Had She Stayed – I

I seem to find myself at this overlook whenever fall comes to an end. In 2020 fall was much shorter than usual, simply an overnight trip to Crested Butte after dropping off work for a small viewing Labor Day weekend.

Had she stayed – ISO 100 | F/8 | 1/200 sec.

The Arkansas Valley is certainly an essential destinal for anyone new to or just visiting Colorado. It left such a massive impression on me when I drove into its expanse the first time, that each time I cycle back to it I’m moved to the emotions I felt in 1988. This was something that felt genuinely new. I marveled at how the Collegiate Peaks and the central spine of the Continental Divide shot up from the valley floor and towered over the western flank. To the south is the aptly named Salida, “the exit” of the valley and a great bend in the Arkansas River that was the birthplace of whitewater sports in Colorado. To the north, the Collegiates give way to the northern Sawatch Range, home to Colorado’s highest peaks, and the headwaters of the Arkansas.

These places have been inhabited and explored by First Nation people, Spanish explorers and missionaries, members of the Fremont Expedition, and ranchers who followed in the footsteps of trappers and miners. It’s hard to completely erase modern societies’ footprint from this landscape, but there are basins, ridges and peaks that offer the perfect escape from this handiwork, though little of the Arkansas River remains in its native state. Having summited the entirety of the two ranges in the lifetime that’s been my Colorado, I can attest to how easily one can get lost in the spectacle of the place, while also lamenting how we change it and it can change us.

The naivety that insulated those first few months of wonder extended into all aspects of my life. First, exploring a new city and building a new circle of friends. The comfort of having a sibling close at hand for the first time in many years, the potential for joy seemed as endless as the midsummer’s setting sun. All the things I’d dreamed about, skiing in the Colorado Rockies, camping under the endless nights, hiking to the tallest peaks in the country; all of it a revelation. I worked a simple job in the city those first few months in a small deli, it was the perfect antidote to the pressure I’d felt pursuing a degree. Going into work with just a few simple tasks to accomplish was a welcome relief from statistics and policy papers, lessons plans and journaling. I never knew just how happy I could be washing dishes. Fortunately a co-worker in the restaurant saw more in me than simple kitchen help. Cheryl led me on a number of hikes in the foothills on our days off, even taking me on some of my first ski trips that winter. But most importantly she took me to Sanborn Western Camps. This was the difference. This was the experience that cemented my love for Colorado, and cemented the course that my life would take. From waking in a 10 foot by 10 foot canvas tent, to leading groups of 13 and 14 year olds on multi-night trips, and eventually teaching natural history classes to sixth graders, I was hooked. Hooked on the fresh mountain air. Hooked on the vistas that stretched for many dozen miles. Hooked on sharing stories and experiences that opened the eyes of young people to the world around them. The hooks were set deep, and they would hold fast.

For the hundreds of miles that were hiked in those few months, along with the thousands of miles that would be driven, there was always a burning question of “what’s next?” Most of the people working at the camp either already had their degrees, or would be returning to a senior year to finish it up. But not me, I was in limbo. I’d left college, disillusioned, worn out and completely uncertain of what was next. I only knew in December of 1987 that “more college” wasn’t next. But, by September of 1988, I was ready for more. In fact, I’d applied and been accepted to one of the extension colleges in Colorado Springs, and was navigating a new place to live and making plans to start fresh again in January. But fate would intervene and I would take a trip north one weekend, to Northern Colorado, the school where my bunk-mate that summer had been attending. During a conversation at the end of the summer, he threw out the idea that if I were interested in pursuing teaching, that the University of Northern Colorado WAS Colorado’s teachers college, and that I should at least make a visit to Greeley where the college was located.

After a Labor Day trip to Michigan and getting bucked off of the hay-wagon and transforming the camp from a summer residence to one ready for a long winter slumber, I made my first trip to Greeley. This unassuming prairie town had at that time not only the college, but an underbelly that revolved around the feedlots and meat-packing plants and a questionable foothold in modernity. In more recent times it has seen a Texas-style gas boom, bringing new industry and commerce to its wide streets, and a resurgence of that conservatism that on the surface seems genuine yet underneath reveals a less than honest supposition. But 32 years ago it played the part of a college town without much else to offer. The first trip was a raucous enough event that I decided to make a second trip. This second journey, while not as expansive as the first, which was filled with silly adventures and stunts, was far more meaningful and pivotal. I got a better sense of the school in this trip, I decided that I would enroll in UNC to finish my degree, I also met someone, someone like I’d never met before.

We’ve all heard of “love at first sight,” that ethereal connection that can undermine reason and rationality, and seems to, through the most preposterous circumstance bring together a pair in the most inexplicable way. It’s pure fantasy – an impossible, improbable attraction that starts with a simple acknowledgement of a being who is unlike any you’ve encountered before, to long, silent looking of eyes, literally across the room, through a never ending jumble of conversations where the two of you can’t seem to gain the patience to listen to a full response before launching into a new set of questions, in hopes of unlocking just one more secret in this mystery, as you know it might vanish as quickly as it appeared. This was Janine – an apparition of spellbinding beauty and curiosity all rolled up into one perfect person. Her birthday was just weeks away, we were born in the same year just weeks apart. She wanted to be a teacher, a high school art teacher. She was a runner. She was tall. She held my eyes and my imagination as no one before had.

What ensued was a furious string of letter writing. Pages upon pages of secret sharing and divulging. Contemplative questions and percolating of plans. The missive “what-ifs!” that make a new relationship so exciting and so equally dangerous. I would be in the central mountains for a few more months, but made follow-up trips to Greeley and to her home in the small mountain town between the camp and Greeley. In time, I received my acceptance letter to UNC and made the individual plan to head east for the Christmas holiday. While I didn’t want to leave Colorado in the short term, I knew this was a small set of family obligations that would be enjoyable, and give me time again with all of my brothers; helping one finish his own relocation, spending invaluable time with my oldest brother – who would be dead within the next 18 months, and my closest brother, still growing through the ranks in his military career. I’ve written before that I grew up in the shadows of giants – my brothers were those giants.

Before that fall would close out, and then leaving for Florida and then Michigan, I would celebrate my 22nd birthday in the mountains, a pre-sunrise hike to watch a setting full moon, thinking in that moment of how this was just the beginning to all I’d dreamed. I would need to relocate myself from the mountain hamlet I’d been enjoying to Greeley. There would be a few short weeks before Thanksgiving, when my trip east would start, and plans were underway to spend Thanksgiving with Janine and her mother and closest friends. From my perspective there was no better way to cap my first year in Colorado, and there was so much anticipation of what 1989 would bring.

The holiday in the mountains was good, though there was a tension that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I chalked it up to the too short of time together, and the hecticness of entertaining so many people in an unexpected way. I left early on Friday morning, with promises of constant contact, and an inflated optimism on my part that was equally matched by a silent heartbreak that was building inside of Janine. I wouldn’t find out for another week or so, but Janine would divulge that she was pregnant. My instant reaction was that we could absolutely make it work. My mind began spinning on campus family-housing, and how we could work, and study and support each other while becoming a family. I stated this to her before even fully thinking it through, but I knew I felt such unconditional love towards her, towards this space in between us that I would do absolutely anything to see it through. Her mind was long past made up. She already had an appointment at Planned Parenthood, and all she really wanted was money. The $300 was an impossible amount for her, but her mind was completely set. She wanted the abortion, which I could completely support, but the real cost was that she wanted absolutely nothing to do with me afterward.

Writing that sentence today, 32 years later, I can still feel my chest collapse. There is a brutal emptiness in that rejection. But that is what happened. After I returned from my trip, we met when classes started back up. Sitting quietly at a small table in a chaotic coffee shop, I tried to absorb her words, and her hurt. I tried my best to drink in all of her pain, but there was absolutely nothing to be done about it. She wanted no consolation from me, no empathy, much less sympathy – she simply wanted to erase the last three months of her life and she wanted to move forward by herself.

To say I was devastated is an understatement. I had experienced absolutely nothing like this at all, ever. Yes, there had been bad break-ups and unrequenched love, but never a complete and total rejection of not just a present, but a re-writing of a past and the forfeiture of a future. This hurt was completely different than anything I’d ever known or experienced. To say I was numb over the next few days is a complete understatement. The college campus and the town weren’t that big. We would be navigating similar circles in the next few years, how could we not have any contact, much less any encounters? For me, that question would be answered in a few weeks, when the person I would ultimately marry and raise children with entered my life. She was the breath of fresh air, and the much needed distraction that forced me to turn away from the pain that I had been holding onto since that last conversation with Janine. But, I made a glaring mistake with this new person, I didn’t share what I was experiencing, what I had just experienced, what was consuming me thoughts. I let this new person be a distraction – it felt like a good place to set my grief. And for the next six months it worked. I was happy to sit in that distraction, and content to feel that this was something that was moving forward, but in late August, after returning from a solo motorcycle trip, where my thoughts and feelings and experience all gathered themselves inside my motorcycle helmet and forced my to come to a conclusion I wasn’t fully prepared for. This new person, this new relationship wasn’t working. I had too much grief and too much anxiety in me to keep moving forward. I laid all of that out to her, to Kay, and she refused to accept it. She would lay out her grievances, her pain over being rejected in that moment, and in an instance we entered a pact where I was suddenly, solely responsible for her emotional wellbeing, while silently killing off my own emotional needs.

We then set off on this rocky course. A few months later, without seeking her out, Janine would enter my social circle; it really was only a matter of time. Kay and I fought. I tried to pull away again, but landed back in thick web of emotions that were simultaneously being confronted by this confused mess, my eminent graduation, and the illness of my oldest brother, whose HIV status would turn into full-blown AIDS, and a drama would soon engulf our family as we began to countdown the days of his life and hold vigil before his early death.

At this moment, I can remember feeling that there was nothing “right” that I could do. I stayed with Kay. She moved out of our shared apartment to pursue her student teaching, ultimately relocating in Denver. After Rick’s death that summer I returned to finish my classes, Kay and I cobbled together a long-distance relationship over the next year, before I finally joined her in Denver. As the summer of 1991 ended and a final hurdle in my education approached, I vowed to finish my student teaching and move on. We were stranded in a sad relationship. It wasn’t what either of us wanted, but it is what we had. And then three years later, after the first truly painful rejection in my life, I was granted the opportunity for redemption. Kay was pregnant. And, while it wasn’t a poetic offer, she asked me to stay. I knew before being asked that this was my opportunity to change, to do something different, to be present, and raise a child.

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