11 thousand feet up

Our son and his fiancé have a puppy. He’s six months old and along with our old dog Bo, he and his humans have come with us to camp in the wilderness of the Rocky Mountains. There are no campgrounds here.

We sit beside a lake with a view of the snow-tinged mountains. My husband and son play catch on the rocky shore while his fiancé and I bask in the sunshade—she in a hammock, me in my beach chair. At my feet in front of me, the puppy sits erect, watching the boys with their ball. Suddenly, he falls over and I laugh because I think he has just fallen asleep and toppled like a baby. But he yelps. Afraid he has hurt himself in his sleepy topple, I quickly feel his head and neck for a tangled collar or sharp twig. But when his yelping stops and he poops lying down, I call out instinctively, “He’s having a seizure.”

Everyone comes running. I check his pupils because I don’t know what else to do and see that he has drooled. We are almost 12-thousand feet up with no cell service. I snap into Mamma mode and calm everyone with the idea that his now sleepy state is not out of order after a seizure. They soothe him with words and soft strokes and we all wait for him to recover. He sort of does, lifting his head a bit, but then he appears so limp I say, “Check his pulse.” Although I don’t know what a puppy pulse should be, his seems way too slow and when my son calls his name, he doesn’t even flinch or open an eye. At this point, even I am crying. My son and I say—at the same time—“I/We better just go.” He and his fiancé charge down the mountain in her car, to cell service and/or the nearest vet hospital.

Todd and I clean up our picnic by the lake, sniffling and sobered. We decide to pack up and leave the mountain and head toward the hospital or the kids’ home. I start to cry and say to Todd, “I don’t know if I can drive down this mountain.” But there really is no other option, so I take a deep breath, think like a Mamma, and clean up camp.

While Todd is over a small hill, striking the kid’s hammock site, I get a $230 fine for not dousing our morning coals with water. Evidently, you douse, not bank, in the Rockies, so I humbly take my licks from the over-the-top, hall-monitor-type Ranger (who honestly seemed thrilled he had “smelled our coals from the road”) and we finish packing up camp in time to drive down before dark.

We head out like a parade: Todd pulling our tiny trailer, and me in my son’s four-door packed with gear. Did I mention the road is made of dirt? And definitely not intended for two-lane traffic, except in rare cases when there are more than half a dozen cars up here—like during snowmobiling season or this Fourth of July weekend—when Chocos-wearing wilderness types come up from downtown Denver. Seeing even one other automobile on the road was enough to strike terror in every blind curve. There are no railings here, no road signs, no pavement, no lights. The sides fall so drastically, and the turns are so sharp that I resort to birth breathing. I lean forward, hyper focus my attention on the tiny trailer’s taillights and my right edge of the road—shoulders hunched, hands at 10 and 2.

The tears come and go as I do my best to be the grown up in this situation but between my intention to not go tumbling off the side of the mountain or run headlong into another car, my mind wanders. I think of my son and his fiancé and the little girl they nanny who passed away last week in a tragic swimming accident. I think of my soon-to-be daughter-in-law weeping beside the puppy and remember her frantic call to me last Christmas Eve morning when her mother was suddenly in ICU, fighting for her life. I think of their 6-month old puppy and how they have lovingly raised it, and how we all stand beside and watch the parents they will surely become. The road blurs and I have to stop feeling. I have get down this mountain.

Slowly the descent becomes less drastic and finally the road finds itself a stop sign, becomes paved, and we are at the outskirts of a town large enough to paint lines on its road. I am sobbing now, full of relief, fear, grief, gratitude and compassion. How will I help the kids? What will they need? Will I be able to offer them a safe place? Is their puppy even still alive? I do not know. But I made it down the mountain, with every hysterical inner voice all but silenced by my brave intention. I am strong. I am compassionate and I am an adult, capable of navigating both mountain road and intense emotion.


Two hours later, after another less-harrowing drive down more mountains of paved road, we reach the kids. They are shaken, but showered from camp dust; they and the puppy are okay.

My soon-to-be daughter-in-law and I cry right there in the driveway…about the puppy, about the little girl who passed, about her mother who did not, and about whether or not any of us is strong enough to pick ourselves up after such tragedies. Then we hug, in the most knowing of ways, share a glass of tequila, and join the boys on the porch. The sun slants low, the dogs play at our feet, and we eat take-out from tin trays, laughing again, back inside the rest of the story that belongs to today.



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