Recently my daughters visited me in Alaska. We hadn’t seen each other in eleven months and this was their first time to fly. 4,000 miles is a long journey to make with your sister when you’re sixteen. Or fifteen. I planned a full itinerary, knowing that this would be the one opportunity they would have to sense the potential which this place holds before they and the rest of my family made the big move across the country to start a new life here.
During the long dark evenings after a full day of wilderness, outdoor exploring and good food, Trinity and I had worked on algebra together, solving problem after problem on the floor of my bedroom while my older daughter, Shaelynn, listened to music and read. I missed teaching my girls, and it felt good to see how far they had come and how much they were able to understand. Shaelynn still remembered so much of the German which I had taught her, and spoke easily with me in simple phrases and questions. It had been so long, yet they had not forgotten. In fact, they could do even more than I remembered.
While driving back to Anchorage from Talkeetna on the day before their flight home, I suddenly felt sad because I wasn’t sure if I had made the right decision to spend the day in Talkeetna with them. Perhaps we should have gone to Eklutna Lake or Byron Glacier. Perhaps there might have been a better way to introduce them to more charming or exciting experiences. I found myself crying a little at the thought of their imminent departure, and the long separation which lay before us. But the girls, in their sweet affectionate way, reassured me that they had loved every moment.
Then Trinity and I had a long conversation about the melancholy which affects us both in occasional waves, often unexpectedly. “I have certain strategies to cope with it,” I told her. “Like what?” she asked. “Well, I do a lot of math. It helps me focus and it’s something I want to get better at so I can help my students who are intimidated by math like I was when I was in school. It’s peaceful and makes me feel calm. I concentrate on helping other people and involving myself in their lives so that I’m not thinking about myself. But I also spend a lot of time writing. This is a double-edged sword, because sometimes writing makes me sad, and I have to do something else. I play my guitar or music that I like. I go outside a lot and put myself in beautiful places, difficult places, so that all I can think about is the next immediate practical step, and fill myself with a sense of what I am able to do with my own body and mind. This keeps me focused. And the whole experience is cathartic. I feel a lot better afterwards.” She seemed intrigued by these tactics, and mused over them as we drove across the Hay Flats, over the bridge on Knik River and around the bend towards Chugiak.
We spent our last evening at the Bear Tooth, and as I was bemoaning the fact that they hadn’t gotten to try cross-country skiing, Shaelynn laughed and reminded me, “Mama, even if we had been able to ski, you’d be tell us how disappointed you were that we weren’t able to try the four or five other things you had planned. There’s just no end of fun things to do in Alaska!”
“I guess you’re right,” I shrugged, smiling. “You didn’t get to walk on a glacier. You didn’t get to fly in a small plane. You didn’t get to go ice climbing. We didn’t even get to go bouldering in the rock gym. We just ran out of time.”
“Yeah,” Trinity grinned at me. “I guess we’ll just have to wait till August.”
I thought my favorite part of the visit would be taking them snowshoeing in Hatcher Pass or hiking up Wolverine and looking out over Anchorage, the city I hope to make their new home in about a year’s time. I thought it would be the excitement I felt, knowing the power of the natural beauty would captivate them as it had me. But it wasn’t the excitement of travel, sharing Alaskan experiences or even their golden optimism and perseverance that affected me the most after our long separation.
When the time came to drop them off at the airport for their midnight flight, I pulled up to the curb for departures, and watched my girls’ independence unfold before me. Yes, they had their IDs, their confirmation number, their money. They understood how to use the kiosk and how to ask for help. Before she got out of the Jeep, Trinity turned to me, laid her hand on my shoulder and said, “Mama, if you get sad, just do some math until you feel better. We’ll be okay.” Then she and her sister stepped out of the car, waved good bye, and walked through the sliding doors. I watched them through the glass windows as they approached the airline kiosks, side by side. And I knew they’d be all right. All the way back to home.