This is the story of me going up a hill. There’s a hill, I go up it, and that’s pretty much the whole thing. But the climb is revealing. The reason I’m going uphill is that I gave away my parking space to Brittany, my girlfriend’s daughter, who moved in with us after she broke her back and lost her apartment. She hates moving in with her mom and mom’s boyfriend at our Mission Viejo condo, which I completely understand because I moved back in with my parents once, years ago, and it was awkward.
But now Brittany’s part of our household, a classic role reversal. Her kids have joined us, too, three little ones—a boy and two girls, ages 6, 3, and 2. They’re all welcome here. We’re glad to help, but it means I’ve lost my parking space.
So I have to find street parking. Usually there isn’t any, and I end up parking at the 24 Hour Fitness at the bottom of the hill, though the name’s a misnomer because it’s sometimes closed. Of course, some of us don’t need However-Many-Hours Fitness, because we (that is, I) get plenty of exercise hoofing it up Via Pera whenever there’s no other parking.
The hike is wearying, but there might be hope. Recently, the homeowners’ association announced that it’s holding a lottery for 13 open parking spaces for a baker’s dozen of footsore homeowners. They’ll get to park nearby instead of down at the strip mall. But there are several hundred residents here, and my odds of winning aren’t rosy.
I jaywalk across Los Alisos and begin my ascent. I set off confidently, start huffing and puffing after the first minute, and soon feel like Sir Edmund Hillary going for the Everest summit, fighting to conserve precious oxygen. Or Sisyphus, if you prefer, climbing endlessly up the same hill, but without that big rock, unless it’s some sort of metaphor, like how I’m “burdened” with Brittany and her kids.
Don’t get me wrong; the kids are adorable. But they can turn any living room into a DMZ faster than you can say, “Hey, don’t touch that!” They’re small and quick and tireless, and they enjoy recreational screaming. Sometimes I feel like I’ve lost not just a parking space, but my sanity in the bargain.
Still, I keep climbing. The sidewalk seems endless but there’s a shortcut, if you don’t mind galumphing up the drainage channel that veers into the foliage. I clump up the dry channel, gasping for breath in a way I never used to before I turned 60. It occurs to me that my cat Coltrane died near here, doing much the same thing, heading upslope when he just fell over dead in his tracks.
I have a morbid image of my beloved Lisa wandering the hillside, trying to find her idiot boyfriend, finally stumbling across him where he dropped dead in this ditch, the victim of one too many hot dogs because they’re saying now—maybe you’ve heard this—that hot dogs will kill you.
I shudder and keep climbing, but with a sense of real unease. I mean, I might not keel over dead tonight, but I’ve reached the point in my life where the years remaining are fewer than what I’ve had so far—a point driven home when my dad passed, 13 years ago. I feel oddly untethered without him, like a zeppelin starting to slip its moorings. Someday all of us will soar into the ether, I know that, but I don’t need any grim reminders in the meantime. I prefer the comforting fiction that I’ll live forever.
And here’s my epiphany, such as it is, based on a crazy dream I had once, shortly after Dad’s funeral. I dreamt I was supposed to meet him, but I arrived way too early. And I was approached by a nun, only it wasn’t a nun at all, it was a kid on a tricycle with a big cardboard picture of a nun somehow mounted to the handlebars.
But behind the kid nun there was this tree, the most awesome of all trees, tall and golden and filtering sunlight, seeming to embrace all the heavens in the reach of its wise old branches. It was everything the fake nun wasn’t, all that’s sweet and beautiful and magic in this world, the truest expression of spirituality I’ve ever known. And the reason I mention this is because when I finally reach the top of that hill, and hop the fence into the ass-end of our complex, there’s a soaring alder that fills the sky and blots the starlight with the spread of its branches.
And for just a moment I think, “Holy crap, that’s that tree!” The dream has touched down in real life, right in front of me.
Then the moment passes, and it’s just a tree again. But it feels like something wonderful has just happened, like the tree is my family somehow, biological and otherwise, with Dad’s spirit alive through me, so I can pass it on to others after I’ve gone, and they can pass it on, too. Because that’s what a family does, that’s what a family is. Screaming toddlers and all.
I go home and get the mail and, surprise, there’s a letter from the HOA. Turns out I won the parking lottery, and pretty soon I won’t have to make this hike again. I’ll have my very own parking space, like a normal person, and my ditch-climbing days will be over. I might lose the space in one year’s time, but Brittany’s back is healing fast and by then we might not need it.
Plus, I’m starting to think I’ve won another kind of lottery here. When Brittany and her brood moved in, it turned this once-lonely condo into a crowded one, at least for the time being. Sure it’s loud and messy and furniture-damaging, with diapers and extra laundry and toys underfoot, but the place has come alive, thanks to this raucous family. I’ve decided to enjoy the ride—thanks to a dream I had about a phony nun, and a tree so beautiful you can’t imagine.