Wednesday: I drive my youngest out to equine therapy and swallow hard when I pass the Old Glenn Highway exit, picking up a string that winds down the Old Glenn for miles. It stretches behind me as I keep going forward into the sunshine on snow, lately it feels like that’s all we can do. Every summer Ben would plan one of his weekly kid hikes to instead be a raspberry picking escapade. We’d meet with buckets and carloads of kids, descend on the patches, fight mosquitos and pick berries to our heart’s content. I don’t know if Ben was ever contented after berry picking—I’m pretty sure that’s his version of heaven, but he eventually did leave to wash and freeze his berries for familial consumption, sunshine-in-the-flesh to be frozen in time for the depths of winter.
Tuesday: Ben’s wife mentions her fears of not being able to fill the coming summer for the kids as well as he did. When I get home from the hospital, I check the summer calendar to see if we can plan some trips that their kids can join us for. My calendar ends in June so on the back page I have scrawled trip suggestions. The string of letters crawl off the page and into my throat, a hard knot stuck. My handwriting is from the Sunday before the accident. I jotted down our ideas as Ben and I chatted about bucket list trips we could take this coming summer.
Sunday: We realize the keys to the truck that my husband lost somewhere on the top of the mountain in all that fresh powder had the only key to our torpedo tube (gear box on the top of the car). I go outside to scrape the grime off so I can see the numbers on the lock to order a new one. There’s a string here too. It goes back and back and back to when we first began realizing that knowing Ben would change our lives and the ways we interacted with wilderness, adventures and our kids. He introduced us to Junior Nordic, the local ski association that trains kids to nordic ski. My husband works late, well past bedtime, so I was standing on the car tire in the dark with a headlamp and the torpedo tube open, getting little skis out. My son was 5 or 6, my daughter just beginning with strap on skis and my youngest at the time was strapped to my back. Regardless, none of them were a lot of help so I was going up and down retrieving and depositing gear. Ben, being tall, came over, made some joke about my height challenges and started handing stuff to me. It was simple and kind and unnecessary. And I noticed.
Saturday: Ben’s kids are being dropped off today so their grandparents can spend some of the day in the hospital with Ben’s wife. His daughter is going to ski with ours at Arctic Valley while his son is heading next door with mine for a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. Ben is the usual dungeon master, or storyteller, for these campaigns and we think the continuity might be good for the kids, so we enlisted the expert neighbor. This string goes back and has so many knots on it, marking the many times it has touched our lives. On long hikes, raft floats, car rides or actual sit down, planned campaigns, Ben would engage the kids for hours by creating these choose-your-own-adventures in which the players get to design their own mystical creature full of power and personality. This string goes beyond Ben, back to his best friend’s daughter, but in typical Ben style, he has taken something his son was interested in and delved into it so they can participate together. Then, as usual, welcomed us in to bring us all together.
Friday: We’ve decided to do a game night with Ben’s parents and the kids in town. As I confront the game closet and start to organize various chips, pieces and tokens, I pull out two ragged card decks—Dutch Blitz. This string winds back through the years, tangling itself on the seasons. It ends, or rather begins, at Ben’s house. It’s dark out, so it must be winter, the wood paneled living room vaults above us and the glow of lamps is enough. The kids run off downstairs as Ben begins to explain what turns into all of our familys’ favorite game whenever we are together. It’s fast and competitive, two of Ben’s strengths, and for the first few months, he has the advantage of knowing the game better than us. In the next few, we discover he’s been cheating here and there until we can’t believe how fast he is and he bursts out laughing, bending his head down to the side over the table scattered with bright cards. He is tickled with himself and his amusement is catching. Sprinkled in from then on out are tricks in which we stack various people’s decks when they take a bathroom break.
Wednesday: I am looking for a puzzle. Ben’s parents, like him, don’t pass time idly, instead they need to fill it with something that declares progress is happening. The game closet is a disaster that I don’t have energy for so I scan it quickly before my cleaning conscience voice can get loud enough, realize there aren’t any puzzles in it and turn to the girls’ closet. I stand precariously on the edges of their dress up bin and shuffle boxes around before I find it. I come down triumphantly with a box in hand, but my heart falls when I see the string attached. It traces back to Ben, a bike and a warm enough summer evening. The mountains are still green so it must be June or July and he needed to drop some of our forgotten kid clothes by. He’s decided to dedicate this chore time enough to bike the seven miles to our house. It’s late not dusky yet, so maybe 9 or 10, though it will be when he gets home. Helmet on that head, he pulls the puzzle from his saddle bag and asks us if we’d like to give it a try with a big smile and a please-don’t-make-me-drag-this-back attitude. I sigh, knowing there’s no real way out and caution the entirety might never make it back to him. “We’re done with it, have at it” he shrugs, and comes in to sit in our living room where we all settle. Part of an hour later, my husband decides to bike him halfway back and they disappear down the street.
Sunday: I ask my son to empty the recycling bin and he comes back tracking snow across the floor asking why the door to the outside crawlspace is open. I ask don’t know and ask him to go shut it up. As he turns to do so, I see a string following him all the way back, through the open door of the crawlspace to where our raft, Ben and Nicki’s old raft, sits inflated, as Ben suggested. How will summer ever be summer again without the joint raft trips we were planning?
Thursday: My son comes out in the morning to get ready for school wearing a shirt that says I MAKE STUFF UP, a string trailing back into time. Ben brought him that a while ago. “I couldn’t help buying him this when I saw it,” he told me laughing in the way that he throws his head back and his eyes crinkle. He has had his share of having to check my son’s tendency to exaggerate. That string is tied to another and I follow it back in an instant, to the time when we had kid swapped and Ben picked up his daughter while dropping my son off and said as he rolled his eyes, “He tried to tell me there were 530 different kinds of lettuce today when the boys were helping me harvest the garden. So we had a talk.”
Monday: I go to Ben’s house to get one of their seven dogs so his wife can walk her—one foot in front of the other being the most she can manage right now. As I pull up I start crying, not understanding how she will ever be able to come back here. The house, understandably, is covered in a net of Ben strings that go to my heart, and I can only see a small fraction of what she will. The dogs know something is up and come huddle with me as I choose out the lucky one. Opening the gate pulls at a string as I go back to us building our deck. Ben was building his dog yards at the time and had the great idea, communally minded as usual, that we could help each other and in that way, this manual work would be more fun. My husband went to dig post holes which went excruciatingly slow as they encountered glacial rock after glacial rock while their elbows and forearms bore the brunt of the impacts for months after. Regardless, when we got to our deck, I remember Ben swinging a few boards, making some jabs and commenting, “I definitely got the better end of this bargain.”
Sunday: I try to go to church, but the minute I see a family down the hall whose children attended the preschool he worked at years ago, I lose it. I can’t have them ask me how he is so I hide in the dark gym and cry silently. I will hear in the next weeks how he’d dress up as a French waiter with a poor accent and feed the preschoolers a fancy Valentine meal, how he’d pretend to be a musher who lost his dogs during the Iditarod so the kids could explore a dog sled. How he always insisted it was the best preschool because they got the kids outside. A lot. The string of my conversation with him a month ago about the possibility of enrolling my youngest in his old preschool unrolls before me and sits spooled around my feet in that dark gym.
Friday: The first day I can get to the hospital and I see this new Ben. I fall into someone’s arms and weep for the Ben we have loved. I cry for what his wife has lost, who his children won’t know with their teenaged and then adult selves, for the horror his parents who are trying to come are feeling and for myself, for my family, this best friend-slash-uncle figure my family has lost.
Thursday: We’re late for school. The woman whose daughter we carpool with has called to let me know there are accidents on both of the only two ways to get there. I call the school and they tell me to take the main highway, the old one is still closed; there’s been a possible fatality. I don’t know it’s Ben yet. I don’t drive home that way, though my husband suggests it, so I don’t see his car being hoisted on a tow truck. My husband is in the garage, surrounded by our rock climbing wall, that after we began building, Ben latched onto the idea of and began building his own in their yurt. I run to him when at ten we find out the accident was Ben’s.
These strings stretch to Ben, always back to Ben. There’s no escaping them, they’ve created a web in our home, our life, who we’ve become and they stretch over this hole inside me. I feel hollowed out—as if the tasks of daily living that I know Ben would give anything to be able to tackle, are empty motions meant only to help time pass. I know I should be grateful for them, see the immense wonder that despite the fragility of life I have been awarded another precious day to live, to take for granted, to pet my children’s hair, help them with their homework, sit them down to mediate a fight, feed the dog and cat, see the stars as I lock the cars, lay down with a good book, snuggle with my husband when he comes in late after work. My mind knows this gratitude must be realized. But these strings stretch over the very hollowness of my heart and all I can pray for is that someday I will again be full of music and that the melody of Ben-as-he-was will play as a refrain to Ben-who-is.