Transitions: Part One

Words: David Steele

There is one window in Nancy’s room, a rectangle. Two panes divide a westward view across a modestly busy California street. Curtains. Every time the nurse is paged to help her pee, the curtains are closed for privacy. Once back in her bed, the tension is almost audible until they are reopened.

Roadtripping to north of California’s Bay Area from Montana meant two days in the car. My girlfriend Rose and I left behind snow storms and an invite for the first real touring mission of the year for a different type of tour. Our wheels rolled across I-90 west, then through the Tri-Cities to Portland, and south on I-5 further and further from snow.

Author David Steele finding his inner peace. Location: Glacier National Park

The second day saw us passing Shasta, looking heavenly in a light coat of new snow, taunting my sedentary passenger seat. When we arrived, it was straight to Nancy’s bedside. I joined as a new party, watching all twenty-five years of grandmother/grandchild relationship course through two held hands.

I felt like an intruder watching from my plastic chair. What do I know of a ninety-year-old mind, a person who can look back at the late 1920s as a lived experience? She could barely hear me, my words traveling through Rose’s mouth before reaching her ears. She spoke of going home. Home was the backwoods cottage that Rose and I had begun to clean out.

I was unsure how I was of any meaning as a boyfriend, such a new acquisition. Compared to Rose’s entire lifetime, I questioned my ability to add any meaning to her time. The trifling conversation about weather, old movies, the random demented woman who would wheelchair uninvited into Nancy’s room was dwarfed by the other things floating above the hospital beds. Nancy had no will. She barely slept, terrified of dying mid-dream. We couldn’t discuss “anything sad.”

Wind-scoured ridges, rocky summits, couloirs filled with drifts—for me, the absence of people and sentiment defines these places. As remote emotionally as they are physically, they tempt any eye to think them more immortal than water, wind gusts, or time. This became my daydream as I watched this old woman sleep, trying to ignore how lines on an aged face are like erosion, permanent marks in time.

It is a helpless thing to witness a person long gone from their fitness, their muscles, even the ability to stand up unassisted. The qualities I measure my own vitality with had escaped her. There, confronted with the messy details of another’s end, I wished for those cold, remote mountainous places because they seem endless. They ask nothing, give only the intangible. To live amongst them is an ambiguous embrace, not the heartsick sympathy for a fellow person who I barely knew.

In the months leading up to our visit, another grandchild asked Nancy, “Grandma, what was your plan? What did you think you’d do when you got old?”

“I didn’t. I didn’t think I’d get old.”





Maybe that’s the heart of it, the heart of me; one more youth in the mountains, proud and fearless seemingly forever. The hard landings on tricky snow aren’t cumulative. The head trauma not a factor. Surgery and statistics and dead friends to be survived, all transitions to make.

In my mind, and in Nancy’s too, our tracks never stop. They don’t fade from five laps in a bowl to forty feet through a hallway under the florescent glare. Perhaps we acknowledge our error, but we can’t own our end. And so as young ski mountaineer, wrapped in an identity built from straining muscle, I share this blatant, perpetual notion with a feisty woman battling dementia.

From my plastic chair, I see how our shared illness manages to bridge over the years. How reckless it is that we can walk twenty miles one day, and then not at all. And how reckless to sit encumbered while I still can hit the bottom, transition, and begin breaking the trail back up. -DS


Leave a Reply

Bombsnow on Instagram

Like us on Facebook