Hey Sister Suzy!

A trip to a psychiatric hospital

“Hey! Sister Suzy!”

The muffled voice came from behind observation windows at Cedar Hills Psychiatric Hospital during a tour in 1985. Only one person paired “Sister” and “Suzy,” so I instantly knew that it was an 18-year-old who used to be in my congregation.

I would have hugged Daniel if I could, but as our graduate class moved through the hall, I only mouthed, “Hi!” through the glass and gave him a thumbs-up signal.

Audrey, the classmate I carpooled with, whispered, “Seems like someone likes you.”

I smiled and nodded.

As the tour continued, we were led back through that hallway and Daniel shouted at me through the window again. “Didn’t I do a 50-mile hike when I was 13-years-old?”

I should only have nodded through the glass, but I owed him more than a smile, so I stopped and called, “You bet!” And then I shot him a double thumbs up.

Daniel’s slender frame reclined in his chair and his deep brown eyes sparkled from behind unkempt hair as he nodded and looked around the group with pride laced into his “I told you so” look.

I had a big smile too.

Daniel’s 50-Miler

When we got to her car, Audrey was ready with questions.

“A fifty-mile hike with that kid? Who were you with?”

“One of my sons. It was the three of us.”

“How in the world did that happen?”

It took only an instant to remember five years earlier when my son, J.C., first broached that 50-mile hike. I was hanging on getting the five kids at home to all of their activities, trying to sell real estate, managing a church calling, maintaining acreage with small farm animals and pets, and filling a large pantry of empty canning jars with a summer’s bounty. But I didn’t mention any of those things to Audrey, because I never wanted classmates or professors to think I had too many responsibilities to be in school and perform well.

But there was one piece of that fractured summer that always soothes my soul, so I was happy to begin telling her about the hike.

“Five years ago Daniel and my son, J.C., were in the same scout troop. When they went to summer camp early in June, the scoutmaster promised that any scout who earned a certain number of merit badges would get to go on a fifty-mile hike. My son qualified.

Then after camp, the scoutmaster decreed that he would only take those who were 14 and older. J.C. missed the cut, and he was crushed.

J.C. was a fiery, confident, and scrappy kid who was small for his age—the smallest on his under-14 select soccer team. He argued that he had been backpacking with his family since he was eight and regardless of his size, no kid in the troop had more experience on the trail than he did.

But the scoutmaster wouldn’t relent.

“So J.C. sat on the disappointment for a couple of days knowing that my husband, Michael, was working long hours and would not be able to get away. Then, after running the thought by Michael, J.C. asked me if I’d take him.”

Audrey asked, “Really? Did you feel able to do that?”

“Not charmed by it, but capable.

“Honestly, I wanted to make that hike happen for J.C. even though I had a lot going on. Earlier in the summer when sports practice schedules conflicted, he offered to give up summer baseball so that his younger sisters could play softball. He was good at “give and take” in most instances, so his determination to get that 50-Miler award was pretty apparent.”

Daniel

“As J.C. and I talked about possibilities, I remembered Daniel. Michael and I had already concluded that probably the real reason for the scoutmaster’s “no-13-year-olds” rule was that Daniel had also qualified for the 50-Miler. We figured the scoutmaster didn’t want to be on a trail with him.”

“Why not Daniel?”

“Daniel had a horrific childhood before he was adopted at about age five. In spite of consistent love from his adopted family, he could be an unpredictable challenge. So after hearing J.C.’s request, I felt just like the scoutmaster.

“I had a decision to make.

“I told J.C. that I would go if Daniel felt invited to hike with us. J.C. was reluctant, but he also saw the equity of at least giving Daniel a chance. So we visited Daniel and his parents, told them of the anticipated difficulty, and invited him. His family, including an older brother who would be hiking with the scoutmaster, was pretty shocked.”

Audrey observed, “Gosh, that would be a tough decision for them to make–sending him off with only one adult.” I didn’t mention that being an adult woman and not a man, probably added to their concerns.

I nodded, “Honestly, I was hoping that Daniel wouldn’t come. But, he called the next day and said he wanted to go along. J.C. and I had already done a little planning, and we knew we would go to the Jefferson Wilderness the first week in August when the scoutmaster planned to take his hike around Mt. Hood.”

“Weren’t you worried?”

I could have told Audry tales about my demons before the trip, and then many times during the week. The first night we were near some campers who lugged in spirits, and their loud revelry made me nervous. So later we camped away from other people, but then I worried about any noise in the dark woods at night.

I fretted about the consequences of our slow pace with Daniel’s flagging enthusiasm, or tomorrow’s precipitous trail (and my fear of heights), or crossing creeks swollen with summer glacier runoff by walking on rocks or logs without Michael’s steadying hand.

But I only mentioned, “I can read maps and have outdoor skills, but I was still worried because we had lots of weight to carry for our sizes since both of those kids were smaller than me.

“J.C. and I were in better shape, so I have some sweet memories of time with my son as we strategized ways to keep Daniel going. When it was tough, we counted steps, sang camp songs, and clocked time to snacks. We often gave each other a ‘thumbs up’ as we met the next milestone.

“Our hardest day was our best. It was a Thursday, and we had both distance and a climb to get to one of my favorite places on the planet, Jefferson Park, to set up camp. It’s a pristine meadow basin on the north flank of Mt. Jefferson that is dotted with azure lakes and accented by thin alpine firs that do their best to gain height in the short summer. Gawkers would overrun that serene little spot if they could hike to it easily.

“My carrot for the trip was to end up in Jefferson Park—even knowing we would arrive after prime wildflower season.

Jefferson Park

In Jefferson Park looking up at Park Ridge in the distance.

“On the way to Jefferson Park, we had to hike past the trail that led to our car. When we got there, Daniel was ready to go home and abort the rest of the trip. We talked him into continuing by lightening his load. We agreed to eat cold food until we got home the next day, and used a garbage bag to stash one tent, stove, and fuel under a log.

“Even so, during our climb up to the Park, Daniel was ready to quit many times and acted as if his reluctance would turn us around. But eventually, we made it to  Jefferson Park and chose Scout Lake to set up camp and fight off mosquitos with repellent.

“After we set up camp we needed about five more miles of hiking to get 50 miles by tomorrow afternoon and the end of the trip.

“We planned to hike to the crest of Park Ridge and back, but Daniel looked up and initially refused and argued for walking in circles around the park. But we couldn’t measure distance in circles, so J.C. and I agreed to let Daniel hike without a pack, and we carried his emergency gear and water with us. Besides, both of us wanted to see the view north to Mt. Hood from the ridge.”

Then magic happened

“We reached the top of the Ridge later that afternoon and gazed to Mt. Hood as it watched over the mountains and hills before us. We talked about clear-cuts and the forest quilt of greens tinged with a different year’s new growth.

“Then as we gazed northwest, we noticed that Mount St. Helens had started spewing ash again. We sat in awe as the plume rose like a monster reaching for the sky. As we watched the cloud grow, we cheered it as a giant smoke signal that celebrated our accomplishment.

The eruption of Mt. St. Helens, Aug 7, 1980*

Audrey observed, “No wonder that kid was so pumped about that hike!”

“Yep. When we got back after the hike, we found that the scoutmaster and his crew bailed on day-three of their much tougher hike, so just by finishing ours, Daniel got his 50-Miler badge and gained some status with his family.”

Pulling it together

As we pulled into the Portland State parking garage I concluded wistfully, “I sure hope Daniel is getting some prolonged help at Cedar Hills.”

After Audrey dropped me off, I sat in my car’s silence and thought about my son while I gulped air to stifle tears. I rarely cried back then because I believed that God must have wanted my son “on the other side” or He would have warned me instead of taking my son. To cry about the Lord’s will seemed like a negation of faith, and without my beliefs, I would have fractured.

So instead of tears, I prayed out loud and asked the angels to give J.C. a “thumbs up” in case he’d missed seeing Joseph’s radiant face.

Then I turned toward home.

P.S.

It’s been nearly 40 years since that 50-Miler hike with J.C. and Daniel. At an age when most people have solidified their beliefs, there is a lot about my life and losing J.C. that I’m trying to figure out. But as I grapple with the past, remembering each step of that hike adds a suture that patches my heart and keeps me going.

Two big thumbs up for that!

___

* Wikipedia quoted Stephen L. Harris (1988). Fire Mountains of the West.
“Seismic activity and gas emission steadily increased [on Mt. St. Helens] in early August, and on August 7 at 4:26 p.m., an ash cloud slowly expanded 8 miles (42,000 ft; 13 km) into the sky.”

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