I had an assignment for a photography class, and my daughter, Catherine, agreed to be my subject. Bribery with Italian cream cake was involved.
Drew was with us in the cemetery. It was a bright day, and light filtered through the trees. He followed as I shot, through the light and shadow patchwork — from this monument to that, this idea and then another.
There is a later photograph of Drew that afternoon with the sheer black veil covering him; he wore a broad grin, incongruous with his black veil. He was a silly man. Catherine sat snuggled next to him. Hard drives are fragile things and that picture exists now only in my mind.
I give you another image.
Drew on the floor next to the hospital bed in our room at 2 a.m.. Dementia was setting in, and he had fallen getting out of the bed on his way to an imaginary meeting.
While he weighed less than 100 pounds, I could not lift him. At that moment, Catherine came in on cat paws, a flutter of light nightgown. We sat on either side of him and snuggled him close, the three of us together for the last time.
I just returned from camping by myself in Big Bend National Park.
I had not been camping since 2009, and as I looked at what to do with a few days off in September, all I could think of was what it sounds like to wake up in a tent.
There have been times in my life that I slept in a tent to drop the overall cost of a cross-country vacation. I moved from New Orleans to Seattle and eventually back to NOLA, and multiple times both direction I camped with my cat, Jenny, and my bird named Charlie. Then when my daughter was going to Girl Scout camp in the Davis Mountains, I took my tent and launched out to various places, like Santa Fe, New Mexico.
I don’t need to camp anymore, but I’ve found that I miss it. This is where I need to be really honest. I don’t camp in the haul-it-in-on-your-back way. No, thank you. It’s car camping, so I have a cot and a nice tent and a great camp stove.
Catherine saw my grocery list for the trip. “You’re bringing red snapper? Orzo? Normal people make easy stuff when they camp.”
Yes, I like good food, and I enjoy cooking. I’ve learned that there are many delicious things I can make with a grill, some foil and a little ingenuity.
At the end of the day, what this is really, really about — it’s seeing the stars, and hearing the breeze pull at the tent. It’s sitting with my coffee in the morning and watching the last stars fade out, the light grow until the sun peeks her head above the horizon.
Big Bend National Park. It happens to be my personal park.
No, really. I have been many times, simply because it was the closest big western landscape to Houston. I can go and get my desert, big sky, big rock fix in less than a week — if I have to do so.
When I came here with Drew in 2010, it was before he was diagnosed with cancer. On the Lost Mine trail, there is a vista that opens up between the peaks in the Chisos mountains and the desert stretches out into the far distance. I told Drew that right there, that spot, behind the big rock we sat on as we enjoyed the view, that would be where to bring my ashes when I died. He looked at me and said, “it’s perfect. That’s what I want, too.”
We thought we would live to be . . . well, old. I promised to chase him around the breakfast table when we were eighty.
Life had other plans for us though, and we took them as gracefully as we could. We talked several times about where he wanted me to take his ashes when he died. He never wavered.
Wasn’t he a beautiful man? I did go spread his ashes in January of 2014. Several of his siblings were able to join me, and it was a very special pilgrimage.
So now the fedora rides shotgun with me. This time, my trip was not about ashes and it was not about mourning. It was about feeling the Big Bend again and being very, very alive.