Now therefore give me this mountain. – Joshua 14:12
Every fall, when the folds of the Wasatch Mountains soften with ripening leaves, and her peaks catch light from the lowering sun, I am unsettled. My old refuge, these canyons have wrapped within her secret places of years past. As a child, we cooked enormous breakfasts on my father’s propane stove, took nature walks and collected leaves. As I grew we retreated there with boys, keeping warm under the big quilts our mothers made. My friend Mike and I wore out our copy of Hiking the Wasatch during my college years, systematically conquering peak after peak. During this time I found a favorite place—Mt. Aire—and returned there often alone, to read and think. Now, as my minivan wears down the miles at her foothills, I am too often resigned to the daily minutia that keeps me from her trails.
My own family doesn’t always share my deep affinity for the mountains. The exception is Jane, my seven-year-old special needs daughter. In the mountains she awakens. She will dart and wander, stop and observe, each breath a joyful, laughing noise. But before long, I will feel a tug at my hand. Carry me, her flushed face will say. So I lift her on to my shoulders and the laughing resumes. I’ve carried her to a few places: Church fork, Mill B Overlook, Doughnut Falls, Ensign Peak. We’ve hiked Southern Utah, too: up the steps to Weeping Rock, over Delicate Arch, and this summer, we carried her to Hickman Bridge at Capitol Reef.
Almost every year our extended family fills the group campground at Capitol Reef with tents and coolers. It’s become our favorite playground. We explore the washes, hunt for geodes, pick fruit, and hold talent shows by the fire. At night we lay on blankets flanked by red cliffs and under skies thick with stars.
And we hike. Our late start after dinner to Hickman Bridge meant a brisk pace to avoid the darkness. On the way Jane tired quickly, but found relief riding on our shoulders. As we wound down the darkening trail our group thinned, and Jane and I were among the stragglers. Carry me, her face said. I don’t think I can carry her anymore, I thought. There was no one to lift her on my shoulders. Holding her in my arms, as I had learned going up, was tedious and painful. Next year she will be eight. Soon, twelve. Sixteen. Twenty. I can’t carry a twenty-year-old to Hickman Bridge. I don’t think I can carry her any more.
Twenty years old. Thirty. Suddenly, what every parent of a special needs child knows but bats back like a moth in the night rushes up into your throat. Hurl yourself ahead 15 years and you see retreat. The class buddies, dance classes, the instinctive charity that Jane somehow generates, it gradually falls away until nothing is left except us we who are there—who must be there—every day to help her navigate the difficult and decidedly un-cute world of a special needs adult. I can’t carry her anymore.
There are moments, despite my seasoned acceptance of Jane’s challenges, that demand tears. Watching her try to catch classmates and never getting close enough for them to notice. Staring down doctors as they expound wistfully about the limitations of medical science and our health insurance. And this moment, as her solitary safety net, her Alamo.
There was no one left to lift her on my shoulders, so I picked her up. She wrapped her legs around my waist, put her hands on my neck, and leaned her head on my chest. A light rain started to fall, and I braced for fatigue and pain as I make the final descent down the rocky trail. But how Jane felt—or how I felt—was something of a miracle, though that word doesn’t feel right. Whether she was lighter or I was stronger I can’t say. She became easier to hold. I stepped over the rocks with ease. My burden was, temporarily, light. “What is this?”, I wondered. “Who is praying for me?” Then I remembered these words:
And I will also ease the burdens which are put upon your shoulders, that even you cannot feel them upon your backs, even while you are in bondage; and this will I do that ye may stand as witnesses for me hereafter, and that ye may know of a surety that I, the Lord God, do visit my people in their afflictions.
And now it came to pass that the burdens which were laid upon Alma and his brethren were made light; yea, the Lord did strengthen them that they could bear up their burdens with ease, and they did submit cheerfully and with patience to all the will of the Lord. (Mosiah 24:14-15)
What do I have to compare with those in bondage? I am no slave, yet I’m bound by cribs and covenants. And sometimes, when the press if it all grinds down the all the former selves within me, I am afflicted. Like Steve Martin in the movie Parenthood, who exclaims, “My whole life is ‘have to!'”, there are times when I ache, often shamefully, for liberty and relief. To feel that relief, the answer to the promise that “I, the Lord God, to visit my people in their afflictions” was a witness that God knows and loves all of my selves—past, and future—and strengthened me so I could bear up Jane in my present weakness.
So a few weeks later, when a doctor returned to our room to say she found an enlarged heart on Jane’s x-ray, I felt little fear. And when the impossibly cheerful echo technician, singing along with Frozen as he clicked and slid the camera across her chest, offered Jane two prizes instead of one, I was ready for something big. The doctor delivered: a large atrial septal defect and a mitral valve prolapse. Two months later, Jane underwent open heart surgery to correct a hole a little larger than a quarter in her septal wall. Her overworked heart that pumped so hard on mountain walks would, for the first time in seven years, be whole.
Today was an Indian Summer day. Jane’s wound still fresh on her chest, she detoured our walk and lead the way to our neighborhood park. She spotted the big hill, flapped her arms, and ran. A thousand words remained under her tongue, but I read the joy in her face. Looking up to the Wasatch Mountains, I made a promise to Jane: we are going there in the Spring. She can’t hear me; she is too far ahead. I can’t wait.
Capitol Reef photo credits: Amanda Gracey and Shaun Needham.