Bittersweet

Pema had removed her shoes, insisting that she was warmer in stocking feet. She was dancing in the snow. Having sat in the car for the past five hours, the wide open sky and endless snowscape of Lama Mountain had beckoned both of us outside. Home. Like a sprite, she sashayed, danced and leaped through the dry, sparkling powder. I stood still, hands warm in my pockets. The earth was silent. Every direction seemed endlessly empty, and full. In the distance, a black car crawled down the icy road. The end was not quite here, but it was so damn close.

 

We had been in much the same place a year ago. Megan and I had recently separated, and after an extended trip to see family, just me and Pema, we had made the long journey from Denver Airport, south across the Colorado border, down past Questa, to Lama. We had seen our cousins in Denver, flown to Cleveland to see Grandma and Grandpa, Uncle Peter, and dozens of other extended family members. After five months of reconciling with the separation of our nuclear family, I had been in the nest of old family and friends, united and bonded with Pema, sharing the joys and special occasions of our large, Catholic family. The trip back with Pema was full of laughter and song, and reminiscence. It had been so wonderful that it hit me like a hammer when Megan drove down the icy slope of the Forest Service road that leads up to Lama. We exchanged brief greetings, a bag of clothes. It was getting dark, and cold. All three of us wished to be home. As Megan and Pema drove away, I returned to my car seat, and slumped. Turning the ignition, the heat fan came on like the sound of a distant river. Warm air blew across my face. I was crying. I hadn’t expected this. Hadn’t the last week meant anything? Was it gone so suddenly?

 

I spent the next few weeks in grief, questioning whether one week of joy was worth all this misery. My life as I understood it had ended. My role as a father and husband had unraveled. I already knew this, but the closeness and joy of my recent trip with Pema drove home the fact that I was, after all, alone. No one was holding my hand. Pema didn’t belong to me. It wasn’t that I was hopeless, or that I wasn’t needed. It was just that I didn’t know who I was anymore. The story I had been living with for so many years had evaporated, and I was alone in a way I had never reckoned with before. It was a sort of death, but I was still clinging to the life I knew.

 

A year later, now just a few days ago, I stood in almost exactly the same spot on the earth, having taken almost exactly the same trip with Pema to see Grandma and Grandpa, Uncle Peter, our cousins and dozens of extended family members. We had even gone ice skating. Now, I was dreading letting go.

 

It was cold when Pema and I had left Taos, but the snow we returned to was a surprise, the first real snow of the year. It was only a couple of inches, but I had not yet put the snow tires on my car, and the road up to Lama was steep and unplowed. I didn’t want to chance it. So there we were, just like last year, waiting at the s-curves, the junction between the more serviceable county road and the unmaintained Forest Service road. The air was magnificent, and the pips and squeaks of small birds accented the enormity of the silence after hours of the dull background noise of the car. In the distance, creeping down the icy road like the careful paws of a black cat in the snow, was Megan’s car.

 

I have come to love the bittersweet, almost as much as I love anticipation. Happiness is unquestionably pleasant, but it’s often attended by ignorance and negligence. Sadness and anger have a weight and importance to them, but there’s no getting around the fact that they feel wretched. Bittersweet is the most complete, the most austere, the most integrated, and somehow the most pleasant. It combines happiness and sadness, leaving me with the feeling of robust presence coupled with eternity. It has all the joy of happiness, but is attenuated by something like knowledge or wisdom. In bittersweet moments, I sense a tension within that reveals a range of experience like nothing else, like traveling by foot to look out from a promontory over a vast and diverse landscape.

 

Do you remember skating with Grandpa and me? It was your first time. You had been asking for months, and I was putting it off. I thought you would grow frustrated when you realized how challenging it is, the slipping and falling. It was probably a bit of laziness too. When our flight to Denver was canceled, we suddenly had four hours, and when Grandpa came back to the airport to pick us up, strange luck, he said, it was just the moment of public skate at the rink. Did we want to go? It was the same rink I skated on when I grew up. But it had been so many years.

 

We talked over things as we laced up our skates. We had the outdoor rink, so it was going to be cold the woman behind the counter had said. She was patient, and after kindly pointing out the differences in the skates, she set down a pair, a hybrid that had short, curved blades like a hockey skate, but a toe point for grip and breaking. “These are the ones most people prefer,” she said, and I eyed at them with excitement, feeling their heft and the cold metal of the blade against the skin of my hand. It had been more than twenty years. “Here’s the thing about skates,” I said, after we sat down to change, “You have to tie them really tight.” Glancing through the window, we could see a solitary old man performing graceful loops around the rink.

 

Grandpa and I held your hands as we stepped onto the ice for the first time. There was a little metal walker too, but I wanted you to feel the warmth and safety of our human tether the first time out. The old man was on the far side of the rink. Otherwise, we had the entire place to ourselves. We stepped onto that giant skin of ice, as if onto another world. The momentum of our last footstep on solid ground carried us away from the walls of the rink, and there we were, the three of us gliding forward gently out onto the ice. It was twelve o’clock, Wednesday.

 

“Okay pup, here we go,” I said, smiling, but uncertain. I made a few, small strokes with my legs, left and right, watching my father do the same. You held on like a wet noodle in the middle, but we stayed up. “That’s another thing,” I said, filling the emptiness of my uncertainty with words, “You don’t really walk. You have to push your legs left and right, and then you just glide forward. It takes a balance…” I went on continuously, pointlessly. We made a short loop, you fumbling and wiggling, but somehow Grandpa and I, to my surprise, managed to keep us all on our feet. As I talked, I discovered a confidence in my legs that I had not expected.

 

Once, in late high school, I had gone skating with friends. It had been five or six years since I skated regularly, but I had figured it was like riding a bike. So I was surprised and embarrassed to find myself slipping all over the place. I was hardly any better than the beginners. What had I lost? And what was different this time? Maybe it was the skates.

 

We swung back toward the door for a rest. “I don’t know, pup, what do you think? Want to try the walker?” It didn’t take long for you to realize just how hard it was going to be. Your images of gliding over the ice, like professional skaters, quickly reconciled with our awkward movements and your inability to maintain even the simplest balance. Grandpa and I, hands and legs firm, did our best to keep you afloat without tripping ourselves, but it was almost as if we were carrying you. That was the mistake. Relying on me and Grandpa to keep you up, it took but a few short minutes to count yourself out. You were done, you said, almost crying with frustration. This was the moment I had anticipated.

 

But damn if something wasn’t magic in the air. I guided you to the exit and set you up where you could watch through the Plexiglas wall of the rink. “Let me just see what I can do,” I said, sort of asking permission to leave you by yourself, daunted and uncertain. I felt conflicted, but it had been so long, and I felt more confidence in my legs than I had expected. I wanted to take a turn by myself, following my own center of gravity. I had a sense that I could really scoot. “Watch me,” I said, “you push left and right. It’s not like walking.” I took a few gentle strokes and suddenly came alive. I took a cautious lap, getting my “sea legs” under me, and then took off, nearly racing across the ice.

 

Pumping my legs left and right, swinging my arms and hips, I could feel the strength coursing down through my torso, through the outer flank of my thighs and knees. The subtle musculature of my ankles held my skates sharply in place as I carved through turns, suddenly recalling the little slip step of my left leg as it drifted behind my right ankle, speeding faster through each turn. How was I doing this? Don’t you remember high school?

 

I was magnificent. So was Grandpa, though he wasn’t testing the waters as vigorously as I. Years ago, when I was ten years old, I was able to dart in and out of dozens of people, flicking and lighting through a crowd of skaters with friends at my back and front. We were a hazard, no doubt, but we were sure-footed and spindly. We could make sudden stops, spraying a coat of ice crystals as high as an unsuspecting friend’s chest, and then speed off in the other direction before he had a chance to retaliate. Once, by accident, I lost my footing on such a high-speed “hockey stop” too near the rink wall. I woke up seconds later (was it minutes?) being carried off the ice by a kindly old man.

 

I was so enthralled with my muscle memory and relative skill that I wasn’t paying much attention to you. Suddenly, after three or four laps, I found you back on the ice. You had picked up the little walker and come out of your own accord. You were leaning on the walker and making careful, confident strides. “Hey!” I shouted, curving past you, our eyes sharing the joy of possibility. I continued to skate freely across the ice, shouting “Look at me! Look at me!” and with each minute you grew more confident and capable. Then you fell. I slowly skated up to you, keeping silent, waiting for your reaction instead of rushing to your aide. You smiled. No big deal. Picking yourself back up, we acknowledged that it’s not much different from falling outside. A moment a later, I fell too, and we both laughed.

 

You had to master your own balance - that was it. When Grandpa and I were holding your hands, you weren’t able to feel your own center of gravity. Your whole balance was off. So was mine. We were tangled like goofballs, just barely keeping from falling, and you could feel the anxiety coursing through each of us. But then we let go. I raced, Grandpa swirled, and you just watched. Damn, that was the best moment of my life. I didn’t encourage you. You were just suddenly on the ice all by yourself. There was an inner joy glowing in each one of us, tethered loosely by our eyes and hearts. We did that for an hour. Your first time. I was so proud.

 

A few hours later we returned to the airport. After a long plane trip, we spent the night with our cousins, making the long drive in the late morning and afternoon to New Mexico. Now, after nearly twenty-four hours of traveling, we stood in the snow in Lama, watching Megan’s car draw close. I felt the pangs of uncertainty and distraction. I wanted to hold onto you and never let go. I wanted to absorb the sadness of the moment in packing up clothes and bags, anything to keep moving. But I didn’t.

 

After Pema drove away with Megan, I sat down in the car. I turned the ignition and the heat fan came on. Pema had been so excited to see her mom, feigning aloofness. “Where are your shoes?” Megan had shouted playfully, as Pema laughed and hopped through the snow. But it was getting cold, and dark. We exchanged a bag of clothes, brief greetings. All three of us wished to be home.

 

There had been a lot of pain in the last year, but just as much reconciliation and love. After reconciling my loss, I had found my path as a single father, and there was no doubt it was a strong and confident one. I hadn’t lost Pema. We had our own way. And Megan and I were great friends, if no longer lovers. We were co-parents, mutually sharing one of the greatest joys of life. There was trust and compassion between us. I watched the car climbing up the icy road, Megan and Pema warm inside. I put my car in gear, leaned on the steering wheel, and slowly crept out onto the ice.