It was early February, about one week after you died. I was standing at the top of a snowy hill in upstate New York, watching my boys sled down a hill and climb back up. Growing up in Texas, they had never seen snow and this was the year I was determined to change that. Ashley and I talked about canceling the trip after you passed, but you always told us to move forward. And years ago I told myself that nothing would pull me away from my time with my children. In my mind, you and I had said goodbye already. We said it when I stood in that hospital room in the setting sunlight after you had already taken your last breath. When I put my hand on yours and thanked you for being in my life. I thought of that as my goodbye.
So there I was standing on the hill in early February, watching the boys make their runs. They would sled down the hill, then climb back up while arguing about who had dragged the heavy sled back to the start more times. And when they reached the top they would ask me if I saw. You know the way that kids do. Watch dad, look. Did you see? And I would say that I did. And then back down the hill they would slide. It went on like that for a while. Sliding and climbing and them asking did you see and me saying I did. As though there wasn’t anything else in the world to see. The day was as close to perfect as days get.
The snow started then. Big snowflakes, fat. Some as large as half-dollars. So big I could hear them falling and plop plop on the snow around me. If you had put them in one of your movies I would have said they looked too fake. And you would have done your half-smile, half-shrug and said yeah but big snowflakes look cooler. And that would have been that.
The boys asked me if I saw their last run. Did you see? I said you bet I did. One more run, boys. Snow’s here and it’s time to call it a day. So they nodded and they slid down the hill, laughing and whooping and making the day almost perfect one last time. At end of the run when they reached the bottom of the hill, they seemed suddenly so far away to me. Just two blurs through all that thick, unreal falling snow.
And as the boys began climbing back up the hill, I watched that snow start to fill in their footsteps and the channels the sled had dug through the powdery hillside. I watched it slowly covering the tracks of their day. And I had this moment of panic. A dark, black thought that my boys would climb the hill and their footsteps would fade away, buried flake by flake inevitably by the falling snow. There would be no evidence of their time there. No one would know about all the joy they felt that day. I thought of the fleetingness of all we do, each of us. The efforts we put in to our lives and our work in the hopes that either might be relevant for a year or two or a decade. But then slowly, inevitably they are covered over by time and lost to all but those who were there and cared to remember. And after that… gone.
The boys were halfway up the hill when I could hear them joking, talking about the day. Debating over which run was the best. Arguing and jockeying in that weightless manner that only children have. It reminded me of sledding with my brother when we were children, but my memories of those days were not of sleds or of words. Those details had been lost to time long ago. The memories had transformed to something else I couldn’t grasp anymore but that had nonetheless drawn me back to the hill that day to share with my boys. The way my own father had been drawn to do the same. In ways I had no ability to comprehend, but that no snow could bury.
I realized that joy isn’t a thing that lives and dies. It’s not something we make on our own or keep to ourselves. It’s something that is handed to us by those before us, around us. And we take it and we shape it and add to it and pass it on. And in those moments it becomes a part of us and we of it. My boys would carry the joy from that day in unrecognizable ways, for as long as they could carry it. And when the day comes that they can no longer carry it, they will have long since passed it on to the people in their lives. In ways I will never see and to people I may never know because I won’t be there.
And then I thought of you. And all the beauty you added to the joy while it was in your hands. You didn’t just add to it, you made it fight and you made it jump and you made it dance. People came from everywhere to watch and I was one of them and it was beautiful. I thought then of all those people you touched who would take that joy and build on it and shape it and pass it along. And the people they passed it to would in turn do the same and so on and so on. And the joy you have made will live and breathe and move forward in so many ways that we as people can’t and in so many ways that we as people can’t even imagine.
So, I stood there at the top of that hill, amidst all those drifting, giant snowflakes and I did the only thing that made any sense to me at all. I cried.
I cried at the beauty of that thing.
I cried about all the future days of your short life that would go unlived.
I cried about that great joy untethering. Out of your hands now and already moving through the universe, passing from person to person through all of time.
But mainly, I suppose I cried because I missed my friend.
And then the boys reached the top of the hill.
They asked me if I saw.
I said that I did.
And then we went home.