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ConquerMountains.com

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By John Rezell
Flying at 30,000 feet
[15-SEP-2000]

The horizon glows with a stunning orange, layered from burnt orange to light peach as it transitions light from the darkness of the earth to the majestic blue, starry heavens out my airline window.

Funny, I'm usually an aisle man. I got a window tonight. The view of the world. Through the eyes of my dad.

I've seen sunsets all over the world. Through the haze in Tiananmen Square to the canal bridges of Venice. I watched countless days end as the sun dipped into the Pacific Ocean viewing it from the beaches of Carlsbad, California.

This one I'll remember forever.

I'm jetting to Sydney, Australia. I'm a man of measured words. I've been to some of the biggest sporting events in America, and as a journalist at heart, I've always kept my perspective. 'Til now.

Know what? This assignment — this trip — transcends all others. I haven't hesitated to tell anyone who will listen this is my dream assignment. The quintessence of writing tasks. The Olympic Games in Australia.

It's more than that, though. I don't have to cover any sporting events if I wish. I'm heading halfway across the world to experience one of the greatest events of our time, and bring its essence to anyone who wants to read about it. There are no scripts. It's life I'm covering, at its purest level.

Those confessions come from deep, deep within. They don't come easily. There's a vulnerability exposed by such ravings. My soul on parade, so to speak.

And that's what I attributed my bizarre morning to. I couldn't keep a clear thought in my head. Nothing but blurs. Emotion welling up inside. My heart literally ached.

I reasoned it was a bout of selfishness. It isn't easy to take me away from my family for three weeks straight.

Most of my days begin with the bright smile of Taylor, my 2-year-old, always calling my name just a few minutes earlier than I had hoped. One look in those twinkling eyes and I'm on the rivet. My 4-year-old Sierra usually isn't far behind. My morning ritual began with her. Now I double the pleasure — double the fun.

No doubt the prospect of 20 mornings without that rush of life was wearing on me. I made two trips to the grocery store. Wandered aimlessly and managed to get flowers for the girls while forgetting staples like toothpaste. Like I said, it was a fog.

My last-minute shopping list included a wide array of other items that would no doubt use up most of my free time. The truck, though, took me straight home. It's what my heart needed most.

After a few final wonderful hours, the girls dropped me off. Sierra's hugs were longer and stronger than ever before, as if she knew more than I did how much I needed that. Same for Taylor's smile and Debbie's embrace.

Not much later, at the airport, my cell phone rang. It was my mother. My father passed away a few hours earlier. He was 82.

Family and friends may wonder forever how you climb aboard an airplane and head west when the rest of your blood is running the opposite direction, back home. There was no hesitation. No second-guessing. No doubt.

This is the right thing to do.

You see, back in grade school I got the itch to write. I'd sit at my desk in my bedroom and write stories and such while my father and younger brother would work on crafts. You can't really share writing. It's table for one.

Now some fathers might be offended. Some might enforce some antiquated "because I said so" rule to shackle me to the beads and necklaces or the model airplanes or the faux stained-glass projects. Not my dad.

My dad took me aside and told me if I wanted to write, he'd pay me. A penny for every five words. For anything. Stories, poems, cards, you name it.

One fine day years later, with a journalism degree in my hand and a promising job at a newspaper in my grasp, my dad took me aside. He wanted to talk about writing.

He was an architect by vocation and an artist at heart. That tinkering downstairs took on a thousand lives throughout the years. The final years were devoted to whittling, where he would create magical creatures from wood.

These little people decorate the walls at home and the desks at work of all his five children. Each of his nine grandchildren and three great grandchildren has had the smile of innocence blast forth from the joy they pack in each lovingly cut curve.

This morning, as a matter of fact, out of the blue, Taylor asked to be lifted to the shrine that holds the most cherished of our carvings. She wanted to pick her own. She grabbed Barney, our family dog. Sierra took Hobbes.

Anyways, back to that day in the living room. That's the day my father spoke like never before. A man of few words — his infectious laugh always melted the bad times away — he told me writing was a gift from God, like having musical or athletic ability. It was a gift that should be honored, and honed. And not taken lightly.

That conversation shaped my life, professionally and spiritually. I've lived so much life since then it feels nearly suffocating at times. So there was no doubt in my mind where I needed to be over the course of the next three weeks.

It won't be easy. I doubt I'll have a clear mind. I'm sure I'll be distracted. Then again, I'll just think of the only other time we had a chat about a life-altering experience.

I was probably 8 and it was my first venture to Punt-Pass-and-Kick. Since dad was always working the crafts, he wasn't much for throwing the football. Or kicking it. But he gave me the basics, and let me work on my own.

That fateful day I had, well, there's no other way to put it other than to say it was the most humiliating day of my life. Suffice to say I topped the ball so terribly on the kick my total (distance minus the feet off the straight line) was minus yardage. This from a boy just one child removed from a Homecoming King all-conference star.

On the way to the car he put his arm around me and began laughing. When dad started laughing, it was impossible not to join him. I was laughing with tears. "At least you ended up on the positive side overall," he said. "The totals don't matter, I'm still proud of you … it takes a lot of guts to go out there and do something like that."

Of course the laugh made me think he was saying it takes a lot of guts to go out there and suck so much, which made it all the more funny. And eased the pain more quickly than any lecture could have.

Life is like that, though. Just a few precious moments that you'll never forget. Just four years ago he had a heart episode shortly after my parents' 50th wedding anniversary. He lost his short term memory.

He handled it with amazing grace. On the phone we'd ask if he liked the present we sent. He'd ask mom, "Jane, did I like the present they sent?" Chuckles abound.

Privately he told me it wasn't so bad. He remembers all the important things, like me sitting on the front step striking up a conversation with anyone who would pass when I was a kid. "Know what?" I'd ask, then start gabbing to beat the band. He didn't remember what he had for breakfast, or lunch. And that didn't matter. It's all about living in the moment. That's what he said.

I try to live a lot in the moment. I don't get caught up too much in the past. Except when I'm flying. Every flight I remember back to the first one, when I sat next to him and had the time of my life.

At one moment I looked down from my window seat and said, wait, what's that water down there? Hmmm. M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I. HEY DAD, it's the Mississippi River.

He laughed his laugh. He told that story for years. I can hear him telling it now.

Like I said, I'm an aisle man. I got a window tonight. The view of the world. Through the eyes of my dad. Good night dad. I love you.