>Daniel's Shelf Blog
The growl of the engine and the ache in my head almost drown out Tilly's childish voice. I glanced quickly in the rearview mirror, catching her warm brown eyes. She smiled at me, and her eyes crinkled, just like her mother's. I pushed that thought away and concentrated on my daughter.
"What did you say, Tillyboo?"
"Birz, Papa." Birz? What the...
"Birds? What color are they?"
Her forehead wrinkled, and she gave me an exasperated look, just like Della's. "Boo." Like I should know. I grinned at her, and she beamed back.
"Boo birz, Papa."
She went back to looking out the window, probably trying to find more "boo birz", and I went back to brooding, mourning, whatever the heck it was called when your other half, your soul mate was gone suddenly. Ripped away more like it, I thought as I downshifted the truck to take the exit off I-5. The Focus would have been more economical for this long trip, but it was a mangled pile of metal and glass in some anonymous wrecking yard back in Portland. Thank the Lord the Ram had a backseat big enough for Tilly's car seat.
I drove slowly past the Chevron station and turned onto the road toward Castle Crags State Park. My throat tightened, and I swallowed hard. This had been one of Della's favorite parks. My sweet California girl had introduced this good ole Oregon boy to the park one unforgettable Memorial Day weekend, when we got a rare break from real life, her from her study of entomology at UC Davis and me from my job working construction on some dormitory remodels. I was in shock and awe that this smart amazing woman wanted anything to do with me, a simple construction worker with no plans to ever be anything else. I swallowed again, pushing down the memories of that weekend when I proposed.
I stopped at the Entrance Station to buy a day pass. Tilly was wriggling with pent-up energy, so I unbuckled her car seat and set her on the graveled parking lot. She ran around with her arms out, maybe pretending she was a blue bird. Stepping to the open window, I bought the pass while keeping my eye on my fluttering daughter. Maybe she'll grow up to be an ornithologist, I thought, as I pocketed my change and called to her.
"Tillyboo, let's go, sweetie. Just a few more minutes then you can run around all you want."
"Wun now, Papa."
I scooped her up as she whirled past, nuzzling her tummy with my rough chin. She giggled, and the sound was like a knife to my heart and a balm at the same time. She was still giggling as I buckled her back into her car seat and got behind the wheel.
I drove slowly through the inhabitable areas of the park, past picnic spots and campgrounds, ignoring the tug in my gut whenever I saw a family around a campfire or tent. Finally I reached the narrow road winding its way toward Vista Point. I squeezed the truck up against the bank a couple of times, giving the tourists in compact cars and motorcycles and one idiot in a mini-motor home room to pass.
Tilly was chattering in the back, pointing out everything her three-year-old eyes could take in. Half of it was incomprehensible to me so I nodded or said "wow" or "that's nice" whenever she paused. Della had understood every lisped and garbled word out of Tilly's rosebud mouth. Guess I'd have to pay more attention and learn toddler.
After one final turn and climb, I pulled into the parking lot at the head of the footpath to the viewpoint and parked close to the restrooms. Now came the fun part, getting city-raised Tilly to use an outhouse before the climb to our final destination. She had the mechanics down, but I wasn't sure how my fastidious little princess would do without her potty seat.
Getting out and shutting my door, I opened the back door and shrugged into my backpack. It always surprised me how light it was.
"Come on, Tillyboo, you can get out now." I unbuckled her again and lifted her down to the ground. Holding her hand, I pointed to the outhouse and explained what she needed to do before we hiked up the trail.
"I know, Papa," she said indignantly. Walking purposefully toward the wood and stone building, she drew up short and stopped. Suddenly shy of the unfamiliar structure, she turned and clung to my leg. After picking her up and talking to her softly as I edged toward the door, I managed to get her inside and get her business done with only a couple of tears and a soft, "don wike".
By the first turn on the trail, she had shaken off the fright of the outdoor toilet and was surging up the trail ahead of me, only to squat abruptly and point out a pinecone or a fern or a bug of some kind. I was fine explaining various plants, but I had always left the bugs to Della. Now I wished I'd paid more attention.
The July air was hot and dry, and I was sweating by the time we reached the wide spot where plaques explained what we were seeing and picnic tables invited us to sit and rest out legs. Tilly was cool and dry, in spite of running most of the way interspersed with unexpected stops to admire flora and fauna. She was also noticeably dirtier, but she didn't seem to mind. Maybe we could go camping later in the summer. But somewhere else. Not here. Never here.#
I picked Tilly up and walked around the perimeter of Vista Point, showing her the granite spires the park was named for. I told her this was one of Mama's favorite places. Her smooth little forehead wrinkled.
I nodded. Della had only been gone a couple of months, but it seemed Tilly was forgetting her. It was to be expected. Tilly hadn't even had her third birthday when Della died, but it tore at my heart when she couldn't remember her mother. I pulled a photo up on my phone and showed it to her.
"Mama." She stared hard at the dark-haired woman who had given her brown eyes and curly hair. Gently, she touched the screen.
"Yeah, baby. That's Mama." Softly I sang her the song Della sang almost everyday when she put Tilly down for her nap. Tilly's brown eyes lit up. She remembered the song, even if she couldn't remember the woman who had sung it. She looked around, maybe expecting to see Della. Her forehead wrinkled again, and her tiny shoulders dropped.
"No, Tilly, no Mama."
I set her on a picnic table and placed my backpack gently beside her. Opening the top, I pulled out a plain cardboard box. I set it beside the tiny replica of Della and removed the lid, revealing a sack of gray ash. It amazed me what a vibrant healthy woman could be reduced to by a drunk driver and a crematorium. Not wanting to alarm Tilly, who was watching my every movement, I carefully took the bag out of the box.
"Papa's going to go over to the fence, Tilly. You stay here, please." I handed her the phone, switched to one of her favorite screens, Bubble Wrap. Leaving her happily popping away, I moved over to the fence keeping visitors safe from tumbling into the gorge below.
Removing the tie closing the bag, I looked around one last time to make sure Tilly and I were alone. Slowly I tipped the last remains of my heart, my love out into the soft California breeze. The ash floated gently then settled slowly into the gorge below the viewpoint. I stayed at the fence until the last haze had gone.
I turned toward my daughter and froze. Amazement held me fast as I saw my sweet Tilly surrounded by a cloud of butterflies. Orange and black and white monarchs fluttered around her soft black curls, landing on her upturned cheeks and hands and shoulders. She held perfectly still as they floated around her for nearly five minutes. Then in a billow of color, they rose and drifted away.
"Yes, baby, futterbees." I picked up my heart, my love, my life and hugged her.
"Ready to go home, Tillyboo?" She nodded and snuggled her tiny head against my shoulder.
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I began writing as soon as I could hold a pen. Then came college, marriage, and kids, and my life was full.