I grew up alone in Switzerland.
It happened in a few weeks.
I went to a place in the Swiss Alps along the French border called Shelter – In French,L’Abri. Across the horizon, you could see Mont Blanc.
After studying there for a short time, I weaved my way through Switzerland on my way back home.
Death and fog
Two years ago this weekend, my grandparents died a day apart from one another. My grandfather, the stronger one we thought, took a dive and was bed ridden in about six months. I got the call before school started. My roommates and I were beginning the normal routine of coffee and music in South Dakota; we were about to draw straws for who was to dash out to the frozen cars and start them, then my dad called. I was in the hallway.
I received the call at 8:07 that my Papa was dead, Jesse Pugh – a strong man. One who knew something in his head we didn’t know and kept it there. A man who would ring when you hugged him close. He wore Old Spice, slapped on Brut and slicked his hair back. He thought long about what he was about to say and he read voraciously. He took life hard and he liked it that way. He never wanted to find himself up to his knees again in the mud, he never wanted a suit that he couldn’t buy himself.
I don’t remember the rest of that day, I only remember booking a ticket. I drove alone to Rapid City that night and didn’t say a word to anyone. I ate dinner at TGI Friday’s and didn’t even think.
The next morning, I was driving to the airport under a cold moon and my father called me to say my Nana died as well. Her caretaker was wheeling her from the bathroom and asked her which dress she’d wear to my grandfather’s funeral. Bessie Beryl Pugh said she wasn’t going to any funeral. The caretaker went to get something and came back to find my Nana with no life left inside of her, eyes open and looking out the window.
A day before my grandfather died, my childhood dog died. My youngest brother called to tell me – he was fourteen and I think he felt the need to be a man and tell someone something hard.
Three weeks earlier, my mentor from college was overtaken by pancreatic cancer – Earl Moseley Jr. I found out while in a Native American studies night class on the Rosebud Reservation. I just walked outside and walked – along the fence line of the Lakota Sioux tribe’s buffalo herd. I tried to make it back for his funeral and to see my grandfather once more before he died, but a fog came down on South Dakota and I couldn’t find a flight. I remember lying between two beds in my hotel that night talking to a nice lady from Orbitz who tried to make it work. Her name was Karen. Finally, Karen had to go home. I had friends call and offer to pay for the ticket, but it just wouldn’t work.
And I stayed there between the beds while that damned fog slipped into the cracks of everything.
I pulled a hotel pillow close to me and crouched between the beds with my head resting on the nightstand. I pulled the pillow closer and wiped my nose against it, the Gideon Bible sat with its pages pressed against one another in the drawer.
I fell asleep there and drove home to my classroom the next day. Not knowing I’d soon lose a dog and two grandparents.
When I was back home to Odessa for my grandparents’ funeral, I remember my cousin pulling neck ties from my Papa’s tie rack in their bedroom. The room was quiet. Underneath one of the beds might be that rope, coiled and relaxed. The rope my Papa tied to his arm when they slept because he couldn’t hear with his hearing aids out – and my Nana would yank on it in the middle of the night to wake him up so she could go to the bathroom.
My cousin stood in that corner, the corner from which you could place your back to view the entire room – the bureau where we used to steal peppermints and quarters, socks and bobby pins, the corner with the windows that viewed our tree house and Papa’s shed. Your back would be to the wall of closets we used to crawl into, stalactites of cardigan sleeves brushing against our faces, hems of dresses and slips – bells of secrecy we’d slide into as we hid from something we created and allowed to possess us.
Just outside of those closets is where my cousin slid each tie from the rest and draped it over his arm. If you’ve ever pulled a blade of grass from the ground, not so forcefully as to break its stalk, but gently as to birth it from the earth, all the way down to the point where the green yellows, then whitens into a thin stalk you can squeeze a few drops of moisture from – he pulled the ties from that deep.
Each one was going to be given to ministers who showed up to the funeral – ministers who were going to hang the ties up in their offices to claim that they had a piece of J.T. Pugh, I suppose. I still don’t get it.
The day after
The day after their funeral, I took my Papa’s tin of bird scraps out through the back yard to the alley and stood there in the cold morning for a while. I then doled out scraps of food onto the worn runway. They knew it wasn’t him. My smell, my gate, my posture, I don’t know – but they knew it wasn’t him.
Later that morning, I sat in my Nana’s chair, in a quiet house. I flipped through a notebook on the table they used to write down things they needed to remember. Back when Nana could still write, there were notes – all of them about things she wanted to cook for others or things she needed to buy. There was a copied poem from a friend about what it would be like when they were old women and could get away with whatever they wanted. As her handwriting started to fade and the ink held less of a weight on the page, there would be scattered and forgotten thoughts – sometimes just a word or two on a page, then the next page might have buy peaches written down in the top corner. After she stopped writing, Papa had scribbled a few sermon notes about Revelation, Acts, the Apostolic church and creativity. There were a few notes about how creative bodies are hard pressed and revolutionaries, how they don’t conform and they chart their own paths.
Papa talked about how creativity pulled us away from others. How it required suffering and quiet. How it’s not easy.
And, somehow that morning there was fog on the flat desert of Odessa. Birds gathered it up in their feathers and I sat there for the last time at my grandparents’ kitchen table with no vision out of the windows. I was wholly there – because I had to be.
The fog clears
And there was fog when I was in Gimmewald, a little village at the top of the Latterbrunen valley in the central part of Switzerland. I laid in a bunk near an open window as the weather systems came in – each mountain, they told me, has their own weather system. Some new friends chattered in the hallway about how they couldn’t see the Matterhorn that morning on their day trek because of the fog.
The window was open and I saw the weather happen right before me. It came into the window, like it was forced to, like those old Play-Doh toys when you force the substance through some sort of filter. Like icing out of a tube for fancy deserts.
I laid there and breathed that fog in. Not unlike the fog from South Dakota when I couldn’t fly. Not unlike the fog in Odessa after my grandparents’ death.
I breathed it in to spite it, to spite whatever gray means.
I tried to read a book I stole from L’Abri called Seeing Through Cynicism.
I fell asleep there, almost finished with the book and having seen through nothing, not even the length of my room. The fog was upon me again.
I woke up and walked downstairs to the bar of the hostel I was staying in. The owners were there, just as Rick Steves said they would be. And a Canadian musician played the guitar, Eric Clapton and the Eagles. He then played a few songs he wrote himself – one about the very house we were in, about a time a decade ago when he first came to Switzerland and took drugs with his friends and slept with foreign girls in a room upstairs that is now called the Shack Shack in their honor.
I sat there and wrote about a Canadian girl I had spent the day with, about how I should take her on a walk and look into her eyes – but I didn’t. I needed to be alone there.
After the gentleman put his guitar away, I followed him outside.
I was still under the overhang of the porch when he stopped and looked up at the bare sky, “Well, there goes the fog – after a whole day upon us” he said.
And it was gone.
How, I asked him.
He said, “I’ve been coming here for over ten years and I haven’t found anyone who can explain it.”