Friday, December 08, 2006
Mt Rainier never fails to make me gasp. It’s an involuntary action – my ex- used to tease me about it (before he was my ex-) – the clouds would part and we’d round a corner where the mountain would come into view. My jaw would drop and I’d audibly take in a rush of breath, startling anyone unlucky enough to be nearby, who for a moment would be certain something horrible was happening.
No. Just something astonishing.
If you’ve seen it, you know: A not-entirely-dormant volcano that rises heads and shoulders above its peers in the Cascade and Olympic mountain ranges at almost 14 ½ thousand feet – higher than K2 – it’s Washington State’s Mt. Fuji.
My Bompa loved the mountain too, and one day as we were driving into town together, and he heard me gasp involuntarily when it came into view, he told me the story of how its original name was Tahoma (Wikipedia tells us that it was Puyallup name meaning “mouth of the waters”) and there was brief period when he was a kid when they thought about rolling back to that name -- but the white folks would have none of that (probably, he thought, the Seattle folks didn’t like how close it was to “Tacoma”, their rival city to the South), so Rainier stuck.
But once he told me that story I held on to the name, and when I was alone my gasp would transform into a greeting. “Tahoma.” It fit.
When my Bompa died one Seattle Spring, two events ushered in his passing. The first: The cherry trees that he loved and took us frequently to see in the University of Washington’s Quadrangle bloomed early.
I passed by the Quad just the day before I got my grandmother's call in the early pre-dawn, when she said: “He’s started his death rattle. My mother did this. Go back to sleep – it’s too early – but I wanted you to know.”
The day before when I had passed Quad, the day before I got her call, the blossoms caught my eye and made me turn my head. I gasped, of course -- they were so beautiful and bold and full of life.
Of course I didn’t go back to sleep the morning I received her call. Of course I pulled on the first thing I could find and piled myself into the car and drove the brief distance to Des Moines, where my grandparents were living, from Seattle, where I watched the slow passage of the barges across the Sound during the course of the day beside the hospital bed that we had set up for my grandfather in the living room, looking out over his long loved Three Tree Point.
We sat together all day, I read him the paper, fed him ice cubes, and later that afternoon he would die, in a passing that felt like a birth. I felt a powerful urge to take off my shoes, because the whole thing felt holy. I wish I had, but I was embarrassed because I had holes in my socks. They were the first ones I could find in the dark.
I suspected when Grandma called that Bompa would pass that day. But I knew for sure he was taking his leave when I drove through the Rainier Valley in the dawn, just as the sun was rising and a low fog obscured the strip usually populated with warehouses and shopping malls, and the sun rising reflected fiery and pink (the color of his cherry blossoms) off the low lying clouds and the white peaks of the mountain, Tahoma, calling him home.
The Mountain never looked so beautiful.