It’s not every 22 year old woman who’s told that she looks like John Denver. This happened in the summer of 1974, the year Patricia Hearst was kidnapped and Nixon resigned. I had managed to get a job as a camp counselor in Colorado by rather overstating my experience with all sorts of things, including horse riding and navigation. Although this got me into some trouble, like being thrown off a headstrong horse after saddling up the calm ones for the campers, and temporarily losing 8 ten-year-olds in the forest at dusk, I didn’t cause any serious injury to me or others. I even managed to scare away a bear cub by throwing my tennis shoes at it, much to the awe of the on looking adolescent girls. But back to the resemblance to John Denver. I had light brown straight hair that was chin length with long bangs that flopped over round wire rimmed glasses and apparently a friendly easy going smile. I felt rather complimented by the remarks of the resemblance as I loved John Denver then and will still catch myself trying to sing his songs forty years later.
But still it was rather a shock to me when several days ago Rose saw a picture of John Denver and shouted, “Mom, he looks like you!” Oddly enough, I again felt complimented but this time it had to do with the age thing—could there be anything alike in the faces of a thirty-something male folksinger and a sixty-something (early sixties, by the way) woman? It made my heart warm to my child in a way that happens less often as the teenage years approach. And so we sat on the porch and I drank beer while she played John Denver songs on her ipad (actually Wayne’s ipad that he gave her as he never got the gist of how to use it). I asked Rose to play “Annie’s Song” and with the opening chords I was transported back to that summer of 1974. I had been given the not-so-desirable job of alpine camping with the youngest girls and we slept out in the open (this must have been before lawsuits as I also led a white water raft trip down a river with let’s just say no experience). Those were also the days before we worried about drinking the seemingly clean spring water, which in this case was a huge mistake. In the early hours of the third morning there, I woke up to a light tap on my shoulder. I looked up to see a little girl shivering in the chilly air. “I threw up in my sleeping bag. Can I get in yours?” There was no possible answer except yes and so she got in beside me and immediately fell asleep. I, however, could only think about how I’d used all the money I’d saved to buy that expensive North Face bag and what if she threw up again. But in one of those rare moments of knowing what to do, I got up just before dawn and set out walking up a trail, eventually coming across deer. The light was shining down behind them and it was a moment of pure joy—-I was young and strong (and looked like John Denver don’t forget) and the world was good with so many things yet to experience. And I remember too that while I stood alone on that path, I was hearing “Annie’s Song” in my head.
Sitting on the porch last night, thinking about that, a great sadness came over me, accepting my aging and how far I am from that person who was 22, walking on that mountain trail at dawn, with her whole life ahead of her.
I hope Helen feels the way I did that early morning in Colorado. She is now 18 and 16 years ago I brought her home from China, a scared little girl, in her own way tapping me on the shoulder and asking to crawl into my sleeping bag, a bag that I knew would never stay as clean again. This June I went with her to freshman orientation at K-State. After signing in (and noticing that the other parents looked way too young to have college aged kids) the students went off in one direction and family members were led to an auditorium where we got coffee and rolls and talks about children growing up and learning to make it on their own. Helen had been quite nervous about not knowing any other students and began texting me.
Helen: I’m in the college of business. See you at 11:15.
Ann: OK I ALREADY SPILLED MY COFFEE AND FAILED THE TEXTING SURVEY (note: also have trouble getting the all caps turned off)
Helen: Lolol I threw my coffee away
Ann: WAS IT THAT BAD?
Helen: I finished almost all of it. I have to carry a bunch of stuff. The big nose guy is talking. Did you have to watch the students do a skit?
Ann: No skits only lectures (note: managed to turn off all caps)
Helen: Sucks ____ (note: not very nice word here)
Helen: I think I should return my books.
Helen: They said I could go on amazon and get it super cheap
Ann: OK you scared me I thought you were going to say you already wanted to drop out
Helen: No its actually going pretty well
Ann: GOOD (note: all caps on purpose this time)
John Denver died in a private plane crash at the age of 53. I’ve already lived nine years longer than that and have had a pretty incredible life, with few regrets. But that doesn’t keep me from grieving what is lost. What I didn’t tell Helen in our texting was that when I sat in that auditorium by myself on orientation day, my eyes got all teary, and I don’t think it was because of the spilled coffee. I sometimes want that little toddler from China back, just like I sometimes want to be 22 again and walking in the forest at dawn, the world so open to me. But for now, I need to cherish Rose’s desire to sit with me on the porch, Helen’s wish that I help her on moving day. These are things still not to be taken lightly.
To read more about the adoption and raising of Rose and Helen, see my book “Spiders from Heaven” at the link above.