An inspirational and sometimes humorous story of upheaval, loneliness, love and acceptance, and seeing the beauty of the desert.
My husband knew the news would break my heart, and so he put it off. When the time came, I knew by the look in his eyes that it was hard for him, but I didn’t care. I cried, raged and hated him for every word and then refused to believe him. But when the certainty of it set in, I let fingers of anger knead my mind before I retreated into a cloud of depression; not the garden variety depression, but the darkest I’d ever known.
By command of my husband’s employer, our family of four was to move out of state by mid-September. This news came during the initial months of my siege with an undiagnosed illness that robbed my mobility and battered my body with throbbing pain and dizzy spells. Bedridden since May, my only outings had been to see doctors, physical therapists and lab technicians. Now I had to muster a reserve of strength to sell our home, choose a new one, pack, move away from loved ones, and start a new life. Resisting the pronouncement with every fiber of my being, I refused to accept it and prayed for a miracle.
Even though Richland, Washington was only two hundred miles from Portland, I had to look it up on the map; only to discover that Hanford’s notorious nuclear waste dump would be in our new backyard. This fueled “glow-in-the-dark” and “don’t drink the water” comments from friends and family. I needed a miracle, and soon.
Sinking under waves of misery, I surfaced just enough to join my husband and kids on the first of two weekend trips to find a house. Just east of Portland we passed Multnomah Falls with her cascading tresses floating down, evaporating in August’s heat. Memories of hiking to her crown rushed back. In a state of reverie, I breathed in cool moist air and the fragrance of the firs along the narrow path to her summit. I heard robins chirp and maple leaves rustle in the breeze. At the top I leaned over the railing just for a moment, overcome by the altitude.
After the hike we would skitter down the steep path to cool off in the rocky pool at her feet. My mouth watered at the thought of biting into a four-inch high soft vanilla cone we’d buy at the refreshment stand. Cool rivulets of creaminess dripped down our wrists and we giggled at our white mustaches – good days, pain free days, happy days.
At The Dalles, the capricious Columbia Gorge gave over its water falls and emerald foliage to bare, jagged hills and scrubby trees. The desolation offered little for me to think on or enjoy. Shifting to find a more comfortable spot in the seat, I sighed; tears welled up, spilled over, and I stifled a sob at the thought of starting all over.
As we crossed the Columbia River at Umatilla, Oregon we were greeted by a sign: “Welcome to Washington, the EvergreenState.” Evergreen? We saw nothing but dry, dusty, lifeless hills. They had been fried to a crisp in August’s triple digit temperatures.
My spirits sank even lower and I silently questioned what we had done to see this day. Without thinking I blurted out, “Who dropped the bomb?” Indeed, the landscape looked like it had been nuked. It reminded me of the opening scenes from Charleton Heston’s movie, Planet of the Apes. My husband said something like, “It’s not that bad.” Oh really? I thought.
Numbed by pain and exhaustion, all I can remember is the hot, dry wind, grumpy kids, cramped hotel room, and a collection of dismal houses. The houses the realtor showed us were throwbacks to a former era; replete with orange counter-tops, green sinks, red velvet wallpaper, dark woodwork, old vinyl, and shag carpets. We were moving to Hicksville. I increased my petitions for the miracle I’d been praying for since day one.
The final house turned my heart against the community, but good. Its driveway sloped into the garage at a forty-five degree angle and the house hosted a disgusting collection of bugs, dust and filth. Even our son was revolted. Alternating between laughter and tears, we ate lunch, packed up, and declared our trip a failure.
Two days later, back in our home in the west hills of Portland, I wallowed in misery. How could my husband expect us to uproot our lives and settle down in a miserable house in the ugliest part of the pacific northwest? Our high schooler declared he would stay in Portland and live with friends. Our six year old daughter refused to give up her large bedroom and Shanna, her best friend. Half-serious, I told my husband he could move and just send money.
Surely God would step in and save us. Maybe the company would change plans. Maybe my husband would find a new job. But no miracle came along and no Fairy Godmother materialized, so we organized the house and put it up for sale. I hoped the next owner would appreciate our new kitchen and bathroom, the view of Mount Hood, and the incredible walnut tree that shaded half of the back yard.
We had recently planted roses; they were red climbers like the ones outside my bedroom window when I was ten. I wouldn’t be there in the spring to see the scarlet buds burst open or to smell their sweet aroma. I missed them already. This experience was like starting a good book and then giving it away just as the story got interesting.
Moving day accelerated when our beautiful home sold in three days, three days! The moving crew invaded and packed up huge boxes that multiplied like soldiers in our garage. It was all moving too fast. I held onto every minute so I could take memories of the last three years with me, but it was difficult to do as I looked at empty rooms and bare walls. I had grown to love that house.
None of us wanted to leave, but leave we did on a sunny September morning. As my husband drove us away, I couldn’t look back. Silently, as we retraced our route east up the Columbia River Gorge, I said goodbye to my birthplace, Portland, the beautiful City of Roses.
Our introduction to the reality of living in the desert arrived in late October via a rip-roaring dust storm. I had never seen nor tasted such a thing. Grit settled everywhere. And what were those prickly bushes running down the street? Oh, of course, they were tumbleweeds. In the quiet of the evenings we could hear coyotes howling at the borders of our neighborhood. We were advised to keep the cat in at night, as he might end up a snack. Visions of the wild, wild West materialized; my life had turned into a bad “B” movie.
With the move I mourned the loss of holidays and Sunday dinners with family and friends, day trips to the beach or mountains, impromptu hikes and picnics along the Columbia Gorge, breathtaking views of Mount Hood and Mount St. Helens, green hills, refreshing rain showers, and the Portland Rose Parade.
Six months later my beloved father unexpectedly died of a heart attack. Memories of a recent Christmas flooded my thoughts. With careful negotiation, I had invited my divorced parents and my brother to our family celebration. We hadn’t been together for twenty nine years; it was a day we would remember forever: by-gone days, family days, happier days, pain-free days.
Swamped with loneliness and a body that refused to heal, I took to my bed and didn’t get up for six weeks. Again I prayed for a miracle. I prayed for a cure and a reason to live. When it came to me that my best choice was to rally and liberate the will and strength to face life head on, I rejoined the world – for good.
Not a lifetime; but three years later and after scores of doctor visits, thousands of dollars spent on tests and medicine, and personal research, I convinced my doctor to try an experimental procedure. This time the long awaited miracle arrived and within six months, I was healthy.
As I adjusted to a life free from pain and unrestricted mobility, I was able to appreciate my adopted city. It was an unhurried process, like a reluctant rosebud blooming in a cool spring; and I can’t mark the day on the calendar, but one morning I woke up and felt at home.
I realized I loved the enormity of the heavens, breathtaking sunsets, the magnificent view from those dusty hills, serene walks along the Columbia River, perfect roses that bloomed from June until November, cloudless skies, the stunning spring and fall seasons, lack of real traffic jams, safe streets, and new friends.
I still miss my home state and visit our vacation home in Central Oregon as often as possible. I haven’t lost my love of green trees, cool air, and white-tipped mountains, but trips to Portland are less frequent; reserved for special occasions and not spurred from a homesick heart.
I’m grateful that I’ve spent the last eighteen years in a region that hosts an unusual, but striking kind of beauty. Those barren hills change color with the progression of light, shadows, and time of year. They’re full of life, play host to an amazing collection of animals and plant life, and give dimension to our landscape. Thank you Columbia, Yakima, and SnakeRivers for providing waterways that give us life and a tranquil beauty one should never take for granted.
Like my garden which is filled with Tea Roses, miniatures, the “cupped” English variety and its cousin: the rambling rose; I’ve set down deep roots in the sand. I am at home in the desert now, and savor blessings as plentiful as the grains of sand in those dusty hills, and I’ll always believe in miracles.