Between Sunlight and Shadow

Carole Firstman

Extending four-hundred miles north to south, California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range reaches its zenith just a few miles east of our flatland neighborhood in the San Joaquin Valley. From my father’s home down the street from my house in Visalia, you can see the rolling, yellow foothills of Three Rivers, and farther back, the backcountry’s jagged peaks. Early childhood travels with my parents—racing the desert stretches of Death Valley and Mojave and Baja Mexico, inhaling salt-moist winds of the Pacific Ocean, wading the lake shores of the Sierra Nevada and San Gabriel Mountains—those early ventures instilled in me a love of nature and travel that has shaped me as an adult, has fueled my wanderlust, my sense of curiosity, and my abiding trust in the raw comforts of the natural world. It seemed fitting then, a few years back, to celebrate my father’s move, from Southern California to Visalia, with a trek into nature—just the two of us—father and daughter.

“You can name at least one element, can’t you?”

This question came from my father in the passenger seat next to me. He wanted me to prove I’d been paying attention by repeating back to him the list of chemical elements that he had just named, elements that compose the sun. He wore water-stained, high-top, leather hiking boots, laced and double knotted above his ankles, and tucked into his Levis, a faded JC Penney t-shirt that bulged at the left breast pocket because of the folded white handkerchief inside. This was supposed to be a celebratory day, but clearly he was on the intellectual clock.

Destined for Moro Rock in Sequoia National Park, we drove the steep, narrow road that traverses the edge of a mountain high above Kaweah Canyon. Inspired by the beauty of nature as he gazed out the open window—the Kaweah river raging some 3,000 feet below us, the snow-covered spires of Alta Peak and Castle Rock piercing the turquoise sky overhead, spent yucca blooms and dried Buckeye leaves fluttering at the road’s edge—my father had already, inevitably, shifted from general proclamations of awe—“My, how beautiful it all is!”—to scientific and philosophical speculations of ultimate origin—“None of this—the trees, the mountains, the canyon, even us—would be possible were it not for the sun. All life is dependent upon the sun, you know. You would not be possible without the sun.” My father often thrills in his ability to amuse me with his detailed scientific pontifications, most of which I’ve heard so many times I could recite them word for word, and as usual, I’d egged him on that day. Yes, I know, Dad, but please continue, I’d urged him earlier, knowing full well that the trajectory of his current train of thought would first lead to his naming the chemical compounds of the sun, which would then lead to a lecture on the lifecycle of stars, and would then culminate with his favorite trick of all, where he rattles off the entire periodic table of elements from memory in under one minute. We were still on step one at that moment, though: basic chemical composition of the sun.

I was negotiating a particularly tight hairpin turn in the road when he asked me to repeat back the elements he’d just listed few moments before.

“Well, can you?” he asked again.

This is a fun little part of our banter, the part where he quizzes me and I often fail, and in the amount of time, I hesitated to respond because of my attention to the road, he spewed his list again, gleefully ticking off each item with his fingers like a schoolboy showing off rote arithmetic facts. “Seventy-four-point-nine percent hydrogen, twenty-three-point-eight percent helium, and about two percent metals, which include oxygen, carbon, neon, and iron,” he beamed. “Ha! Beat that!”

Perhaps “celebrate” is the wrong word. Moving to Visalia was a transitional time for my father, a bittersweet occasion for uproot. His wife of thirty-some years had died a few months prior, and his twenty-year-old daughter, my half-sister, had died of cancer the year before that. It grew from necessity, then, more than choice, that this man in his late seventies came to lean on me, his once estranged, now newly-familiar daughter; it was a time to admit his need for someone to look after him, a time to loosen his tight-fisted grip on his own independence.

It was a few weeks after he’d settled into his new house that we drove the steep, winding road to Sequoia National Park. As I recall that day now, two voices compete for attention inside my head. One voice, my father’s, expounds the physical characteristics of the sun—photosphere, diameter, light years, magnetic fields, ionized iron, solar flares, white dwarf, red giant, black hole—quantifiable facts and theorized algorithms. The other voice, mine, struggles to articulate what the relationship between sunlight and a person might be, and what that relationship might reveal about a particular man standing atop a particular rock in the high Sierra Nevada Mountains; and then by extension, what does that say about me? What does sunlight reveal in me? What sticks in my mind is the difference in our perceptions that day, my father’s and mine, in the ways we each perceived, still perceive, the role of sunlight. What my father sees and what I see are two very different things. With confidence, he identifies undisputable facts. With uncertainty, I intuit shaded variations of humanity.

The sun hung almost straight overhead when we reached the Moro Rock parking area, so we left the car beneath a shady grove of sequoia and ponderosa trees. The rock itself is an exfoliating granite monolith (of the same variety of Yosemite’s famous Half Dome) that rises 6,725 feet above sea level and protrudes, treeless and sunbaked, over the massive canyon of the Kaweah River, the same river we’d paralleled up the mountain highway. From the trailhead, the hike to the rock’s summit is quite short in terms of distance—just a quarter mile—but also rather strenuous, with a three-hundred foot gain in elevation. I followed my father up the rock’s trail, which is basically a series of stairs and ramps either carved directly into the bedrock or formed with massive masonry walls. We stopped several times to catch our breath and take in intermediary views as the path traversed switch-back style along the natural crevices and outer ledges of the west face of the rock, but we saved our lingering outward gazes for the dome’s top.

I was talking to a friend the other day, about the declining health of our respective parents and our increasing and ever-shifting responsibilities as adult children. As we reverse roles with our elderly parents—the once-caregiver reverts to a child-like state and the adult child now becomes the caregiver—each party involved must inhabit a liminal space, the transitional terrain between past and future. For the aged parent, it’s a step towards the threshold separating life and death; for the middle-aged child, it’s a time for reconciliation, to settle on new terms of engagement—You raised me, now I’ll take care of you.

I keep telling myself that if I were raised by June and Ward Cleaver my transition would be less difficult. If I were Beaver Cleaver (or Beaver’s unrealized twin sister, Bertha) I’d be so indebted to my doting parents—for their constant love and support, for the fatherly advice over home-cooked meals, for their concern over my general well-being and their occasional intervention in regards to my grades, my friends, my social faux pas—that I’d embrace Old Man Ward with every grateful fiber of my being, tend every aspect of his growing needs. With a smile on my face I’d drive Old Man Ward to every doctor’s appointment, nurse him back to health after every surgery, manage his finances, buy his groceries, shuttle him to Astronomy Night at the Senior Center every Tuesday, walk five doors down the street each afternoon for a glass of iced tea. That’s how I imagine it. But I’m not Beaver (or Bertha). My father is not Ward. The fictional Cleaver Family does not exist, never did—not for you, not for me, not ever.

What is real though, for real people grappling with real lives, is a spectrum of emotional reconciliation. This spectrum doesn’t measure what the adult child does or how thoroughly the child now cares for the aged parent in terms of tasks carried out, rather, it indicates the degree of enthusiasm or resentment the adult child feels about the situation. At one end of the spectrum, the adult child eagerly cares for the aged parent, and at the other end: bitterness, perhaps grief. You didn’t raise me one iota, so why must I take care of you now? I’m not sure where on the spectrum I stand.

But I am certain of this: things are shifting. My once-estranged father moved across the state and into my neighborhood so I could look after him; my mother has since suffered a massive stroke and now lives with me; I am overwhelmed with responsibilities I had never before fathomed. As I try to reconcile my resentment with my sense of duty, I find myself examining the nature of my relationship with each parent. Why is this so difficult?, I ask myself over and over, and, If I were a better person, if I weren’t such a self-centered ingrate, would this transition be easier? I wonder if there is an intellectual or psychological shift I can make, a way I can enlighten my own thinking process so that I can consciously shape and settle into my evolving role more gracefully. If I change the lens through which I view my parents, myself, our respective situations, our collective situation, will I be better able to cope with these changes? And then by extension, could I help them with their transitions, too? Child to adult. Adult back to child. Life to death. I’ve just stepped into the mouth of a dark cave: blinding sunlight to my right, utter blackness to my left; I stand in the grey zone, where granite stone walls shadow the shifting rocks beneath my feet. Where do I stand?

I recall now so vividly my father’s copper hair the day we hiked up Moro Rock, a faded hue of the flaming red of his youth, and how it flapped up and down against his forehead when we reached the summit. He leaned against the metal safety rail along the eastern edge, turning his head side-to-side in order to take in the panoramic view of the Great Western Divide with its striking granite flanks. We stood together in the wind, saying nothing at that moment yet sharing everything in the space and silence of this exposed, barren rock. Far below us, the Marble Fork of the Kaweah raged undetected from our view and height, the river too distant and masked by terrain to detect with the naked eye. But like the bloodline shared by my father and myself, the river gushed beneath the forest treetops, an artery pulsating through the canyon—fluid composed of hydrogen and oxygen, fluid lit by the sun, capable of supporting life—relentlessly carving itself into the bedrock as if guided by a predetermined DNA map. Like it or not, my father is rooted beneath my skin just as the river flows through the mountain range. We are next-door neighbors, my father and I, partly by default, bound by familial responsibilities and societal expectations, and though he drives me crazy with his certainty, his undisputable facts and well articulated theories (he is Enlightenment, pure science), he is my spiritual neighbor as well. To experience my father—to spend time with him, peer though the lens through which he views the universe, discover what makes him tick—is to become acquainted with myself. If he is Enlightenment—rational and logical, black and white—then I am Romanticism—experiential and emotional, shades of grey: a difference that vexes me to no end. He responds to nature by explaining the significance of the sun in terms of a star’s physical composition: hydrogen, helium, metals. I noticed something else in that moment we leaned into the guardrail—I noticed the way his body cast a shadow on the rock.

For a moment, my father was not my father, but just a man—maybe Old Man Ward, maybe someone else—I saw him as if he were a stranger, or perhaps as he might have appeared to any of the European tourists or local day hikers among us. As he steadied himself against the rail, his frail legs now trembling from the excursion, his heaving chest deprived of oxygen at such a high altitude—this old man before me, fragile in balance yet remarkably resilient for his age—perhaps like the giant sequoia trees we had passed under earlier in the day—this man cast a shadow onto the rock where he stood, not only with his body but with his spirit as well. While he verbally expressed awe of the panoramic view, his facial expression, his watery eyes and flinching temple, betrayed a thinly shrouded grief, convoluted as it may have been even to himself. Down around his feet I saw in my father’s shadow the grief he must have felt—for his wife and daughter, both dead so recently, for the career and independence and people he’d left behind in Southern California—a grief he had never articulated to me, not since the move, perhaps not at all.

I suspect this shadow of grief had been following him all day. I imagine it nipped his heels up each of the four-hundred-something bedrock steps and then spread beneath him as he summited the rock—it probably followed him that day as it must have everyday: a dark, ill-defined companion that shortens and lengthens with the rise and setting of the sun, a companion that seems to disappear at dusk, but reveals itself again each dawn.

If memory serves me correctly, as my father turned east, then north, to take in the view, I noticed how the sun had moved slightly in the sky during the time we’d been standing there, and how his shadow had grown a bit longer. It is the angle of light that determines a shadow’s length. We can turn from the light and look down, step into its darkness, or face the light and find the bedrock path lit with revelation, follow the illuminated trail, strenuous or otherwise. I suppose we all carry some sort of grief—opportunities missed, friendships lost, attractions forbidden, thus relationships uninitiated, risks untaken—it’s the human condition. Everyone casts a shadow, short at noon, long at four o’clock; turn your body north or south, yet the shadow always falls opposite the sun—darkness stretches toward more darkness.

In terms of physics or science or mathematical formulas—my father’s terms of endearment—a shadow of a person, whether it long or short in reference to the sun’s position in the sky, is always widest at its base. Regardless of how far the shadow stretches, it will never outspan the capacity of the object, the person, eclipsing the sun.Does this mean that whatever sadness, whatever regrets my father might have, that nature can only endow him with an emotional burden that correlates to his physical capacity to carry that burden? In other words, is there some sort of mechanism—biological, cosmological, spiritual—that functions as a check-and-balance, ensuring that no one person is unduly burdened with more emotional tragedy than that person can physically handle? I don’t have the answer to this question.

I do, however, recall the quality of divine, life-giving light as it radiated and diffused around us atop the rock. I recall the way tourists would slowly turn themselves around to marvel at the view, and how most people would pause a moment longer at the view when they were turned away from the sun. We find ways to enlighten our shaded side, equalize light and dark by pivoting towards the sun and then back again, squint in order to accommodate the light’s refraction: Ah, the flinch at my father’s temple, the watery eyes. Or maybe it’s the sun that does all the work, and we only need surrender to a certain state of intellectual or emotional transparency. Perhaps if we stay in the light, and if we can manage to preserve our skin from deadly radiation, we will emerge enlightened.

My father and I lingered on the rock for quite a while. We wandered separately, not black-and-white Ward and Bertha, but full-color-spectrum Bruce and Carole. We peered over the cliff drop, read the educational interpretive signs, got lost in our private thoughts. At some point we asked someone, a foreign tourist, to snap our photo. Standing over shadows emanating from our feet, we removed our sunglasses and faced the sun so that our facial expressions would be properly illuminated. In the background of that photo, the Castle Rock spires jut like a knife into the sky—dangerous, exciting peaks—and in the foreground, my father’s freckled hand rests on mine, both of us grasping the safety rail.

Author Portrait

Carole Firstman’s essays and feature articles have appeared in Colorado Review, Defunct Magazine, Knee-Jerk Magazine, Reed Magazine, The Gorilla, Valley Response, Lifestyle Magazine, The Valley Voice, McClatchy newspapers and other places. Recently nominated for the Pushcart Prize, her honors include: Solas Best Travel Writing, Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competitions for Feature Articles, and a CSU, Fresno 2011 Creative Nonfiction Prize. Carole will soon complete her MFA at California State University, Fresno, where she taught writing and worked as an editorial assistant for The Normal School. She is busy finishing her book, Origins of the Universe and What it all Means: A Memoir.