A Publication by Wild Earth Spiritual Community
Susan Jill Mitchell
Salmon were running the July I took my dad’s ashes to Alaska. The sockeyes’ emerald heads and luminous red bodies were battered by their swim for ancestral spawning grounds. Skin split open by predator teeth and claws revealed gaping wounds so on display I could only take quick glances at the fish as they forced their way upstream, driven by a purpose far beyond their almost-over lives.
My dad fell hopelessly in love with the vastness and wild goings-on his first trip to the last frontier, where he mixed business with fishing the North Pacific’s deep waters. An unexpected lifelong friendship with a local charter captain was the connection my dad needed to heed the pull that never-to-be-tamed place had on him. His longing for mind-bending beauty and the taste of wild in the air ceaselessly called him back, so he did exactly that until old age and illness altered his course, robbing him of the ruggedness one requires for such adventures.
Holgate Glacier is calving; letting loose house-size chunks of ice that free fall five hundred feet, smashing down into Aialik Bay’s dreamy aqua water with such force that the surf can only rise up in towering foam-tipped tidal waves. The sounds of what’s to come don’t lend themselves to any real timing of when Holgate’s invisible forward motion will create just the right instability the outward facing wall of snow pack needs to chunk off a motherlode. Ricochets of cracking, groaning, and thunderous booming lift my forearm hairs to attention. This sensation overload is equal doses mesmerizing and eerie. Forehead crinkled, mouth hanging wide open, I am suspended in this perplexed expression, motionless and lost in the beauty of this visceral natural display.
Our captain has throttled down so we can drift a decent distance away from the churning breakers. My older sister Lisa is right here with me, but it feels more like a scene from a movie than my real life when I lean over the boat’s stern and let loose handfuls of chalky grit and bone. I don’t dare blink as the current first holds him quietly, and then swells, pushing and pulling silvery chunks and gravelly remains farther and wider – giving my father more purchase on a place that filled him in only the way finding your heartland can do.
I stare at the fine particles that once made up a man I had mostly disdain for before I taught myself how to love him. Somewhat astounded that I have pulled this off, I can FEEL his surprise. And maybe mine too, as I’ve come through for him in a way that doesn’t feel like anything he earned. It will take years for me to understand that Alaska’s good medicine was always also for me.
I have to sift through this pride and happiness stuff; daddy-related sentiments are beyond foreign to me with the role I was forced into as protector in my family. While I saw more than enough of other fathers to know that they could be kind, calm, and even happy and fun, I did not get one of those men.
My father’s explosive temper was a lurking, lethal predator – a life force all its own, and when he put the finishing touches on lambasting my mother for making a checkbook error, “Laurel you are so fucking stupid,” she ran upstairs crying, careful to quietly close their bedroom door. As was the pattern, Dad and his rage left the house H.A.R.D. When our front door painted my mom’s favorite color red slammed, the house shook and the brass knocker rose and fell, rose and fell, rose and fell, until the force behind the slam dissipated and I could not NOT hear my kindergarten teacher mom’s muffled sobs.
My earliest memories mostly involved worrying. Four or five years old, crouched over the potato bug stuck upside down on the sidewalk while the neighborhood kids tore around my front yard, lost in the screaming laughter of tag you’re it. Me a few years older, hypervigilant to the stranger asleep on the train. Filled with panic, I pulled hard on my grandma’s arm, “He’s going to miss his stop. I know it. DO something.” A fiery born-and-raised New Yorker, she only laughed, but no one was laughing at eight-year-old me the first time I stepped between my parents and screamed at my father to leave my mom alone.
Forced into the job of don’t-you-dare-talk-to-her-that-way, I took to it as effortlessly as a fish opens her mouth to breathe. And no one stopped me, my childhood sacrificed to the vicious cycle of stepping in, making it stop, and then taking the blame. I wish I could go backwards through the universe and tell my then little-girl self that it does her heart and soul no good to hide on the dark staircase, listening again to my oblivious father, “Laurel, why does she keep acting this way? I don’t understand.”
By my teens, I was a fully formed she-wolf, a mother-bear quick on the defense and skilled at sensing looming fury even before his rage geared up. I don’t know that I could have turned it off even if my mom had relieved me of this burden. Pretty soon I was the one seething at the embarrassment of taking our family act public.
He is sitting in a chair, his slight frame dwarfed by the seat’s throne-like proportions. Raising his mug high above his head is all it takes for my stomach to clench, sticky sweat beading on my palms. I know what’s to come and I want to make myself small and die before total strangers turn towards us in shock. His ugly expression and loud, harsh words are already loaded for the Hamburger Hamlet waitress who would never have guessed she is already on his shit list. He wants his coffee H.O.T goddamnit.
Making a scene became our family thing, him scaring people and me working the room, profusely apologizing to strangers. Lisa, a naturally sympathetic and gentle woman, swears my mom did step in. “Joel, calm down. Joel, that’s not nice.” Every time my sister and I talk through these memories, I have to sit on my clenched fists and fight the urge to scream THAT’s a try?
When his bone fragments take on water, I lift my gaze and my breath catches in my throat. A harbor seal has been spying on me, liquidy black eyes shining against her mottled gray head. It’s all I can see of her covert positioning as she bobs upright, tucked behind the ice floe a few yards away. Whatever her reason, she keeps extending her head around the low corner’s edge of her icy hidey spot to look at me, only to pull her head out of sight again and again. My whole body softens and sags. I just want to melt into the lightheartedness of this moment so I don’t call out to her that I’ve seen her pretty face three times already.
I’m envious of my new seal friend. In my house, there was no safe place to take cover, and I never once saw my parents talk through a conflict. A relentless ache inhabited the places in me that needed to hear my dad apologize to my mother just one single time. I was still waiting as I grew into a woman in my 30’s, home just to visit, numbly staring at glowing embers in the fireplace and listening to that bedroom door softly click, me caught stupidly off guard waiting for the front door to stop shaking. Whatever caused that explosion wouldn’t be any different than the same, decades-long list of infractions.
Forgetting to give my dad a phone message. “Ahhhh sssshhhhhhit Laurel.” Food not prepared to his liking. “Goddamnit it Laurel this meat is fucking ruined AGAIN.” Having the misfortune of sitting in the passenger seat of the car when my dad got himself good and lost, again. “Ahhh Fuck. I’m turning this fucking car around right now and going home Laurel. I don’t give a sssshhhhit. Fuck.” My sister remembers Mom telling him to calm down. I only remember watching my mother silently turn her head and shift her gaze to somewhere, anywhere, outside of the inside of this dismal family ride. She never once looked back at me, her child.
My mom’s inability to defend herself baffled me. She was my favorite person in the universe. We even had a secret language that doubled us over most days in hysterical laughter, and that too infuriated my father. But it was me, and only me, rearing up to strike down his verbal blows.
Family dinners were miserable. Me sitting hostage in my chair, unfortunately positioned at his side, like some kind of buffer between him and my mom and sister. I eased into my chair in slow-motion, as if my weird way of sitting down could ward off the insults just waiting to explode from his ugly mouth. Night after night, year after year, I sat teeth clenched, willing my mother to do something, say something in her own defense. Cook your own fucking dinner I wanted to roar. Pretty soon I was living with, and trying to hide, a separate anger, this one for my mother.
Now I can only feel such sadness for my then-self that I did not yet understand the balm of wild spaces. I might have taken to them and never looked back.
This expedition to Alaska was only supposed to be for my father, and in the beginning, I wasn’t even slightly curious to explore what compelled me to take this on for a man that mostly scared me and let me down. But this landscape, just being tiny in a colossal space felt like exactly where I also needed to be. And the water, well—the water. Aialik full of bobbing icebergs, the river Kenai the most brilliant turquoise-meets-jade I never knew existed, translucent Russian Falls with its tiered fish ladder to help those precious salmon force their way home. These liquid travel routes connected me back to the calmer moments my father and I shared, the only memories I’ll ever have that are as close to good as we got. It was only ever on the water.
By my third morning in this dreamscape I knew that a lifetime was not enough to explore a place of 12,000 rivers. Waiting to board our boat in the fishing port of Seward, I counted 18 bald eagles coasting in to meet vessels returning from sea, ship decks loaded with enormous bins of halibut and red snapper.
Motoring down Resurrection Bay, the wind whips salty blasts of cold spray on my face and I almost don’t recognize my own laughter. Port side, I’m watching a colony of Steller Sea Lions precariously balanced on a jumble of massive basalt boulders at the base of a sheer cliff side. A female has positioned herself between her calf and male counterpart, who is lumbering directly towards the pair. The massive bull is deceptively agile, curling and unfurling like a one-ton, 10-foot slinky. My chest vibrates from the reverberation of his low-pitched roaring, and I am scared for the smaller seals. The chocolate-brown youngster disappears from my view as the cow takes up her defensive stance, directly facing a threat that outweighs her nearly three-to-one.
Mother protecting child mirrored for me in the most feral of ways. That parent is not waiting to see who will fight for her pup and there is absolutely no misinterpreting her intention. You are going to have to get through me first. It is just too much for my battered spirit to SEE what could have been for me. I turn my back but can make out the colony’s reflection in our craft’s salt-stained windows. Forcing my gaze down to the water is the only thing I know to do to try to ease the pain that feels like that bull seal has settled his weight right on my heart.
Inexplicably, water, and boating, leveled the playing field for my dad and me. Narrow inlets, wide open bays, twisting rivers teeming with elusive rockfish—it hardly mattered the size or form. These were the only places we adapted different roles, slipping effortlessly into partnership with our first boat, the tiny, yellow Li’l Lulu, and then the much bigger Puffin. My father was captain when we left port or docked. On open water, I took the helm, entrusted to navigate while he tinkered, watched the depth finder for fish we never caught, or listened in on Coast Guard distress calls. I had critical roles and I excelled at them; even in rough seas he treated me as a competent first mate.
We never once talked about why we weren’t enemies on the water, and as a teenager it did confuse me. Decades later, I’ll choose to accept it was almost too simple—a mere shift in family dynamics. On the water, he had no wife to abuse, and I had no need for the hyper alertness that accompanies the readiness of attack mode.
In Alaska, I’ll spend more time in, on, under, and watching water than I will with my boots touching soil. Before this epic journey, I thought I might stop thinking about my father once I gave him to Aialik. But in this land of three million lakes, memories don’t even slightly lessen. The best I get are breaks, hours at a time where I am perfectly lost in beauty—like rafting the Kenai River. The ancestral places in me stir and connect to this ancient meltwater so alive in astonishing hues of green. Mile after mile, both banks are lined with the land’s First Nations people, their glossy black hair the color of raven in full sun. We take care to keep the raft center-river as the July spawn is THE time to fish for their winter sustenance.
Thigh-deep in the shallows, they are pulling in lifeblood salmon as fast as hooks plunk into water. Both river banks are jammed with so many women, men, and kids casting that they stand just shy of shoulder-to-shoulder. All shapes and sizes, some fish in tall wading boots, some in sweatpants, some in their skivvies. The air sizzles with the zinging of hands cranking reels at unbelievable speeds to drag in exhausted fish. The salmon fight back right up to the instant they are punched in the head H.A.R.D., sometimes more than once, now lifeless in what I have no choice but to accept as a respectful, swift end.
I’m suddenly sad that my dad and I rarely talked about the little things, and now I’ll never know his end-of-life ritual for the fish he loved deeply. In the early years of my grief I’ll think about those fortunate Kenai salmon taking in their last mouthful of wild river before they are suddenly dead. I will think it immeasurably unfair that there is no end to me suffering my complicated grief from a complicated relationship with a complicated man.
I’ll stay in Alaska a good while longer, changing remote cabins by raft, loving every second of bunking with my teenage nephews and fueling my spirit with their excited-to-be-alive energy. I’ll spend my 48th birthday sitting a blue-eyed paint mare, trusting her with loose reins to pick her way through Chugach’s seven-million-acre forest. We’re in canid country now, and I only hope that this flashy mare and I catch the gaze of brother wolf as we cover ground quietly on the soft footing of needles let loose by Sitka Spruce and Mountain Hemlocks. “I know you see us,” I whisper to my wild friends, my heart full of love for, well, just everything here.
Later, on an endorphin-fueled sprint up a peninsula’s cliff side, I’ll hear the distinct, rapid fire clack clack clack of a bear clicking her teeth together, her nearby bulk camouflaged by dense alder brush thickets. I’ll understand perfectly her message of I’m right here. I was fast back then and I laughed hard enough to snort, imaging her startled WTF was that? as I whizzed by. I skid to a walk to avoid triggering any counter action on her part, and I almost cry with relief that I feel this alive.
By day eight of this pilgrimage, I’ll stop counting the eagles that sit with their life mates in low fir limbs, watching us float by. I’ll go on to stand barefoot in glacier melt runoff, looking happily down at wiggling toes I can no longer feel. That afternoon when no one is looking, I’ll get down on all fours and press my cheek into mud, leaving my impression dwarfed in the hind print of Alaska’s apex land predator. “I’m here too, friend,” I tell grizzly. “Your range is magnificent.” I hardly care that crouching in tall grass has left me vulnerable in bear country; it feels like exactly the right thing to do.
The experiences only get more surreal. Touching down on Punchbowl Glacier, I’ll step off the helicopter into frozen other land where ice and sky meet seamlessly. It doesn’t help to turn my head left or right or up or down looking for any semblance of where glacier stops and atmosphere starts. Eventually I stop trying to orient to anything, trusting our sled dog team to not race us off into thin air.
Leaving Alaska is complicated. I don’t want to return to a tamed existence, and I am beginning to sense that it is no coincidence I brought my father and myself here during the spawn. The fish will return to their places of birth to reproduce and die. It soothes me to imagine their souls released from battered skin and bone that becomes rich fat and protein for carnivores, nutrients for the water.
The salmon’s struggle to exist is not unlike what unfolds for me in the years following my dad’s death. I’ll know the feeling that I too might not make it, grief a relentless alien intrusion. I endure more loss, heartsick and shell shocked—staring in the mirror confused that my inside feels dead but my outside looks just fine. It will be close to a decade before I experience the fleeting but distinct knowing that I am shedding the very things that weighed me down, that never belonged with me to begin with. Alaska started the dying off of those parts of me, creating slivers of space to let in who I might be.
I’m pushing 40 to my dad’s 72 when he survives a boating accident in Maryland, shattering his hip on a piling he grabbed for while on patrol in choppy water. Now a volunteer Coast Guard Flotilla Captain, man overboard would have been an embarrassment. He may have saved his own life that day, but what follows will become a spiral down to near fatal sepsis, too many lights-and-sirens runs for critical care, and months spent bedbound waiting out infection as willful as him.
We don’t know any of this yet and my dad is in the midst of morphine hallucinations when I walk into his hospital room. Propped up in bed watching the wall in front of him, his face is glowing with rapture. His head is moving back and forth slowly, his eyes wide and shining. I freeze mid-stride, frightened that he has had a brain bleed. I have NEVER seen this expression of genuine joy and wonder. “Look at that. Ohhhhhhh. Maaaaaannn.” I watch the wall to appease him, timing my head movements to sneak peaks at his face. He turns to me “Do you see it?” I fear he may never walk again so I tread lightly. “Yeah Dad, I do. What’s happening now?”
This is how I come to know that he is watching a huge male sockeye slowly cruising the wall, a gentle flick of its white-tipped caudal fin propelling the fish into a U-turn for another glide down the room. Once I catch on to what we are doing, I add a descriptive feature or two of my own so we can share this experience.
It is the first time in my life I have seen my father vulnerable and my stomach clenches at the thought of his helplessness. Later that day he will accuse me of forgetting to RSVP to a party that doesn’t exist. He glares at me, unblinking, as I pick up his nightstand phone, fake-dial, and apologize to no one that we will not be in attendance. When his mother, dead now 20 years, beckons him from the doorway that night, he pulls out both IVs and the weaning off the morphine begins quite abruptly.
I stay by his side straight through the next night, sleepless and listening in on the nurses talking in the hallway. His nightmares are gruesome and I can see the fear in his taut expression and wide eyes as he wakes repeatedly, turning towards me to describe another horror movie scenario – creating the space I’ve never been offered before to feel protective of him. I lean down close to his face “Dad, I’m staying right here all night. You won’t be alone.” He looks so small and frail that when I tuck his blanket back in place, I fight back tears at how much space he does not take up in the hospital bed.
The torturous trial and error of finding sufficient pain control is a turning point for me, and maybe him too. Even still, he’s outrageously bossy with his total loss of control that the nurses address his demands with “Aye Aye, Captain Joel.” After a while even that pisses him off, but it doesn’t stop me from uncontrollable laughter every single time they say it. I wish I knew then that my father and I only had eight more years left to know each other. That’s not much time to share when I’ve only just begun to see him as human.
Later, I will decide that his accident was a gift to us, even if our new roles were born of necessity. He was weaker now, scared, and there was less energy behind his lashing out. The Puffin was long since donated to the Coast Guard but I was back on his team. Only this time my role revolved around learning grace and taking him from one specialist to another, and then to Popeye’s for his favorite fried chicken.
My father ate meat on the bone, to the rest of our family’s disgust, with the gusto of a starved barbarian. Mouth smeared with glistening animal fat, nothing was off limits. Not even the stretchy white ligaments that sometimes made a hideous squeaking noise as he chewed. The squishy sounds he made biting down on gristle, the sharp crack of snapping bone to noisily suck marrow, heated up my body while sour bile rose in my throat. He reminded me often that he grew up eating this way, but his indifference to our revulsion only added to my misery.
Despite his deteriorating health, winter in Florida was still my parents’ routine, but those times too became more taxing on us all as my dad’s independence rapidly slipped away. No one wanted to be a passenger in his car anymore, and he was too unstable to wobble over even a gentle rise in the beach sand to reach the only thing that calmed him: long views of his beloved oceans.
On a happy, blue sky day in what became my father’s last spring, I answer my phone without shifting my gaze from the gorgeous elder oak that has my full attention. It’s my sister, her voice shaking. She is in Florida, having come straight from vacation to my father’s hospital bedside, and I need to come NOW.
He has been fighting a relentless battle; his opponent a rare kidney cancer long since metastasized. True to form my dad has already outlived his expected expiration date, but he has been dying for so long that his closer-than-ever-to-death catches us all off guard. I book a next-day flight and spend the night sitting on my sofa staring at the green and red glow from a string of chili pepper lights keeping me company in a dark house. Dawn breaks and I’m undecided as to whether I want him to be alive when I get there.
He is far closer to death than life when I see him the next day, his body in catastrophic organ failure. He has been moved to the hospice wing and my learning curve for what this all means is ruthlessly steep. I watch him, his sun bronzed skin and salt and pepper hair a harsh contrast to the bed’s bright white sheets and pillows. When I softly tell him I am there, his whole body jerks and he opens his eyes and tries to stir, a panicked look on his face. This is only the beginning, but his look haunts me that very night, and I sit on the portico numbly watching dark skies invite the stars to shine, until night eases into pink dawn.
My mom and sister spend more time in the Quiet Room at the end of the hall than by his bedside, so from the start I am left to tend to his death. I’m up to speed fast because Angel, our hospice nurse, spares me not one single detail of what’s to come, how it may look, and when to know.
Over the next few days Lisa, Mom, and I come and go, never staying by his bedside for long. We do bizarrely normal things like go to a movie, get pedicures, and sit on the beach. Our absence from his dying feels cruel but I have been thrown into uncharted waters. I do not know how to protect my mother without leaving my father helpless and alone. In time, I will learn to accept that my mom and sister could not bear witness to his death journey. Their retreat was my way into the most intimate experience of my father’s life and my life—our journey together as he left this existence for whatever comes next.
On his last day earth-side, I walked into his room and was stunned to see him take a breath that required such effort his entire head and neck drooped down to his right chest, and then swung up ominously high above the opposite shoulder, his mouth gaping open. I’ve seen this agonal breathing firsthand in animals and instantly know we are almost there.
Easing myself onto his bed, I watched every detail of his next few breaths before I force my mouth open. “Dad, you are dying. Do you understand that?” Heavily sedated and motionless for days, he almost scared me right off the bed when he opened his eyes, and I could feel the mighty effort he gave in steadying his wobbly head, searching for a sightline to my face. “Yeah,” he grunted.
Heart racing, fighting the urge to panic, I hurry it up. “Dad, Lisa and I will take care of Mom forever.” When I try to tell him a lie, “Dad, you have been a good father,” my voice falters, but I force myself to finish this sentence. In that moment, it seemed like something any father would want to hear. It hardly matters now. I reach for his hand, wrapping my fingers carefully around his palm. “I got you. Let go.” One more excruciating slow intake of air, and then nothing.
It takes me a very long time to tear my gaze from his face, and force myself off that bed and down the long hall to the Quiet Room. Opening that door and telling my mother and sister what has happened is going to be the most horrible minutes of my existence.
There is no way to process the timing of this…the odds that it would be me walking into his room. Twelve years later, I still feel sick at the thought of him hanging on, waiting for my mother, or me, or just anyone, because who wants to die alone?
I spend the next decade thinking about the gift I gave a man on his last breath, and I wonder if what he gave me was a decent trade. It was an honorable thing for him to model grit, drive, and discipline. I have them all and mostly use them well. But I was also a scared and angry child who couldn’t befriend human vulnerability until my 30’s.
Growing up, my safety came in any, and all, forms of animal. Intuitively leaning into these relationships, it was animals who offered an abundance of affection, with congruent behaviors that made sense to me. My mom made sure that I was never without fish, or hamsters, or mice, or guinea pigs and even a wiggly ferret that went to the movies with me, his musky scent enveloping us as he slept contently under my sweatshirt.
I loved bumpy creek toads and chickens with the same devotion that I heaped on goats and caterpillars. I tasted their grain and chow, drank from their troughs, curled up in their straw – anything to be more like them. Since childhood, animals accepted me just as I was. With their repeated choices to simply let me be part of their day, these friends reflected back that I was a gentle and safe person. They know such things. It was their collective lessons that helped me see that kindness in my dad’s most helpless moment was a reflection of something I didn’t know I could be—a woman willing to go all out because it feels right—even for someone that didn’t come close to what you needed them to be.
I am in my mid-50’s before I am ready to unpack a box of stone carvings my parents collected on their Alaska trips. I tentatively pull bubble wrap away from a fish that fits perfectly in my palm. The stone’s natural patinas mimic chinook salmon markings—light gray body flecked in black with orangey-pink smudges and a perfectly etched downturned mouth. I knew exactly who picked this one out.
When I put the fish on my desk, the carving unexpectedly becomes my talisman, propelling me to finally share this part of my life, bridging the gap that I have been unable to revisit until now. There are days where I can’t stop writing and I do not feel in control of this process. This recounting feels like it is telling itself, words flying across the desktop screen when an unintentional backhand sweep of my hand knocks salmon over—hard.
The shock of seeing fish’s tail cracked off stops time. I’m stunned motionless, breathless. How can this stone, so unyielding, be so fragile, so easily damaged? Super glue reattaches tail to body, but now, just like me and maybe my dad too, Salmon has a massive, but nearly impossible to see, jagged tear to suffer.
My wounds, my heartsick years took so much from me—energy, health, time, happiness. Taking and taking until I could not imagine myself as anything other than an empty form. But what I couldn’t see then was the letting go. The fading of disappointment towards my father and the shedding of anger dangerously misdirected at myself was a coming-to-life in a way I had never known. My metamorphosis had its own murky timeline full of blind corners and impossibly long stretches of continued misery that left me numbly hanging on, no end in sight as I rode out time.
This was my father’s idea of a compliment: “You are like a dog with a bone. When you want something you don’t let go.” He was not wrong. I did refuse to let go, to even loosen my grip on the possibility of a happy existence, digging in and scrabbling for every inch of forward momentum toward my own hard-fought fondness for myself.
Just like my dad, a wild place pulled me into her open arms. I initially went to the high desert of southern Utah for respite at an animal sanctuary, and then I couldn’t stay away. So I didn’t. Going west every few months, I quickly collected friends that felt like family. Red sandstone canyon walls, and ancient petroglyphs, 30-mile views and scrambles to high-elevation lookouts for quiet like that I did not know existed. And animals, lots of animals.
I kept going back not because I understood what for, but because that land pulled me to her. Millions of acres of wilderness were what I needed to feel safe enough to even begin to grieve my losses. Finding my heartland too late to tell my dad “I totally get it” is one of my greatest sorrows. I would have liked for him to know how grateful I am that he somehow passed along to me his love for, his need for, untamed spaces. This understanding goes a long way in helping balance the other ways that I know I was shortchanged.
Now I understand what the calved ice of Holgate Glacier has always known to be true. I was that ice once, for what felt like eternity, until forced out in the open, splitting from what I knew, freefalling with enough force to create enormous counter actions, and then set adrift to make my own way.