Family Travel—Bronze: Leaning Back

by Erin Byrne

I shivered inside the car. Fuzzy static on the radio buzzed in my ears. A whirling, weightless fog of snowflakes obscured my vision. I felt desolate and lonely as I waited for the floating flakes to slow. After the flurry cleared I saw my landmark, Pikes Peak, and my inner compass adjusted. I pulled onto the road, turned right, and sailed over the dry-iced street.

Still, vertigo spread to the tips of my fingers. Aloneness, like a cold fog, wrapped itself around every part of my being. No one was coming with me to the airport to send me off.

Every other time I had come to Colorado Springs, my sister Allison would drive me to the airport at the end of our visit. She would throw her thin, wiry arms around me in a vice grip, then stand on tiptoe waving goodbye. I would turn on my way to the gate, our eyes would lock and we’d both laugh out loud.

Allison had moved to Colorado Springs in 2001 with her husband Steve and son Jack. She fell in love with the steadfast immensity of the Rocky Mountains.

Allison phoned on our first Thanksgiving apart. “Pikes Peak is everywhere,” she said in her high, wavering voice. She spoke about a place called the Garden of the Gods, which I imagined was some kind of church garden, and plans for a December trip to Crested Butte ski resort.

The first time I went to visit, Allison met me at Colorado Springs small airport. She grabbed me in a fierce hug and smiled with her usual mixture of wicked wit and admiration. She wore her trademark sleeveless polo, khaki shorts and Keds. Her chiseled features and ski-jump nose combined in a fresh type of beauty underneath a curly crop of auburn hair. She threw out her arm and proudly introduced me to Pikes Peak, Colorado Spring’s own gem in the necklace that is the Rocky Mountains.

Every structure in Colorado Springs seemed to have as its central feature a window with a view of Pikes Peak, which indeed seemed to be everywhere. It peered in the Starbuck’s window as Allison and I huddled over steamy cups of creamy brew. We sat laughing there on the couch with our feet touching, and looked out at the snowy expanse of Pikes Peak. Whenever I would drive anywhere on my own, I would always look to the peak as my landmark to the west.

Pikes Peak indulgently watched as we walked with our kids in the Garden of the Gods Park which turned out to be a 1300 acre maze of towering, jagged rocks in hundreds of variations of the color rust. We learned about the legends of the Ute tribe, who inhabited Pikes Peak for many years. The Utes gather annually at the foot of the mountain to honor their ancestors, who walk there still. We took the kids to the zoo, which is actually nestled in the side of Cheyenne Mountain. We joked that we couldn’t see our landmark peak from the zoo because we were actually in the Rockies. After each visit, Allison would drive me, alone or with my family, to the airport to see me off.

Throughout my childhood, my sister seemed delicate to me. She was a skinny, angel-faced kid whose feelings were easily hurt. Her emotions came off in pieces when I teased her, as I often did. But underneath her fragility was an iron will. She whipped me in arm wrestling every time, smacking my arm down in a flash. Her stubbornness outlasted mine: when I put tape on the floor of our room to keep her out of my side, she wouldn’t budge for hours, thus called my bluff and got me in big trouble. As our sailboat rollicked on the choppy waters of Puget Sound, she’d haul in the lines like a seasoned sailor, her navy stocking cap contrasting with her sunlit hair.

My sister was my biggest fan. She retrieved tennis balls by the dozens as I practiced my serve. She faithfully shouted “Good job!” even if I shanked it, which made us both laugh. When I went off to college, she wrote encouraging letters full of exclamation points. She steadied my trembling hands before my wedding. When my two year old threw his spaghetti at the waiter’s white coat, Allison leaned over and whispered in my ear that I was a good mom anyway. She bolstered me. When she moved away, I felt a shift in my equilibrium.

Auburn, Washington, my home, is surrounded by mountains. On clear days, I can see the Olympics from my front porch. Behind our house lie the grayish blue waves of the Cascade Range swooping up to become Mount Rainier. Every day after she moved away, I would look at its contrast of bluish shadows on white, and I’d think of my sister and her Pikes Peak.

Allison had been in Colorado for two years when she phoned from Crested Butte one night over the Christmas holiday and told me of her illness. Fear swirled inside, but a protective veil of numbness fell.

During the two years that followed, huge, solid Pikes Peak lent strength as we walked carefully on the path. When the sun toasted our shoulders, mine rounded and hers increasingly bony, the mountain provided cooling shade. The serene mound stood outside the window of the treatment room where she sat hooked up to tubes. Everything was changing so quickly, the permanent sameness of Pikes Peak was a steadying force.

I traveled often to Colorado. As the airplane descended, I’d lean my forehead against the cold glass and look at the Rocky Mountains from above. From this angle the mountains appeared delicate. The snow wasn’t frosting, it was powdered sugar. The rock wasn’t immoveable, I could see broken chunks of it scattered down slopes. Thousands of years of wind and water had worn the mountains down.

As cancer chipped away at my sister, I was surprised how rock-solid her core was. She did not crumble easily, but held on tenaciously until her last breath.

When Allison’s life left her body it seemed to me that the mountains would disappear into the earth. Half expecting to see nothing, I looked out the window. Pikes Peak was still there, unchanged. I felt I leaned into its familiar bulk.

A few days later, on that snowy day in February, I drove myself to the airport. I had sent my family ahead the day before. As I sat in the car, the freezing snowstorm entered my stomach and whirled up to my throat. It swirled and settled inside me as I parked the car and walked across the empty parking lot into the airport. I did not turn around on the way to the gate.

Two years later, the blizzard inside me had slowed, but raged on. Grief disoriented me, a strong emotion unconnected with any immediate cause. I had not gone days without eating, but felt desperately starved. I was not looking into the bloodshot eyes of a murderous stalker, but was scared as hell. I was not on stage speechless in front of thousands, but felt paralyzed as if I was. The protective veil rose and fell; the pain was sharp, then dull.

I grieved for Allison’s contagious laugh, her skinny-armed hug, and her unshakable support of me. Without her shout of encouragement I felt vulnerable in the world. I waited for her to come in dreams, to appear as an angel in front of me wearing her Keds, or to materialize by my side chattering in her high-pitched voice.

I felt sure that if I had this type of encounter with Allison’s spirit, I would know a tremendous peace, the static of sorrow would clear, and I could sail forward.

Then one morning, while preparing for a professional conference, insecurity overtook me. Exhausted from recent travels, I felt depleted and inadequate. As I looked in the mirror trying to muster up some confidence, I was slowly overcome with the sensation of leaning back into the bracing, solid, gigantic there-ness of Allison. I felt her delicate yet resilient spirit behind me, and her presence was BIG. It was her – the wiry kid with the sensitive soul who had smacked my arm down on the table, the girl who carefully crafted all those explanation points, and the woman who whispered comforting words in my ear.

Allison’s presence in my life had been huge in the same way her spirit was at that moment. And it made me laugh out loud.

Grief continues to swirl and sting inside of me; I feel it most strongly when the veil of numbness is thin. Waters are deep and choppy. My confidence often falters. At times I am unable to see through the blizzard to the mountain. But the memory of leaning back into my sister’s big spirit bolsters me and makes me laugh. Just like she always did.

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