Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

How We Cope
by Stephen J. Lyons

Dearest Daughter:

At an anonymous departure gate at OíHare International Airport you ask, "Are you doing OK, way out here?" I started to cloud over but managed, "Yeah, Iím OK. I just miss you."

I had forgotten how disarming OíHare is, its glaring artificial light and non-stop comings and goings. Forgotten how all the flights seem to be headed west, to Phoenix, Salt Lake, Denver, and Albuquerque. I hadnít calculated into my emotional equation how hard it is to be left behind, especially to be left for a place still stuck to you like some kind of geographical fairy dust.

We embraced as they called your flight and I hurried off to cry alone rather than in front of you. But I did look as you walked away, hoping for a last wave or a smile. Your back was already turned; you were facing west, toward your home, your life. What were you thinking? Sadness for our parting, embarrassment at my tears, or elation at returning to your downtown studio apartment in Idaho -- your cats and friends?

When I was twenty, like you, I couldnít wait to get back to the West from this same airport, to Coloradoís San Juan Mountains, to my blue heeler dog, and to potlucks with my buddies. I was always searching for the next mountain range, for the next weird red rock formation or mystical canyon filled with the scent of sage and pinyon. Back then, before I knew how small and fragile the world really is, and ultimately, how short this life, the landscape seemed endless.

The day you left me for the West, I searched for my car, climbing and descending OíHareís crowded escalators, color-coated with the emblems of Chicagoís sports teams. Perhaps I resembled the middle-aged man Iíve become, a bit hunched and slow-stepped, muttering to myself: "Now, am I looking for the Bears, the Bulls, or the Blackhawks?"

Over the months that have slipped by since our parting, I've searched for an adequate answer to your question, for some sense of what it means to be OK. The most concrete answer I can find comes out of my experience with dear friends as we mourned the unbelievable, the death of their own 20-year-old daughter.

Darsie was a couple days away from leaving eastern Washington to take a job on an Alaskan tourist train. Always an adventurer, a trail blazer, she was never afraid to take risks. Still, thereís no good explanation for what happened in April on a curvaceous Snake River canyon road when she attempted to pass a wheat farmer and he turned, suddenly, into his driveway. She was already in a coma by the time the ambulance made it to the accident.

I arrived at Darsie's hospital bed to find her surrounded by her family and to the certain knowledge that only the ICU machines were keeping her alive. Still, Darsieís father, Bill -- as good a man as youíll meet IN several lifetimes -- played her favorite songs on his guitar: Old Stewball, Grandmaís Featherbed, and Sweet Hour of Prayer.

Make all my wants and wishes known,
In seasons of distress and grief,
My soul has often found relief,
And oft escaped the tempterís snare,
By thy return, sweet hour of prayer.

I never prayed so hard in my life, and I never witnessed such courage and faith as I did in the ICU waiting room at that Idaho hospital. Dogwood trees were blooming all through the valley as, later, I walked with Bill through a nearby residential neighborhood. He was optimistic then, talking about how anxious he was to get Darsie home so her healing could commence, and about how this hospital business was causing his wife a great deal of pain.

"I know thereís a reason for everything," he told me. "I know there is a God and He is just and loving, but right now Iím just holding on. Iím just holding on."

Finally, though, he told the doctors to turn off the life-support machine because he and his wife Arline wanted their old Darsie back.

Maybe youíre thinking that my prayers went unanswered. But I wasnít only praying for Darsie to wake up out of her coma. I was praying for the right words to say to her mother and father. I was praying for the skillful hands of the surgeons and nurses. I was praying for strength. I was praying for the three other kids in the car, who were also injured, and for the wheat farmer. All this praying didnít come naturally. But faith doesnít come easily. You have to work it like a muscle.

Iím telling you this story because somehow, over time, an incredible transformation occurs. For many of us there comes a turn toward all of life, which includes death. I donít know how it happens but, in the best of circumstances, the heart expands and the ego contracts. You begin to be less judgmental. Suddenly there is more of this world to love. Gratitude becomes the rule, not the exception. Your shadow shrinks. You stop asking "Why me?" and instead you say, without question in your voice, "Why not me?" For longer than I am ashamed to admit, Iíve tried to avoid all this character-building stuff. Iíve run like a scared jackrabbit from the first sign of disaster. Living far from my own family, out in the middle of a big, empty western landscape, I became adept at scampering away from the normal troubles that accompany most of a personís life.

Iím still not the man I want to be -- cynicism and sloth have a tight grip on your father -- but in that waiting room, surrounded by the faith of Darsieís family during the long, painful vigil, I got a glimpse of what it means to be human. Through it all I kept hearing this voice: "This life is not just about you. Itís about all of us."

After the funeral Bill and Arline told me that God took Darsie so she would be safe from all the risks she might incur later in life. They werenít just saying this to be stoic. Their grief remains immeasurable and, as powerful as faith can be, it cannot replace grief, and it can never replace a daughter. My point is, they believed in Godís plan so completely that they could even picture their daughter in Heaven.

You donít have to share their belief, but you have to have faith in something, whether itís tamaracks, temples, or totems. The world is too damn untidy and complicated to face alone. Someday youíll need to reach deep, deeper than anything your own intellect can sort out or find in a book. Deeper than the measure of what a human being can grasp. And when you reach, you donít want to come up with a fistful of nothing.

To answer your question, "Am I doing OK, way out here?" Most of the time, yes. I may even get better at saying goodbye. With a little more faith anythingís possible.

Love, Papa.
Stephen J. Lyons is a regular and favorite contributor to AustinMama.com, and the author of Landscape of the Heart, a single father's memoir. His articles, reviews, essays, and poems have appeared in many national magazines and journals including Newsweek, Salon, Chicago Reader, Sierra, High Country News, Witness, Commonweal, The Sun, Hope Magazine, Manoa, Whole Earth, and New Age. His writing appears in the anthologies Idaho's Poetry : A Centennial Anthology (University of Idaho Press), Passionate Hearts (New World Library), Living in the Runaway West (Fulcrum Books), and Bless the Day (Kodansha Press).

Read more of Lyons's work here