to join the Mazamas, earning an award for climbing each of the Northwest’s major glaciated peaks. He started climbing more regularly: St. Helens, Adams, Shasta, Rainier, Hood. When he was up there, traversing a snow field or photographing a sunrise, Jonas felt alive and free, all he’d ever wanted in life besides true and sustaining love.
One year after the mountain swallowed the son, shards of sunlight punch through cumulus clouds near the river’s horizon at daybreak. The father is depressed, “maybe clinically,” he says. His hair is sparser, his face is grayer, and he tires more easily. He is bent over, much more markedly than the last time he hovered over Jonas on that awful morning of reckoning.
Persevering along an existential trajectory set in motion long before Jonas’s death, the father’s god is now a little-g god, a sparse, stick-drawing expression of what he’s come to think of as a female-male generous spirit “in whom we live and move and have our being,” antithetical to the justice-seeking Yahweh of his seminary days. He cannot pray. He’s unable to summon faith in anything other than the present moment. He tries, but finds it is far too hard, too defeating. So he watches the way his body lists left and right, stumbling, and tries not to fall into the abyss. Heaven? Hell? He doesn’t know. He only knows he wants his son back. Friends’ attempts to put a footnote to it — Everything happens for a reason, they venture, Time heals all wounds, they chirp — fall flat on the father’s ears, because there can be no good reason for Jonas to be gone. No damn reason at all, and that’s what hurts the most. He pours himself into his writing, using it as a vessel to contain what memories he can of his son. On his nightstand are works by Rumi, Yeats, Auden, Stafford, Jung. And Swedenborg, a believer in signals and signs from beyond the veil, whose words give the father solace before he puts his head to the pillow. When the sky opens over the Columbia River and stars glimmer above, a rare thing on a winter night, he tells himself it might be Jonas letting him know he’s all right. Or once, when a doe and her fawn wandered through the field behind his farmhouse two miles from the water — furtively glancing around, wide eyes blinking, hooves gently pawing the earth — that was a sign, too, he felt, that all was well.
Except that it’s not. His son’s absence makes the father’s heart bleed. It vanquishes him when he is alone. When he conjures Jonas he aches and shudders, but he also remembers that kindness is all there really is and that his middle child taught him that, wearing it as a badge each day, like a soft, friendly flannel shirt.
The only time the father accepted an invitation from Jonas to go climbing was two springtimes before he died, a trek along the south side of Tom Dick and Harry Mountain near Mount Hood. It was a mild May day and the snows had receded, revealing purple and yellow wildflowers peeking up from tiny crevices in the formerly barren ground. Jonas couldn’t help himself — he’d charge up the trail with barely contained glee, leaping from rock to rock, pausing on wide ledges until his father caught up. His movements were ballet-like, the father thought, and he was as skillful and nimble as a mountain goat, with lungs to match. “You didn’t even break a sweat,” he remembers telling Jonas when they reached the trail’s end, where another hiker took a photo of father and son wearing wide grins on their faces — triumphant, tired, and completely happy.
That picture, framed in black, sits on top of the father’s baby grand piano, a dichotomous reminder of a singularly lovely day and the pain of not having availed himself of more of those outings with Jonas. “He always wanted to be everywhere with me when he was young,” laments the father. “I wish I’d taken him.”
Dusky amber light filters in through the window blinds, projecting patterns across the rows of books that blink and fade as clouds come and go. The father stares at the screen before him, characters moving across the rectangle’s bluish light. What were the last words Jonas spoke to me? He tries hard to remember. They were simple and staccato, he thinks, shouted across a parking lot as a tow-headed toddler clung to his daddy, his legs wrapped barnacle-like around Jonas’s thin waist. “We’ll get together soon, Dad,” Jonas had said to the father, turning to open the passenger door on his car. Depositing his son in his car seat, he’d stood up and added, as an afterthought, “I love you,” his words nearly lost in the howling winter wind.
They were uttered less than a fortnight before the mountain, shrouded in mystery and light, cast its longest shadow and claimed Jonas as its own.
When he’s able to quiet his mind long enough to read, the father’s fingers trace the ancient poet’s words across the page: Look things in the face and know them for what they are. A subtle succor comes, helping him lift a corner of death’s black shadow and allow a few wispy fragments to fade and evaporate into the night. He looks up and considers the wooden bird, sometimes circling and other times still, and softly cries.
Nancy Townsley grew up as a Navy brat and rode horses around the island of Puerto Rico before moving to the Pacific Northwest in 1973. Her work has appeared in Brave On The Page: Oregon Writers on Craft and the Creative Life (Forest Avenue Press), and at Runner’s World, Role Reboot, NAILED Magazine and BLEED, a literary blog by Jaded Ibis Productions. She lives in a floating home on the Multnomah Channel in Scappoose, Oregon, where she runs and writes.