The saddest part about the day I met your mother was that it was also the day her husband died.
I still remember that morning. Rainier was as calm and as clear as you could have asked for. A single layer of stratus clouds grazed the rocky peak and you could see every detail of the summit from the doors of the inn. At the base of the mountain, the last bits of white had left the fields to a vibrant green and a clearing along the dirt path rode all the way to the foothills.
All signs pointed to a good day for a climb. But the problem with going up around that time of year wasn’t anything you could see from a distance. It was in the touch of the snow. If you were to sink your feet in, you could feel how soft it was. And when it gets as soft as it was, especially after a cold winter, the rocks tend to shift in place.
That’s why your mother brought her husband down from the mountain that morning. The park rangers luckily found them both before any more of the rocks had fallen. Because had they shook just a little more in her direction, she might have gone with him too.
That morning, I had the inn to myself. Most folks who were staying for the season had left the night before and headed back to the city. Which left the inn to its quietest. Just about the only sound that you could hear throughout the halls came from the robins and swallows outside.
I had left half a salmon in the kitchen fridge from a few nights ago and I figured that it was about time to use it for stew. I sat the pink chunks out on a bowl to marinate. Prepped the pot with some carrots, onions, and potatoes. And then let it all sit together for about 30 minutes over the stove. A savory fish smell began to fill the kitchen and the first floor. It was the sort of smell that could get you all kinds of hungry. The air would go straight from your lungs to your stomach. But luckily, there was enough to go around for anyone who noticed.
As the pot sat to cool, a helicopter landed on the pad nearby. The rangers had returned.
The only thing that you’d find in any direction within 10 miles was the ranger station across the street. And being as how it was mostly myself and the rangers during those quieter seasons, we had gotten real friendly with each other.
Through the window, I could see them taking her husband to the station. They lowered him from the back seat onto a stretcher as she stood there with the gravel beneath her feet. Shaking in place as her tears hit the dry rock beneath her.
They brought her to the inn after, to get her out of the cold and sat her down at a chair by the fire. One of the rangers stayed with her as the other came over to me at the desk. He lowered his hat to his chest and I could see the somber look on his face from 40 feet away.
“She lost her husband,” the ranger explained. “Rockfall. As they were trying to hit the summit before dawn.”
Both our eyes lowered away from each other. It was hard to find anything to say. And what made it worse was that it wasn’t the first time that the rangers sat someone in front of that fire with bad news.
“Let me grab the first aid from the office in case she needs it.” The ranger nodded as I put an away sign up at the desk. “She’s also welcome to stay as long as she needs.”
I remember looking over at your mother before I headed out to grab things for her. It was hard to see anyone quite like that. She sat with her back upright against the chair and her feet planted on the ground. Her hands shook on her knees as her arms fought to keep them still. And her eyes welled with whatever strength they had left to stop the flood of tears.
I grabbed the first aid kit with a box of tissues from the office, and laid them on a table beside her. She looked up at me and thanked me with the faintest amount of air from her chest. It was clear that much of her voice was gone to screaming and crying through the night.
I began to make my way back to the desk and had it not been for that salmon smell, I might have just left there. But, bringing her some food seemed like the decent thing to do. God only knows how hungry she actually was that morning.
I made my way to the kitchen after. Poured a bowl with some crackers. Picked out a clean spoon. Poured a cup of water. And placed it all on a tray to bring to her in the lobby.
The rising steam caught her eye quickly and through the heat, I could see her reaching in her pockets.
“No no, m’am. It’s on the house. I insist.” Her arms froze for a moment before she raised them towards me. She gripped the tray on both ends with her cold fingers. And I could feel the pain to her shaking as I helped lower the tray to her lap.
“You take whatever time you need,” I added. “And let me or the ranger know if there’s anything we can do for you.”
She nodded before sharing a brief smile.
I left her to herself for most of the day, but I would check up on her from time to time just to make sure she was doing okay. She didn’t say anything nor did I expect her to, but that was alright with me. Sometimes, as I would pass through, I would see her on her phone going through all sorts of emotions from crying to laughing. And other times, she would just sit silently and look up at the mountain from the window.
But even as the sun began to fall, she sat there. As it set, she sat there. And as the last bits of twilight sank beneath the horizon hills, she stayed exactly where she was.
The lights outside began to flicker on and the rooms connecting the first floor were all darkened to the night. It was going to be a colder night than most, especially in the lobby where the frost slipped through the windows. And so, I thought it best to grab one of the room keys from behind the desk and head towards her.
“Excuse me, m’am.” She looked up calmly. The shaking in her hands from this morning had stopped and the teary redness had disappeared from her bold brown eyes. “I got no problem with you staying here in the lobby, but if you’re looking to clean up and rest your head for the night, there’s some empty rooms up the stairs.”
She nodded, took the keys gently from my hand, and began to make her way upstairs.
I would spend most nights by the fire before I would go to bed. That night in particular, the tea was about to go bad and so I let a kettle boil with some leaves to swim around in it. Enough to make it feel less like water, but not enough to make it feel like tea. It was a noisier night than most with a wind that sang against the walls and tossed the gravel around outside. The smoldering fire snapped throughout the lobby and the pipes rang to the current of water throughout the first and second floor.
Although it was a louder night, it wasn’t loud enough to drown the sounds of footsteps in the halls. And as a door shut upstairs and the wood creaked, your mother made her way back to the lobby.
“You can’t sleep?” she asked from the top of the stairs.
“Just one of those nights.”
“Neither can I.”
I turned to see her at the top of the stairs. She had a fresh set of clothes on and hair that was wet to her shoulders.
“Thank you for all the hospitality by the way,” she added. “And the stew.”
“Least I can do.”
“You wouldn’t happen to have anything stronger, would you?”
A bottle of bourbon sat behind the desk and while it might have been a good night for me to crack it open, I didn’t think that it would have done your mother any good.
“Best I can do is bad tea and company,” I replied.
She obliged by making her way down the stairs. The kettle was already out of the fire and cooled to a drinkable warmth. I poured the tea into a tin cup as she found a spot in the chair across from me.
“I never got the chance to say,” as I passed the cup to her. “But I’m real sorry.”
She gripped both hands around the cup, set it on her lap, and looked down at the steaming cup. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath of tea air in.
“I’ll be heading out tomorrow,” she paused. “But I’ve appreciated everything.”
“That’s quite alright. You aren’t planning on driving back yourself, are you?”
“No. His parents will be coming up. They’re flying into Seattle and driving the rest of the way.”
I nodded as a long silence filled the air between us. She took a large sip of the tea and gave a deep look into the fire.
“Have you ever been married?” she asked.
“Why is that?”
“Just wasn’t in the cards for me, I guess.”
A faint grin developed between her lips. “Well if you do, take it from me. It’s important to have similar hobbies.”
“I take it he wasn’t the climbing type.”
“No. But he wanted to do it for me.” Her cheeriness had quickly faded. “I brought it up on our second date and he wasn’t too likened to the idea, but we’ve been doing smaller routes together since.”
“He sounds like a great man.”
“He is. We were different in a lot of ways, but the same in some.” She paused. “One of the things I know for sure is that he would’ve liked that stew of yours.”
“Is that right?”
“It’s my mother’s recipe,” I explained. “Woman was a genius for getting people to eat old fish.”
Though I didn’t look over, I could feel her eyes glare from my side.
“You fed a grieving woman, leftover fish?” She joked.
“M’am. I would’ve fed Abraham Lincoln that leftover fish.” She laughed first and then I joined her. “She passed the recipe down to me a few years back along with this place… Breast cancer’s a real nasty thing when you’re this far out from a regular doctor. But, it was the way she wanted to go out, I guess.”
“Have you been here all your life?”
“No. I used to live in the city.”
“What made you come back out here?”
“Nothing made much sense anymore out there. But coming back here. Spending time with her. It feels a lot closer to who I am… It’s one of the last things I have to thank her for. For giving me a way out.”
“It is nice here. I just wish I were here on better circumstances.”
I nodded and turned back to the fire. She slid her shoes off, folded her legs on the chair, and leaned forward. Her eyes dimmed to a contemplation with a question that sat on the edge of her lips.
“Have you seen a lot of people go up and not come back?” she asked.
“You ever think about stopping them?” she added.
The wells of her eyes had run dry but the tremble began to develop again her arms and through her feet as it tapped away at her crossed legs.
“I’ve been thinking all day,” her voice shook. “And I can’t help but feel that I’m part to blame for him.”
I reached over for the tissues left from this morning and passed them to her.
“I wouldn’t go putting that on yourself. Those are mountains. God didn’t mean for us to climb them to begin with. And yet, by some miracle we do… And when someone finds the courage or the strength to go up, who are you or I to deny them of that?”
She brushed away the excess of her nose with a tissue and breathed her way back to a calm. After another long sip, she cleared her throat and took a deep breath.
“Have you ever been up?” she asked.
“To the summit?”
“What did it feel like?”
“I wish I could put it into words… It felt like relief.”
“Yes, m’am. It feels different for everyone. But it was relief for me.” She turned towards me curiously leaving me inclined to go on. “It felt like all the doubt I had when I was a boy or all the things on my mind at the time were just gone - even for a moment. Different kind of air in my lungs. Different kind of perspective in my eyes… Might’ve been the second best feeling in my life.”
“What’s the first?”
“Getting back to my car after,” I smiled.
She grinned as she fell back onto the chair and a relaxation began to fill her arms and neck. She leaned her head against the shoulder of the chair as her eyes started to dim.
“Do you think he would’ve wanted me to go back up? And finish the climb for us?”
“I can’t say for sure, m’am. But I don’t think he would’ve stopped you either.”
Her eyes stared at the flame and closed soon after. Your mother fell asleep in the lobby that night. I didn’t have the heart to wake her up that night and so I left a blanket over her as the fire burned out.
By the time I made my way to the lobby early the next morning, she was gone and her things sat by the door. I didn’t have any leftover fish, so I had to cut up a fresh one. Used whatever carrots, onions, and potatoes I had left. Poured a bowl of stew out. Pressed the lid shut. And wrapped it in a bag for her.
When I left the kitchen, she was stood there by the door with a car waiting out in front and a truck close behind, where I presumed her husband was going to be brought back in. Her things rested over her shoulder and she was ready to leave.
“Do you need any help?” I asked as I passed her the stew.
“I’ll be okay,” she paused. “Thank you for everything again.”
“My pleasure.” I opened the door for her as she moved her things out. She placed her things in the trunk and found her way to the side door as I waited in front of the inn.
She gave me that same brief smile as when we met and opened the door to the car.
“Excuse me, m’am,” She turned. “I would hate to oblige. But, if you need to go up there and make your peace, I’d be willing to accompany you.”
She gazed at me with those clear brown eyes of hers and her arm leaned on the door.
“I’d like that,” she nodded and closed the door behind her.