What I Want You to Know About Our Vacation

“There’s a fish!” you exclaim as you point to the water pooling near the bank of Rock Creek. I look down but, at my angle, the hazy sunlight casts a glare that makes it impossible to see what you are looking at. I move closer to you and now I can see that you have spotted a small minnow struggling against the easy current. Forest fires have darkened the skies and obstructed the usually transcendent mountain views but somehow the water running through this idyllic town of Red Lodge remains clear as glass.

“Wow,” I say. “Good eyes.” 

You ask if we can try to catch the fish but I tell you it is too small. You explain that you just want to catch it so you can look at it and then you’ll put it back. But I am unyielding, telling you to leave it alone so we don’t frighten the small creature. Your disappointment shows clearly on your face. 

I know my reluctance isn’t out of concern for the fish, not really. I just feel unable to relax, to enjoy this moment, so instead I dig in. “Some other time,” I muster.

Moments later your grandpa comes by and you tell him you found a fish. He asks you to show him. You lead him down the slope to the creek and he lets out an excited, “Oh, how cool!” And then, moments later, “Want to try to catch it?”

You look at me and my thin resolve breaks. “That’s fine.” I say.

Your grandpa heads up to the car and returns a minute later with a plastic cup. The two of you bend over the water and manage to scoop up the minnow, a brook trout about two inches long. You hold the cup and watch it swim for a few minutes. The small fish is unbothered, as willing to spend its time in a few ounces of water as in the large creek rushing nearby. 

Later, on the drive back to Billings under the smoky big sky, your grandpa talks about that small trout. He tells you he is excited for you to come back and catch it in a few years, when you have grown a bit bigger and when it has reached full size.

We are on vacation to Montana before you start the new school year, though our time here has not yet felt like a true vacation. Looming over our travels is the ever-present reality that we came here to bury your mom’s ashes. That reality is felt when we look at all the pictures of your mom that decorate your grandma and grandpa’s house. In the fact that your other grandparents are here in my hometown to spend some time with us after the burial. In the way that we all drop our heads and stare at the ground whenever someone politely asks what brings us to town.

Leading up to the service, you told me several times that you did not want it to happen. You were excited to travel here and see your family, but you had no desire to take part in a ceremony that would further substantiate your mom’s absence. Ashes in the closet at home are no more alive than ashes in the cemetery soil, but something about the process of putting them from one to the other felt momentous and heavy. 

I did not want to think about the day much more than you did. Family members would ask if I wanted something to be done a particular way at the service and I had to find a deep well of mental energy to come up with an answer. 

In the days after your mom died, when gatherings of more than a few people were not allowed due to the pandemic, we focused our grief into planning the virtual memorial service. We knew then that this smaller live gathering would happen once things opened up. Still, revisiting these emotions now after a year has passed was a bit like tearing out stitches from a healing wound and re-examining the injury. It’s not like we can ever forget the wound is there, but to have to pull back the tender flesh and return to the unfairness of it all again has been painful for everyone.

During the service, we both cried silent tears, as did several of our closest friends and family members. When all the words had been said, we slowly proceeded to the grave with you holding the wooden urn and leading the way. After the deacon and your grandma said a few blessings, I knelt down and you handed your mom’s ashes to me. I carefully placed them in the small hole, then stood back up and came next to you. You leaned close and put your head into my hip before breaking down into sobs. I picked you up and slowly carried you back into the air-conditioned church as you wept.

For days after that, I felt sad and exhausted and lonely, both tightly wound and stretched out, like a piece of gum being chewed and blown into a bubble only to pop again and again.

We get back to Billings after spotting the trout. A few hours later we meet up with other family members to watch a Billings Mustangs baseball game. The Mustangs have functioned as a low-level minor league team under the Cincinnati Reds organization for decades but, like many teams across the country, they have fallen victim to recent cuts to MLB-affiliated programs. Now unaffiliated, they still play ball in the evenings and the fans still show up, though the situation is precarious. Other teams they used to play against have disbanded. So, while the Mustangs no doubt hope to defeat their opponents in tonight’s game, they are also rooting for them to survive. More than ever, the teams depend on one another for their continued existence.

The first job I ever had was in the concession stand at the old stadium, which stood in the same spot where this new one was built about a decade ago. I made hot dogs and miniature pizzas for some of the few thousand fans who would show up on any given night. The stadium I worked in felt ancient before it was torn down, and the team was a fixture of life in this small city. It must have felt pretty permanent to the powers-that-be, too. Why else would they build a brand new stadium if anyone thought the team was in jeopardy of folding within ten years of construction?

Knowing the entire organization might not be around next year puts everything into a different light. Will this be the last “Stang Burger” I eat here? The last ice cream sandwich? What will we do here in Billings on a warm summer night like this if there is no baseball to watch?

My thoughts keep turning to that brook trout from this afternoon. The unlikelihood of it growing old and massive. The impossibility of you returning to that same spot years from now, a foot taller and fifty pounds heavier like your grandfather envisions, to catch the same fish again.

Once more, I notice the smoke in the air. The sun is beginning to set a vibrant crimson through all the haze. I think about the trees, young firs and old evergreens, whose ashes now fill the skies. Until a few days ago, they were the steady giants of the forest. I could have walked alongside them and they would have seemed as if they’d been there from the start of time and would outlive us all. Now, when I breathe in the heavy air, what is left of their ancient particles fills up my lungs.

It calls to mind the ashes we put in the ground on Sunday. A kind church volunteer dug out the small cube – two feet by two feet by two feet – that somehow was large enough to hold your mom’s physical remains with ample room to spare. The spot right next to it is where my ashes will rest someday, too. My dad lies buried a few feet away. And my mom’s plot is there, also, waiting for the day when her time here has run its course.

I feel the weight of uncertainty begin to press and pull again. 

You ask for a Hawaiian shaved ice. I hand you some cash and send you off with your cousin to buy it. You return with the treat and fifty cents, which you describe to me as “a tip.” I explain what a tip is and how it works, and we walk back to the stand where you proudly place the change in a tip jar. The woman working there beams at your kindness; I imagine that will be the sweetest tip she receives all night, even if it isn’t the largest. Back at our seats you call out, “Go Mustangs!” I see that your red-stained lips are set in a wide grin. You are happy to be here.

It is then that the tenseness in my body finally begins to fade away. 

I come to realize that whether the Mustangs can survive to field a team next year is completely out of my control. As is the fate of that brook trout. So, too, is yours and mine, reluctant as I am to accept that fact. What is left to do then, but to enjoy the time we have here?

As the game inches along, I buy you a Mustangs hat and fill you with more of the amazing junk food the stadium has to offer. The floodlights illuminate the field as the sun goes down in a brilliant, hazy sunset. I breathe in the cooling, ashy air and I feel, for the first time all week, like I am on vacation.

3 Comments on “What I Want You to Know About Our Vacation

  1. Thank you Caleb, for your beautiful writing! You reach those emotions that are deep inside. What a talent you have!

    Liked by 1 person

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