Eat Dessert!

I’ve been known to eat dessert first. It’s not just that I have a sweet tooth and am low on patience. More importantly, life is short—too short to put off what matters.

One summer day in 1980, I was sitting with my dad in our backyard patio while he enjoyed his after-work brandy Manhattan. My young daughter, whom he adored and doted on, was playing with the hose. My dad kept saying, “No, no, no! Play over there with the hose.” When I looked up I realized what was going on. Jessica was watering down his Manhattan!

A simple and happy time together. And the next day, my dad died. 

Whether his dying young had an influence on my “life is short” philosophy, I don’t know. But this November, when my friend Suzanne said, “You should come visit me in Wyoming sometime,” I immediately answered, “Let’s look at tickets!”

Four weeks later, I was sitting at her table, looking out her patio door at the Wind River Mountains. We had seized the moment, and the payoff was huge. Our previous visits had always been rushed: dinner and an overnight at my home, followed by both of us hurrying off to our next appointment in the morning. We never wanted our conversations to end. As we’d head to bed, Suzanne in the guest room and me in my bedroom upstairs, we’d still be talking! 

On my visit to Wyoming we had the luxury of time in whatever way we wanted to spend it, from late-night and early-morning talks about books, writing, working out, and food, to riding snow machines, going to the gym, and flying in her partner’s plane, looking for wildlife. We talked about calories, weight, and how we both know eating less and healthier is a key factor to aging well. Then we’d look at each other and say, “Should we try those sweet potato fries when we go to lunch today?”

And did I mention brownies, pineapple upside-down cake, and chocolate pie?

Suzanne’s town of Cora, Wyoming, boasts a population of less than 200, unless you count the buffalo, mule deer, elk, moose, eagles, ravens, magpies, and jackrabbits that also call it home. 

I had been to Wyoming just twice before—once on a family trip and another time for a backpacking course. I was thrilled to be there again. 

On this trip I often thought of my dad. Many years ago some friends of my parents had spontaneously bid on a motel when they were in Wyoming on a vacation. When they got home and learned that their bid was accepted, they quit their jobs and moved with their four children to Jackson Hole. My parents went to visit them a few times. My dad loved it so much he never wanted to come home. 

Some years after these neighbors moved to Wyoming, we received the sad news that their daughter, Beth, had died in a car accident in the mountains. Days later they found her dog, Taurus, who had been with her in the car, wandering nearby. Beth, too, had deeply loved the mountains she died in.

Life was short for both Beth and my father. She wasn’t even 25 years old, and my dad died at age 53. 

When it was time for me to leave Suzanne’s, the weather was turning ugly, and the two-hour drive from Cora to Jackson was stressful. We weren’t sure if my flight would be delayed or canceled. But the airline assured me that they didn’t need visibility in order to fly—the planes relied on instruments rather than on the pilots’ ability to see.

I said my teary goodbye and thanks to Suzanne and made myself comfortable at the tiny airport to await the beginning of my long day of travel. I worried about Suzanne, knowing she had a white-knuckle trip ahead of her to get back home. 

As my plane finally left the ground, all I could see out my window was gray, not even a bit of landscape. I buckled up, sat back, and closed my eyes, entrusting my safety to the pilot and the plane’s instruments. 

Letting my mind wander, I remembered the navy-blue sweatshirt that I’d had custom-made my dad the Christmas before he died. On the front I had chosen a picture of two rodeo horses and riders. Above the picture were the words, “I’d rather be in Wyoming,” and on the back was my pet name for my dad, “Popsie Turtle.” It became my dad’s favorite sweatshirt. He was wearing it when my mom found him dead on the couch.

I also thought about the note I received years ago from Beth’s mom, thanking me for the letter I’d sent her after learning of Beth’s tragic death in the mountains. I still have the card she had tucked inside with a picture of Beth and a poem. I thought of the family searching for Beth’s dog and finding him alive days later. And I thought again of Suzanne, driving home in a white-out on roads that have no mercy.

Twenty hours later I pulled into my driveway at home. There was a message on my answering machine from Suzanne. She was home and safe.

As I climbed into bed, grateful to be home with Dane and my animal family, I thought about the plans Suzanne and I had made before I left. In September she and a friend will be my guests for a week. I’m hoping this will be the beginning of a new tradition. I lay in bed and pictured the ways we’ll spend our time together: paddling on the Kickapoo River, hiking in the Reserve, and bike riding on old Highway 131 to the Rockton Bar for its famous chicken. I imagined the zip-packs I’ll make and cook on a campfire in my backyard, where we can talk as late as we want. 

Lastly, before my tired eyes closed, I whispered “dessert.” We will eat dessert every day. After all, life is short.

Originally Published December 29th, 2016 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout