The last words from me, in terms of an update on Annette and our family, were written in haste. I wrote that post on my phone while sitting in the sun on the trunk of our rental car, waiting for her to complete her final proton radiation treatment. From there we drove ten hours straight to central Montana. When the kids awoke, we were there for the big hugs, smiles, and bacon.
Annette’s brother Greg and her mom made the trip from Michigan for a week stay. Through this whole ordeal she’s suffered through plenty of my family, but outside of Facetime and Zoom, she hadn’t seen her mom or brothers for nine long months. Having to mask and social distance from your own mother is tough and awkward, but we made it work and really had a great time. We got her mom on horseback for a bit and the kids loved having their Uncle Greg around to torment.
We spent two sunny weeks in Big Sky Country with my parents. They live in a log home we built on the Missouri River outside of Great Falls. With sandstone cliffs on one side and the house facing a long stretch of the Missouri, we’d found a pretty good spot to hideout for a bit.
The land there is somewhat sacred to me for many reasons. There are gorgeous sandstone pishkuns (the Blackfoot word for buffalo jumps) on both sides of the river, and between the buffalo bones one finds there and amidst the giant cottonwoods where Lewis & Clark built their dugout canoes, the land feels alive with history and emotion. Add to the fact that my mom has ridden that valley on horseback for as long as she remembers, and I can point to all the places where I’ve shot deer or been bucked off (or both), and you’ve got a pretty special place to recuperate and reconnect.
We swam, hiked, biked, kayaked, explored, treasure hunted, and played. Atticus and I began school from there, Saoirse kept my dad in line, and Annette worked on healing her skin and recovering the energy the twenty proton treatments tried to steal from her. Those had left her chest cavity sore, and her skin from her neck to her sternum cherry red, with blistered and peeling skin. She suffered through that without almost a single complaint. Almost. (But I’ll give her that. She’s complained very little through this whole process. Mostly, she’s left the complaining to me.) In two months or so she’ll receive another PET scan, and that’s when we’re hoping for word the cancer is dead and gone. I’ll complain here a moment, as it’s not easy to wait for results like this, but really we can’t whine. While we’ve been at this non-stop since her diagnosis in February, the fact that she doesn’t have to get zapped or poisoned, hopefully ever again is news worth waiting for. (The reason she has to wait is because the radiation keeps working well after the bell dings on the zapper machine.)
On our last week in Montana, Saoirse came running with news of her own and something trapped in her hands. Knowing her, she had a creature, but from the distance, I couldn’t be sure if she’d discovered a baby rattle snake, a black widow, or one of those poisonous western toads. Our little four-year-old has no fear when it comes to creatures big, small, furry, slimy, or scaly. Where Atticus recoils and jumps back, Saoirse leans in and cups her hands for the catch. This time, she opened her little hands to reveal the most beautiful caterpillar any of us had ever seen. I said with absolute authority, “I’m pretty sure that’s a monarch.” Which it turned out to be, lucky for me, because being color blind I am an authority on about zero creatures with colorful bodies.
We debated what to do, once we had an official identification of the species. The kids made a nice home for it in a huge glass jar, and once they went to their own cocoons for the night, we did some research and plotted what we should do with the little creature. Annette and I took a late evening walk to find some milkweed leaves. Milkweed is apparently to the Monarch Caterpillar what donuts are to humans. When we returned with a bundle of the sticky leaves that caterpillar went to town. The snacking began, and much to the delight of the kids, continued for a few days with plenty of Very Hungry Caterpillar jokes.
Then, all the sudden, our very hungry caterpillar transformed right in front of our face into this strange neon green and gold oblong blob. We watched and waited and researched and wondered if we’d see the transformation ourselves. Then the kids began their plea to take it home. Once again, in my all-knowing voice of authority, I said, “they don’t allow those on the plane.” I’m not sure who they are, but I am sure they don’t want a strange little pupae blob on the plane. Right?
I think we all left Montana a bit reluctantly. We were leaving warm water, sun, horses, mom and pop cooked meals, and summer ---- for Alaska fall, with winter around the corner. I missed seeing so many of my cousins while I was there, but we stayed pretty low key. Annette’s immunity is recovering, but we’re ever cognizant that there is still a pandemic raging in our country. This fact never seems to leave either my or Annette’s consciousness, and really, it is unconscionable that any adult citizen of our great country allows it to until we’ve got this virus under control. I tremble at the thought that by the time I hit publish on this post, and it hits your eyes, we will have likely reached the 200,000 death mark in our country and that marks twenty percent of the total deaths in the world due to Covid-19. We somehow continue to lead the world in coronavirus deaths. For all our greatness, we lead the world in loss of souls. I have no words. (At least not any that I want my mom or Annette’s mom to read here.)
We made the flight north safely, all masked and shielded up, and hit home to crazy surprises, with plenty of barking. Our Aussies cried and jumped and ran circles around us. My buddy Matt Niclai delivered our vehicle to the airport, and our awesome neighbors had the yard all cleared of brush and mowed, and Scott Janssen and Jimmy Lord treated us to an unbelievable driveway renovation. (Seriously, who does that? Those guys!) Our friends Katie and John Llyod had dropped off a box of fresh Alaskan veggies, jarred salmon and fresh Alaska berry jam, and treats for kids and adults alike.
Between our state mandated travel quarantine and the fresh fall air we were feeling like we should follow in the tiny footsteps of our caterpillar friend and ball up and not go anywhere. But the mountains called, so it wasn’t long before we were out hiking and biking and enjoying the change of seasons.
Then my mom called this week with big news from Montana. One minute the Monarch hung still in the chrysalis stage and the next she looks over to see a stunning butterfly flapping her big wings. We watched via FaceTime as the delicate creature fluttered her wings and lifted off from my mom’s fingers and into the big blue Montana sky.
I think in many ways we’re all in the chrysalis stage at the moment. Confined and waiting for that freedom to flutter off to wherever we want to go, see who we want to see, and be who we want to be, but real transformation takes time and the right conditions. There are those among us with health and socioeconomic realities as fragile as butterfly wings. We’ve all been there or will be in our lives. Now, if ever, is the time for us to set aside all the partisan nonsense, pull our collective heads from our backsides, and take a long hard look at the realities we’re facing as a nation and as human beings. For too long we’ve been feeding off the milkweed of mother earth and become ravenous insatiable caterpillars, and now that could be over. We can pause, reflect, take stock in what is important in our lives: family, friends, culture, nature, health, equality, justice, art, music, love, laughter. So many touchstones of our humanity. Everything else is the detritus we leave behind when we gain our wings. We can seize this moment and transform into something beautiful, together. I know that.
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