When every moving part in your Arizona home is crumbling, leaking, falling, crashing and/or otherwise breaking, this is what you do: You fly to Montana! You walk off the airplane, grinning like a monkey because you see your girlfriend you haven’t seen since high school. In the short time it takes to wrap your arms around each other in a generous hug, you are once again sixteen and your only care is how far it is to the nearest hamburger joint.
When your youngest child has just deployed to Afghanistan, leaving you wondering if you’ll ever, ever breathe again … and when you’ve also just placed your 102-year old mother in an assisted living facility after many years of being her caregiver, crushing you with guilt and concern, this is what you do: You invite a woman you haven’t seen in four decades to spend a week in your home. Within moments of that first hug, you are both chattering like magpies, shining and brilliant with past memories and future possibilities.
In spite of extra pounds and lined faces and streaks of gray hair added over the years, you each swear that the other hasn’t changed a bit. It’s nearly true! If we look away for a moment, we are magically transported into giggly teenagers still talking about our studies and our teachers and … Oh, those boys!
For seven whirlwind days, my friend and I serve as diversion for one another. She keeps me grounded as I receive a phone call informing me that the new bank-busting air conditioning unit was incorrectly installed, causing a massive leak into the living room ceiling, down onto the carpet where it becomes a large, dark stain. She sits quietly as call after call from home relays worsening news about the state of all things ruining our poor little home.
In turn, I keep her occupied to the point of distraction while she works through the grief of a mother of a young soldier sent off to a terrifying war and the guilt of a daughter unable to continue the 24-hour care of an elderly mother.
We’re good for each other.
We take a tour boat six miles down the Missouri River at the Gates of the Mountains where we see big horn sheep clinging to the side of a steep mountain. The thought that we are also clinging to our own respective mountains of life isn’t lost on us. The following day we drive to Yellowstone and laugh that we’re now the Goldilocks Sisters because we see not just one, but THREE bears — a very uncommon occurrence these days. We photograph elk, bison, deer, a way off-course pelican, more big horn sheep, a raven with odd white-wings and one very twitchy ground squirrel.
We drive then to Chico Hot Springs and sit in a pool of bone-melting warmth piped up from ancient ground waters. There’s no cell service, so dinner over wine becomes a lingering conversation about where we’ve been over the past forty years and how we hope we’ll both be lucky enough to carry on for another forty. We introduce our long-ago teenage selves to the women we’ve become and, for the moment, we’re delighted with our outcomes.
We go to church outdoors in the mountains above Helena where we commune over coffee and pot luck breakfast casseroles. The Pastor wears jeans and a baseball cap and talks about how we might consider giving up things. A silly kids’ camp song is offered up as the Doxology. Why not? It makes us laugh and clap and not feel so bad about the uncomfortable message of giving up our things, should it ever be necessary. On another day, we tour through St. Helena Cathedral in downtown Helena where I light a candle and pray for my friend’s son, called to war in Afghanistan. I pray for his body, his mind and his soul. I hate that such a prayer is even necessary, but I don’t mention that part to God.
One evening, we head to the park and cheer at her grandsons’ baseball games. Then we go to another park where we sit beneath the shadow of a band shell, eating Subway sandwiches and listening to Helena’s town band play the Sousa Palooza, a Beethoven selection and a medley of Andrew Lloyd Webber pieces. A Big Sky sunset spreads across the sky and I’ve never been so in love with a place than I was in that moment. We close the concert by standing and singing the Montana state song. The melody is at once familiar to me and I hum it in my head for days.
We enjoy the company of my friend’s dear mother. A constant thought rumbles through my mind that, should I live to be 102, I might be allowed to be as lively and as gracious as she continues to be. She is the very meaning of amazing, wrapped in a tiny, smiling and feisty-as-ever form.
On my last day, it was hard to leave Montana. It was hard to return to Arizona with its scorpions and lizards and blast furnace weather, to things that are still leaking and breaking and flopping and dying, to a political climate that is splitting this country apart. It was especially hard to say goodbye to my friend.
And so I’ll go back to Montana — next summer. I’ll plan to be there in time to attend Helena’s Symphony Under the Stars on the third Saturday in July. It will be like going home. In the meantime, I’ll send packages to my friend’s son on the other side of the world and I’ll think about the magic of finding three bears while reconnecting with my Goldilocks Sister.