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first person

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Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

At the top of the world, the air is thin and it’s hard to breathe. I’m panting. It doesn’t help, but I can’t stop. Each breath in is short on oxygen. My lungs feel empty; they stay empty. Hunched over, the only thing to see is gravel and rock; the only other things to see are hard-crusted snow and darkness.

“Hey,” The porter, the only other person up here, gets my attention.

I lift my head.

“Do you have a cigarette?” he asks with a toothless smile.

I’m stunned. It’s been days since I could smoke – not from lack of want, but from lack of air. Between the cold, the insomnia, and pure exhaustion, I’m on the verge of collapse, but the porter, cool as a clam, reckons it’s a good time for a cigarette.

“Sorry,” I shake my head.

He shrugs. Leaning back on his heels, he stares out even though there’s nothing to see.

Could I really capture Dad’s life in a scrapbook?

Cutting my father’s hair was symbolic and emotional

Supposedly, on a clear day, you can see the curvature of the Earth from the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. I’m at the top of the mountain, but I won’t know until the sun rises. Right now, there’s not a hint of light, no crack over the horizon. I don’t know how long I can wait. Between the thin air and the cold, all I want to do to is get away from this mountain, back to somewhere I can breathe and sleep and be warm again.

But the sun isn’t the only thing I’m waiting for.

Coming from below, I can hear his shuffling ascent; it’s not fast: a couple of steps. Stop. Pant. Pant some more. A couple of steps. Stop. Pant.

Half our party, my sister and her husband had to turn back before the peak. After another sleepless night, the cold and altitude got to them. With frozen toes, they went back down – back to air and warmth.

If you had to place a bet who, out of the four of us, would make it to the top of Kilimanjaro and who wouldn’t, my sister and brother-inlaw were the safe bet. They run. They work out. They trained for this trip. The safe bet isn’t me – the longhaired, party-loving and cigarette-smoking baby of the family – and it certainly isn’t my aging father.

But here we are: me waiting at the top while my dad shuffles to the finish. Step. Stop. Pant.

Only, this is a memory. It should be past tense. But in my memory, it’s not past tense; memories of my father never are.

During one of my first summers in Calgary, Mom asked me to call in dad for dinner. I ask where he is.

“He’s in his hole.” She tells me in a loving way that implies there’s no where else he could be.

Opening the patio door, I can hear him before I see him: a shovel scraping against the earth; a pause; the thud of falling dirt. It has a rhythm to it: Scrape. Pause. Thud.

“Dad!” I shout.

His head pops out of the ground, emerging from the trench he’s been digging for weeks – the foundation for a wall that only exists in his head. In the future, my parents will drink wine together in the shade of that beautiful stone wall under the watchful gaze of Dionysus.

“Be there in a minute!”

Like a gopher, he pops back down.

That night, my family will tease him about the wall. We teased him a lot that summer. Dad and his hole, digging away, hour after hour. He didn’t need to. He could have hired someone, or used a machine, but instead, he wanted to dig a hole because he imagined a wall. Scrape. Pause. Thud.

Tanzania is the furthest from home I’ve ever been. I look down from the top of that dark cold mountain top. As the night starts to lift – faint, early morning light, just a shade away from darkness creeping in – I see him. I see his tired, exhausted rhythm: Step. Stop. Pant.

He’s maybe 20 feet from the top, but he looks defeated: shoulders slouched, breathing frantic, feet heavy. I don’t understand how he keeps going. He looks like he’s going to keel over. I shout at him, telling him to go back.

He ignores me.

Step. Stop. Pant.

At this point in my life, it’s hard to see myself in my father. For the last couple of years, I’ve grown my hair and dented a chip on my shoulder, chasing some outdated 1960s counterculture dream I don’t understand.I’m a writer,” I tell people while I cook for minimum wage after dropping out of university,I don’t need a degree.” The irony. But my dad, he listens, he encourages university, but he listens even though I don’t.

It takes me a while to hear him. He’s an engineer, now a businessman, and I want to make art. It’s hard to see myself in him, and I only want to listen to myself.

Step. Stop. Pant.

He shuffles to the top and we sit together, smiling in front of a small wood sign. The porter holds my father’s camera, aiming it at us. My dad puts his arm around me.

Later, when I’m sitting at home – the mountaintop over a decade in the past – and listening to a record, the vinyl spins Helplessly Hoping by Crosby, Stills & Nash. My father gave me this record. He built the wood-paneled speakers.

I wonder, if like the wall he hung Dionysus from, if he ever imagined his son listening to songs from the seventies, playing from speakers he built as a teenager?

And then a realization fit for the top of Kilimanjaro strikes me, one I wish I saw earlier when I was actually on top of Kilimanjaro.

I stop wondering why he’s doing this. Why he would put himself in so much pain and discomfort: It doesn’t bother him. It never did. He could see the top so clearly in his mind, that the route to get there stopped being an obstacle and became an adventure. What was there to complain about? That’s true of everything he does, seeing something in his head and making it real: a patch of shade to drink wine with his wife under; sharing a view of a curved horizon with his son; a pair of speakers to listen to music from.

And I realize that’s who I am too, imaging stories and futures and labouring to make them... something – a novel, a picture, a performance. We’re the same.

And as the memories collapse together, I’m sitting at the top of the world with my father, watching the sun rise, forgetting about the cold and exhaustion because, from up here, the world is beautiful.

Ian Benke lives in Calgary.

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