The Memory of Snow

A Memoir of Love and Loss

The last piece of my father fell on a patch of old snow on a trail in Routt County five years ago this autumn. It was the last visit of his life to his beloved Colorado. I noted, gratified, his enjoyment of that mountain setting. I watched him revere an open sky as he always did and pull his gaze lovingly across a wide belt of trees. He studied the tops of cottonwoods and oaks, empty of leaves, and then too the trunks, the inspectable textures, the passageways between them.

Both my parents ended their lives with dementia. They were both afflicted young, caught and dropped and sad, and then this: every season, a little worse. It was my mother’s last trip too, the two of them both buoyed and confused by those Colorado mountains. They did not know where they had traveled from nor the site where they arrived, and time held no meaning. They could not be left alone on our journey, like a child and a second child, and I was mother. I was sentry. It was not that they would need help at the hotel check-in; it was that they forgot what a hotel is.

They suffered, we marked time, confusion and misdirection the rough coughs treated only with a regretful nod and insipid wet cloth. There was nothing anyone could do for either of them. What was gone was gone was gone.

I believe that they remembered the snow. I believe they felt like its people, belonging to the cold and the cold to them. My parents took their own steps, wandering thirty feet, a few more, without restriction. I thought the terrain was good for them. A little mud, a large stone.

Choose where to step. I won’t tell you.

My father fell.

A physician showed me an image of Papa’s broken hip on an iPad in the emergency room. The news wasn’t good. The news hadn’t been good for either of my parents for years. My dad would require surgery.

And he did not come back. Yes, he lived on, surviving despite a host of complications, but his returns to fatherhood were countable. He was alive and often absent, reduced to one moment only. Nothing forward, no back.

It required a leap of faith to affirm: my parents can remember snow. It was their last memory, I told myself, the last lecture their minds ever attended, the one verse about which all the notes had by then been written.

I threw only a tiny funeral for my mother because she died thirteen nights after the farewell Mass for my father and I couldn’t bear another party with music led by benevolent strangers. I’ll give some of my parents’ money to the funeral committee at this church, I told myself, because I was grateful for the hymns and also because I couldn’t bring myself to ask for them a second time. The money was a notion pitched awkwardly forward by my broken heart. I’ll go again and again to Colorado, I decided in grief-speak. I’ll walk around the bookstore that reminds me of being a teenager with life dreams curated by my yes-you-can parents. I’ll stop the car and go into the same convenience store where my daddy and I snuck off to on summer afternoons. I told my daughter to pick out one treat, because he did that for me. “You can pick out one treat,” I told her, pretending to be him. “Just one.”

At my mother’s funeral, her friend read a poem she had composed for her. The church would seat a thousand people and we were nine. The sanctuary was so often silent, hour after hour uninterrupted, but that morning the silence was broken by the soft voice of my mom’s friend, poem in hand. We nine stood together and listened. It was the prayer of my mother’s death.

To my mother and my father, this is how your lives end: the goodbyes will be slow and I will be sad. For years I will see your friends frowning their sympathy and concern and I will never cry. I will save that for later. You both will make the same mistake in emergency rooms and tell the people who wheel you from one hallway to the next that you are from the places you grew up, not the place where you lived for forty years together. Your minds will return home before you do. This is how a dear animal dies, going away first, disappearing into a different known. I will stand in a sanctuary amid the same pews where I grew up, the same pews I would say that I was from, and one loyal friend will read her own poem for you. It will be a fitting end, you the light and love of each other’s lives, as if one of you begged God to be afflicted too if the other must. The quiet voice of a loyal friend will be the voice of Christ there for both of you, reciting reverent observations written with kindness, the simple scene bearing witness to how your lives unfolded. You will die together. To my mother and my father, this is how your lives never end.