February 29, 1972

On February 27, 1972 I was at Winter Park with my friend Susie and her family. They were from Chicago, had rented a large cabin and we were all having a GREAT time. The next day it snowed heavily, and I was gripped with a terrible and irrational apprehension that we wouldn’t be able to get back to Denver that day. I had an exam the next day, as I recall. Still, it shouldn’t have mattered, but it did. I was bossing everyone around, putting cardboard under stuck wheels and generally being a pain in the ass. We made it back to Denver and, safe and snug in my dorm room, I went to sleep.

The next morning — a bright and shining day — I went to my 9 am history class. About 30 minutes into it, someone from my dorm called out my prof and he came back and asked me to come with him. I walked with this woman back to the dorm office where my Aunt Martha was standing. I knew everything just seeing her there.

“Martha Ann, you dad passed away last night. It’s for the best.”

I couldn’t argue that it wasn’t for the best. He’d suffered a lot during the last two years from deterioration caused by MS. My aunt went up to my room with me and I packed.

I didn’t feel anything until I saw him in the casket at the mortuary. I reached into the casket to hold his hand as I had innumerable times at the nursing home when he was in one coma or another. The hand was cold, unbelievably cold, and then I knew that all my love really COULDN’T save his life. My aunt Kelly and uncle Johnny were with me and took me out of the room and sat with me until I calmed down. After that, I held it together, helping my mom contact family, taking clothes to the mortuary, even reading from my dad’s favorite poem during the service in Colorado Springs. I was pretty OK until the funeral in Montana when the casket was placed in the ground when I lost it again. Fortunately, my grandmother was there and we sheltered together in the limousine.

My dad died at 45. I’m 23 years older than he was when he died. Sometime in my late 30s I realized I was about to live the life my dad couldn’t. That meant something to me.

When this day rolls around every four years I’m a little messed up. Luckily, this time, I was here in the San Luis Valley, and it exerted all of its magic for me today. I had reason to write a blog post that meant something to me. Then I went to the Rio Grande County Museum with some notecards to sell, but also to see how the new show — Colorado and the Suffrage Movement — was doing. Louise, who runs the museum, is an amazing woman, and I sense we share a common heart. She told me about some of her new discoveries and then her husband, Alex, came in. Alex has lived here forever, his family has lived here forever. He’s a pretty incredible person, too. We talked about runaway horses, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the ventilation of potato cellars and much, much more. I love learning about this place, and I left feeling a little intoxicated.

From there I drove west to take a photo of another potato cellar I hope to paint, one that’s in terrible condition. I went to the store and came home to find that one of my stories (originally published here in my blog) won first prize at a contest I entered in December, a contest held by the Alamosa Library’s literary magazine, Messages from the Hidden Lake. There was a party last week, but I forgot about it. 🙂

After lunch, I took Bear to the golf course so she could roll in whatever snow remains (there was some). On the way I stopped to talk to the kids and their mom. I heard yet another amazing story about her dad, on horseback, in the mountains, going over a little ravine and his horse fell on him. His dog — a dog like Bear — Zip — stayed with him and protected him until help came more than 12 hours later. Zip even wanted to get on the helicopter.

Bear and I took a wandering ramble nowhere in the world of smells that is Bear’s somewhere. Fifty cranes flew over us, calling to each other. On the way back, the little girl was in the yard and we had a long talk about little brothers. She told me that sometimes she and her little brother (two years younger, just like my brother and me) have terrible fights. I told her my brother and I did, too.

“What do you fight about?” she asked me.

“Oh, you know, ‘Get out of my room!’ ‘That’s not YOURS! It’s MINE!'”

She nodded in profound understanding and told me about a time that her little brother helped her clean her room.

“Yeah, that’s a good brother,” I told her.

“Once my brother hurt my feelings. He said he didn’t love me.” She looked sad.

“He didn’t mean it. That’s just little brothers. You know, my brother was my best friend.”

She nodded. “Yeah, but someday we will have our own families and won’t live together any more.”

“He’ll still be your brother.”

She smiled and launched into a wonderful long story about a game of pretend they’d played after seeing Frozen. It was wonderful, involving, as it did, an evil snow man and an enchanted forest.

All this has been the gift this miraculous valley has given me on this day that comes every four years, a day on which I cannot help but feel sad.

Featured photo: My dad and me in his basement office. We built the shelves together, framed and paneled the whole thing. I was 12. In the photo below, I’m 11. You can see I reached my adult height early. My dad was 5’8″.

My dad looks kind of pissed off, but he wasn’t. 🙂 Bellevue, Nebraska, 1963

22 thoughts on “February 29, 1972

  1. I don’t remember the date of my dad’s death, but he was fifty and I was fifteen. All I know is that I expected to die when I reached his age. It didn’t happen, but it was a fear of mine for years… The human brain is strange.

  2. Touching story, on so many levels. What a whirlwind day of emotions for you – your father, your brother, family legacies and memories, strolling through nature, talking with kids, oh, and recognition for your writing!
    Perfect song choice.
    I’m sorry you had your dad for much too short a time.

  3. My Oliver stayed with me for 12 hours while I was sick on a mountain. And then he wanted to get in the helicopter with me that he would ordinarily and have been terrified of.

    They ARE special!

  4. I’m lucky to still have my father and mother with me. I can’t imagine what it feels like to lose either one, especially so young.

    I just finished your book “My Everest” and wanted to tell you I enjoyed it very much! Being with dogs on the trail is about the most therapeutic thing in the world.

  5. Beautiful post, Martha. I’m sorry you lost your father so early! Wonderful that you’ve found strategies over the years to help you through this difficult day.

  6. I can feel the love and loss and grief in your story. He was so young! And so were you. The connection with your dad obviously lives on in your heart – and in your stories. What a difficult day – and then on leap day too, perhaps making it harder as if the grieving builds up for 4 years… The day with your adventures sounds like it offered the comfort you needed. A really lovely post with sweet photos and a favorite song too.

  7. Martha, my father was ill for a long time. He left us on July 5th – his independence day. It was very sad for me and all the family so I know how hard it is. Losing a parent is traumatic no matter how old you are. I’m glad that your valley loves you (as do Bear and Teddy). I love the photo of you and your father in Nebraska in ’63. His hand on your shoulder says it all!

    • It’s heart wrenching to lose a beloved elder no matter when or how necessary is their death. I love that you call July 5 your dad’s “Independence Day.” ❤

  8. Thanks for pointing this one out to me, Martha. Beautiful pics, poignant words, and awesome music. I love Jim Croce and wish he hadn’t been taken from us so young, like your Dad. Who doesn’t look pissed, by the way, he looks to me intensely satisfied. He was probably thinking about the awesome young woman you were in the process of becoming, the very way that I think about The Girl almost every day.

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