We came down to the end of June and I hung the flag for the Fourth. I had the summer off from work, and wouldn’t accept any new contracts until September. That gave us the flexibility to see Lily whenever we could and focus on self-care. They said with grief you have to over-compensate the self-care, put the oxygen mask on yourself first. Dawn got a paid medical leave from Microsoft and with Charlotte out of school, the three of us would have all of July and August to ourselves. It was just getting warm and I settled into the relaxed pace of summer, that old feeling of childhood excitement when the school year finally ends.
We had plans to fly back to Durango for Lily’s graduation ceremony at Open Sky. Most students who attend a wilderness therapy program go on to a residential treatment center afterwards but because Lily had worked so hard she had more options, so we enrolled her in a prep school in Cedar City, Utah. We wanted some family time after her graduation from wilderness and plotted a road trip from Durango to Moab, then Bryce and Zion national parks.
In one of my letters I had told Lily about my trip to Moab when I was her age, back in the late 80s. I still had pictures of me with the pictographs painted on the rocks, me pointing at them looking stupid, wearing that PiL T-shirt from 1987. It was on that trip I decided I wanted to live in the West one day, when I grew up. My dad in those photos is younger than I am now and his beard is still black, no white.
That would have been the same year our sociology teacher Mr. Midway had us write letters to our future selves, an assignment I didn’t understand or see the point in. We were to write letters in a journal style but intended for ourselves to receive five years later. We packaged the letters and put extra postage on them and then he would mail them in 1992, right as I graduated college.
I remember what it felt like to receive that package, my old handwriting, still me but not me at the same time. Poring over the days as I sat in my old bedroom, the same room I’d written those notes years before. It was like a message in a bottle, traversing time and space. I read it once and put it in a box with other things and then carried it across the country when I moved to Seattle a few years later.
And with Lily graduating soon, we came down to the last of the weekly letter-writing scenes, the Sunday mornings I’d sit down to write her. I told her about my first AA meeting, the one that meets on top of Tiger Mountain called OSAT (one step at a time). Every time I went up and down Tiger I’d think about the time she and I had, right before she went off to wilderness.
It was still spring and a rough one weather-wise, snowing by the time we got halfway up. Lily had fallen and hit her head badly at the last hospital she’d been in prior, they’d even checked her for a concussion at another hospital, and so I didn’t want her to over-exert herself on the trail. But she insisted on getting to the top, and said it had become a metaphor for her sobriety, to summit that day. That’s when I knew the wilderness program was right for her because she was seeing the metaphors in nature reflecting her own experience. The one step at a time club is like that too, and they joke at the end of each meeting “don’t slip!”
This week Lily read her letter of responsibility to me and Dawn, the final task for students in wilderness therapy. It’s the culmination of the student’s reflections on what they’ve learned about themselves and the impact of their prior actions. They learn about Glasser’s Needs Theory, the notion we all have five basic needs (like power and control, survival, and so on) and what happens when we start meeting those needs in unhealthy ways.
Lily brought up a scene from the third Harry Potter story, one I’d written her about, my favorite moment throughout the series. In the scene, Harry is fighting a dementor in the forest and losing, about to die, but is saved by a supernatural force. He assumes it’s the spirit of his dead father come back to rescue him but later discovers it’s actually his own spirit he’s summoned with the Patronus charm. And because he’s time traveled, his future self has actually gone back to rescue himself. It’s a turning point for the hero, to witness the power of his own magic and capabilities.
When she was done reading her letter I told Lily how proud I was of her for how far she’d come. That there were like four or five really big things she was struggling with, and how funny, we kept trying to find someone who could help us figure out where to start and what to focus on, and just like the Patronus scene in Harry Potter, that someone was Lily. She had connected all those things herself.
Perhaps we can reach out to our own selves in some healing way through the power of our own words. Perhaps that is the funny feeling we get rereading old letters or journal entries, it can really be like a message in a bottle from another time.
So now I will toss another bottle as far as I can for the waves to carry it off to another me who must be better, if not different and loving, who will regard what I have written and smile, and know it was just me from a different time.