What follows are the notes I prepared for a Moth StorySlam Event in Cambridge, MA with the theme of Refuge. Moth storytelling events are told in front of live audiences without notes, so what I said on the stage was not word for word what appears below. Thanks to my friends for sharing in my excitement, and for asking me to put this up on my blog. And moreover, thanks to my Dad, for being my refuge.
We were walking through the pasture at the farm—a familiar backdrop for important conversations. I was in high school at the time. And my Dad turned to me and said, “Arrington, I don’t care if you become a crack whore—you can always, always, always come home. And if you get pregnant and decide you want to keep the baby—it will be great, and I’ll help you out in every way.” My mom’s version of “The Talk” was slightly different. But it was my dad’s that I took to heart. Now, to be clear, I was not on the path to becoming a homeless crack whore or a pregnant teen. I wanted to have sex (what teenager doesn’t), but my high school crush was unrequited. And my brief flirtation with drug use was years off—it came in the form of a pot brownie in Amsterdam in my early twenties. When the effects set in, I demanded to my boyfriend that we return to Easy Times Bakery so I could accost the barista about how long the high was going to last, and when I heard it could be several hours, I begged my boyfriend to take me to the hospital. He politely declined. In any case, I was more of a straight and narrow sort of person. Not that I was a stick in the mud, I just never really had a reason to rebel. When your dad’s going to meet your rebellion with love, not frustration, it’s sort of like, what’s the point?
You see my dad’s promise that I could always come home gave me a sense of unrestrained freedom to explore. Had we not been WASPs, with all the unearned privilege and protection that invites, no doubt the independence my parents gave me would have invited scrutiny from the authorities. In 1989, when I was three, I boarded a plane and flew by myself across the state to meet my grandparents. When I was six I started going to sleep away camp for weeks at a time. At age 14, I spent a month in Spain by myself. Always, before I would head off on these adventures, my dad would pull me in close and say, “If you ever want to come home, just say the word, and I’ll come get you.” Even when I was an adult, off living on my own, before I’d head out on adventures, I’d talk to my dad on the phone, and the refrain that closed our conversations was always the same—“If you ever want to come home, just say the word, and I’ll come get you.”
It wasn’t until the summer of 2012, when I was thirty days into a thirty-four day backpacking trip in the Wind River Range in Wyoming that I realized that my dad could not actually keep his forever promise. We had already been through beastly terrain. Glaciers, scree fields, willow bushes that tear your legs to shreds, clouds of mosquitoes so thick your kill count is in the double digits when you make a lazy swat. But it was day 30 of this training trip that tipped me over the edge. I was hiking in a small group—me and three other instructors in training. They were the sort that craved the adrenalin rush. The sort that probably would have lounged in Vondel Park and truly enjoyed their pot brownie. And they were fast. Much faster hikers than I was. We each carried enormous packs—all well north of 50 pounds even at the end of a ration period. We only had to travel three miles that day, but the three miles were through a giant boulder field that spanned a mountain pass. Some of the boulders were the size of cabins, and I was sure that I would lose my balance on one of these shifting giants and be ingloriously crushed to death under its ancient weight. The three miles took us over ten hours to complete. All throughout that boulder field I pleaded silently with my dad to come get me. I finally, desperately, wanted to go home. After we arrived to camp, and the chores were complete, I walked away from the tents, and sat down on a friendly sized rock and bawled. It was the kind of crying where you think you might break your bones because you are shaking so hard. Of course I knew my dad couldn’t come save me out there in the boulder field. And it wasn’t the terror of that boulder field that I was crying about. I was crying because some day in my future my dad wouldn’t be there on the other end of the line promising me that I could always come home. And knowing that—really knowing that—made me feel like the loneliest girl in the whole damn world.
The thing is, I keep going back to those mountains, each summer. Now as an instructor. Out there, beyond reach, beyond help. And each year, I learn a little bit more about how to be alone, and how to be okay, and even happy, alone. I will never be ready for my dad to die. In fact, I don’t know how I’ll breathe when that day comes. But I imagine when it does those mountains are the first place I will go.