Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

Under a Big Sky
by Cathleen Sutherland

Last summer my 6-year-old and I headed off for our first mom/daughter vacation in a schmillion years, meeting up with my mother for a week of relaxing fun at the Ghost Ranch in northern New Mexico. I was quite excited since I was signed up for a class in Outdoor Adventures, which included a crash course on the High Ropes. I picked up a magazine. The issue was devoted to depression. There were several articles on the subject and I read them all, as we are all touched in some way by this illness. I know people -- family and friends, an old boyfriend I couldn't seem to help. We all know people.

Two days later, sitting down to breakfast in the community dining room of the Ghost Ranch, we received word from home that my cousin Tom had killed himself. A single gun shot to the head. The pain he had lived in for many years was at its greatest, and his depression was greater than the thought of living. I wish you could have known him way back when, before. Smart and funny, full of sly smiles and chuckles. I went out on Lake Abiquiu that morning, it was our first day of kayaking, and paddled across the silent water. The rising cliffs all around and the brilliance of the blue sky enveloped me. I knew his pain had left him. It filled me.

We stayed on at the Ranch. I hiked mountains before sunrise and watched the hues shift into pinks and gold. I walked the trails long after the New Mexico moon had risen, watching my shadow fall before me. I felt the expanse of the night sky come over me, the cool air gently kissing my skin. The whole of the earth was beneath my feet.

Since my daughter's birth I had known such fear, fear of what could or might happen. To her, to me.

I went to the High Ropes course. I climbed up 30 foot telephone poles and jumped off, made my way across a wobbly swing bridge with no hand rails, rappelled (upside down even), walked across a tightrope, and flew through the air on a zip line. All this and more, attached to a safety line secured by my classmates.

Each time, I stood on the platform and looked into my instructor's face. I wanted to beg her, please don't make me jump. But the choice was mine. Gratitude consumed me. Love for my daughter washed over me. The will to live life fully, without fear, exploded inside me. My cousin took my hand and quietly led me forward.

Since coming home from the Ranch, I think about Tommy every day. I feel somehow changed, by his death, by my time under such a big sky. It was a needed time for myself and my daughter. As a single mother, it was important. We each had the opportunity to explore and create purposeful experiences, both shared and separate. I know I came away better for it. I know now there are parts of myself I set aside as I grew out of my youth. It is good to meet me again.

We are headed back to the ranch this summer. After earning my certification as a facilitator on the ropes, this time I go as an instructor.

When it is all said and done, you can stand on the edge and watch the world go by, or you can jump in.
Cathleen Sutherland is a native Austinite, from several generations of thick Texas blood. Her sturdy demeanor was cultivated at an early age by too many brothers and a penchant for hiding away with a book. Raised in a house with no central air or heat, her family fled to a barn for the coldest winter imaginable. She quickly left home at fifteen to attend the High School for Performing and Visual Arts, then on to major in Theatre and finally Radio-Television-Film at the University of Texas. Caught up in its glamorous world, she has worked in freelance film production since. Her true passion is writing children's stories and singing John Denver tunes when no one is around. A checkered resume also includes dallying as a teacher's aide, camp counselor, actress, model, waitress, seamstress, gift wrapper, Santa Claus, still photo stylist, and High Ropes instructor. Her greatest joy in the world is her daughter Nicolette. They live happily together in a cozy cottage with their two dogs, Daisy and Jezebel.