Dancing Skeletons

The other day I started writing a post about photographs, and then I stumbled upon this Memorial Day photo. The unmitigated grief in the image brought me to tears, and so I’m writing about today, which is every day.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t enjoy BBQs and a day off of work. Maybe we should, because we have so much to be thankful for. Holidays in the U.S. can be gross, though – Christmas being the worst, as I ranted about in 2010 and 2011 – because we tend to forget the meanings. Veterans and those close to them might accuse me of the same, as, on Memorial Day, I choose to remember people I’ve lost regardless of how they died.

memorial day

Memorial Day also makes me think about life.

Two years ago I wrote the piece below from my mom’s place, where my sisters, niece, aunt and I gathered, along with mom’s hospice nurses. Last week I saw my sister Jill and her family again, as I do a couple of times a year. They now have a boy, who’s nearly the same age as Fia was when I wrote the post. Emmett rolls around in the dirt, breaks stuff (yup, definitely a boy) and walks in what appears to be a constant state of forward falling (complete with frequent wipe-outs, which often segue seamlessly to him rolling in the dirt or on the floor, making some sort of mess, and finding it hilarious). Fia is now three and a half, climbing trees, talking up a storm and developing her personality, a wonderful mix of sensitive introvert and a little babble box curious about the world. She’s just like Jill was at that age – god, has it really been 40 years? – and quite likely the most adorable thing I’ve ever seen in my life. “Mama,” she told Jill the other morning, “Can you please take the toothbrush out of your mouth so we can have a conversation?”

It’s almost incomprehensible to ponder the cycle of life, how fast and slow it happens, how we are nothing and everything in the passage of the greater universe and our individual universes.

About a month and a half after I wrote the below post, my friend Bean died. He was 38. Fuckin’ cancer. Unbelievable, and so ironic, given that he’d easily used up nine or more lives in the mountains. A couple of months ago a young friend, Kevin, only 24, died also of cancer. I will never understand life’s incomprehensible cruelty when young people die. And I can’t even think about children with cancer, or I disintegrate into a sobbing mess. Yet it all starts with the beauty and the possibility inherent in birth. Just the other day, it seems, Tommy and Becca let me hold their newborn son in the hospital, and again a few weeks later, as he slept on my chest and I stared at his minuscule fingers and his closed eyes, I marveled, alternately chuckling and drifting through thoughts about the mysteries of the universe. 

I haven’t tried to count the number of friends I’ve lost in the mountains, though more will someday die of disease, old age and what we call natural causes. Last summer my cousin, my age, drowned, along with his best pack mule, in his beloved Missouri River. His girlfriend tried to save him, but he was trapped in a whirlpool and with his last breaths, before he went under, he shouted and swatted her away so that she wouldn’t die, too. I didn’t know what to say to my aunt – his mother, my mom’s sister – and I still don’t. I know only that my feelings of loss will never approach the eternal void, the indescribable and permanent sorrow, of a parent who lost their child.

Yet the weirdest thing of all is to reconcile the simple truth, the reality, that death will only continue, because it has to. One day – the blink of an eye, really – it will be me, my sister, even her kids and then theirs, a thought so impossible I feel wrong for even thinking it. But this is the natural cycle of life, and the simple reality that time is all we have. At its heart, and not to sound trite, maybe it explains why I climb: because nothing makes me feel so alive, so at peace that I can dance with the rhythm of the world. I am forever grateful for the privilege and the freedom to pursue the life that I love.

A few weeks after I wrote the post below, my mom drifted away and died peacefully. I think of her sometimes, though maybe not as often as I should. I don’t know what “should” means. Maybe it’s just a sign of closure, of peace. And in death, I am certain, she finally had the peace that so often eluded her in life.

Hemingway wrote (A Farewell to Arms):

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”


Memorial Day (originally published on Patagonia’s blog on May 27, 2011)

Kelly staring into the Black, and the Black staring back. Photo: Steve Halvorson

Kelly staring into the Black, and the Black staring back. Photo: Steve Halvorson

I like the idea of dancing skeletons. They seem happy and free. I like dancing, too, though I don’t do it much, at least not in public (be grateful; I just do the same disco moves over and over again while sporting my whiteman’s overbite). But I love the idea – movement for the joy of movement and expression. Kind of like climbing, in a way. Probably just as absurd, too. Imagine Martians coming down and watching people dance. Or watching people climb. And skeletons, well, let’s be realistic. All of us die. In climbing and any adventurous realms of living, we might die sooner than otherwise. No guarantees, of course.

The Memorial Day weekend and the label art on a tequila bottle inspired these babbles (and a margarita recipe, of course). Which also leads me to apologize: I’ve received some flak for not giving kids’ versions of my margarita recipes, and for that I am truly sorry. Thus, in today’s post I shall include my well-researched kiddie version. I even asked my sister about it – right now I’m hanging with her and her adorable 18-month-old daughter, Fia, who’s fascinated by everything in her vast little world, so soon I’ll have her sample it.

Jonny Copp and two old friends on the Kahiltna Glacier, AK, 2003.

Jonny Copp and two old friends on the Kahiltna Glacier, AK, 2003.

This seems to me a great weekend to celebrate the cycle of life. The Memorial Day holiday originated for those who died in military service, and was traditionally observed on May 30 (my mom’s birthday!), though for me – and with full respect to the original idea – the holiday has even broader implications. It makes me remember everyone I’ve loved, no matter how they lived their lives, including their willingness to embrace risk or do things that are so easy to look back upon and second guess, because everything we do – the good and bad decisions we make, the experiences we have, the chances we take – are all a part of us, and make us who we are. For all of that, I am grateful.

And I’m grateful for my mom – she’s the reason I’m down here with my sisters, niece and aunt – with her quirky humor and wild streak. Hell, the phone rang yesterday, she answered and told the bill collectors, “No. I’m busy dying right now.” Wild-living, hard-charging, too often in too much trouble, but always full of love and now back in her home at last, no more hospitals, thanks to her dear friend who helps care for her, and for the wonderful, compassionate people of hospice.

It’s a good weekend to celebrate, to be thankful for all that makes us who we are, and to be thankful for the fact that we live such great lives that, on a daily basis most of the year, we can take for granted all that we have. All the way until we are nothing more than dancing skeletons.

kc - espolon IMG_3136

The Memorial Day Marg:

Espolón tequila: reasonably priced, 100% agave (of course – never forget that, despite marketing hype of mixto and gold blends, 100% agave is THE baseline), surprisingly good for the price. And who can’t love the label?

Limes: get ‘em fresh. Invest the $4.99 in a manual juice squeezer, and if you start by rolling the limes to soften ‘em, and maybe even microwaving for about 13 seconds per lime, the juices come plentiful. Work hard and you should be able to get about 2 oz. of juice per lime.

Agave nectar: Sweetener made from the same plant tequila comes from – perfect. Just a couple of squirts per squeezed lime tends to do it. Adjust to taste.

Lemon & orange: squeeze some of each. Or, if you’re lazy, just get it from the store.

Marg: About half tequila, and half the other stuff. The other stuff is mostly lime juice, with that squirt of agave nectar and a splash of lemon and orange juice. Adjust to taste – I can’t describe it down to the milliliter. After all, life is art, damnit.

Put it in a shaker or water bottle or anything, and shake the bejesus out of it. Pour it over ice. Salt if you have it (doh, I spaced it at the store last night).

Kiddie version: At long last, with apologies to my sister and all the parents out there for my delay, I present the kiddie version: more salt, less tequila.

5 thoughts on “Dancing Skeletons

  1. hi kelly–laura’s friend janie who had the honor to assist dan with his death–i always remember how you came over to the house and all of us were one big snot ball finding out his diagnosis–i think you were about 12 yrs old at the time or at least looked like one–what an engaging clip you wrote as have been the others laura has shared with me–got me teary in the Break Expresso having my caffeine jolt–actually had to blow my nose–stay mindful in the moment as you have kelly and don’t change a bit–add me to your e-mail–no facebook this way–i barely type–love from missoula, janie

    • Hi Janie, thank you for the note. Whew, yes, I remember those days well, and they were so sad, yet as I admired Dan in life I also admired his approach to death.
      If I had an email send-out I’d put ya on it, Janie. Instead, I’ll just send you a note to say hello. Take care, Kelly

  2. The photo at Arlington is of James Regan’s fiance Mary McHugh. James was a pretty inspiring guy. He played lacrosse at Duke and could have gone and worked on Wall St or gone to law school upon graduating like a lot of his teammates / classmates, instead he enlisted and became a US Army Ranger. Upon James’ death in 2007, his family set up the Lead the Way Fund to support disabled Rangers and the families of Rangers who have been killed, wounded or are currently deployed. It is a pretty awesome charity that does important work supporting those who are risking everything for others. http://www.leadthewayfund.org

    • Thank you. I appreciate hearing the story, though of course am sorry the situation ever occurred. Absolutely heart-wrenching photo. The charity sounds awesome, indeed. Will check it out. Thanks again.

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