Dear Mom - Year Two

Hi mom,

It's amazing to think that two years has passed since you, well, passed. There are parts of my life that feel distant from that event, especially when I think of all that I have experienced since April 20th, 2013. There are other parts of my life, mostly interactions with Alice and dad and time in San Diego, where it still feels raw, like we are all still recovering and processing something that has just taken place. It's a curious thing this dying business.

While a lot happened in the first year of your passing, I look back and find myself amazed at how much has transpired in this second year. It makes me feel good that I'm living a much richer life than I was before. Your death had a large part to play in that. I'll get to that in a little but first I wanted to get you all caught up. I hope you're sitting down (or floating, or whatever is most comfortable for you now), because this is a long one.

Let's start with something that I had forgotten to mention last year. I drink beer now! I know, I know, how am I ever to become ordained by the Assemblies of God? I decided that once married, I would allow myself to see if I could develop a taste for beer (which hasn't happened as beer tastes too bitter for me, cider on the other hand...).

Okay back to history. What was big, exciting, and special about May of last year, was that it was when Liz and I started our 40 day bike ride from Vancouver, Canada to the Mexican border. Isn't that insane? We biked the entire Pacific coast of the United States, plus some in Canada. That is absolutely NOT something I would have ever imagined myself doing, nor something I think I would have had the courage to do even several years ago.

There are simply too many pictures to post (but if you have internet up there you can check out Liz's blog to see a day-to-day recounting of it). Here are two that I think are meaningful. The first is me zipping down a hill with a huge grin on my face, which pretty much sums up the entire trip. The second is us at the Mexican border with some wonderful friends we made along the way. Look at how tan we were! Dad met us at the border which was very special and the Kims hosted a huge feast for us all at their house.

After spending some wonderful time in San Diego and LA to visit with Alice, Dad, the Kims, the Chois, and Liz's parents, I headed up to Seattle for Zack's bachelor party which was... 4 days on a 40ft sailboat!

Totally another first for me but it was so much fun. Hanging with the old Microsoft crew was a great way to cap the bike trip, and it was special to be out on the sea and enjoying nature in a different context.

Back in Montana for the summer we enjoyed a glorious July, camped, hiked, slept, and just recovered from our bike tour. It's funny to think that going on a bike tour made coming home to a sabbatical year in rural Montana seem like we were "returning to normal."

Once August rolled around so did wedding season for our friends. Zack had asked me to officiate his wedding, which was a first for me and a HUGE honor. I got to prepare and deliver a speech, and lead them through the exchange of their rings. It was a beautiful ceremony and as always it was great to spend time with the Ali's (I even finally met Shaddie!).

Since we had Zack's wedding one weekend and Billy's the next, Liz and I decided to take a train down from Seattle to the Bay Area, stopping in a few cities along the way. We were treated to some beautiful sites in Oregon and northern California.

We arrived in the Bay in time for BILLY AND JOY'S WEDDING! I'm sure you're so proud of yourself up there aren't you mom? I know you're thinking you can take credit with your prayers for this one. Well get in line because Liz also takes credit for it as well. Billy and Joy had a wonderful ceremony and it was so special to be there to see them both get married. Billy has been a great friend and to see his relationship journey come to an end (and a great beginning) was very meaningful. It was also a fun time to connect with many of our old Bay Area friends and enjoy good food and dancing.

After the two west coast weddings, Liz and I were home for a week, and then headed to France for JB and Ninon's wedding. You're missing some good ones here! It's amazing to think that in the span of 2 years Zack, Billy, JB, and me all got married.

This was Liz and my first french wedding and I must say, they know how to PARTY. Weddings that go until 5 or 6am where all the adults and young people stay up dancing was something we had not experienced before. The food was AMAZING (easily the best wedding food I've had), and seeing the whole french family dressed up and dancing was more than I could have asked for.

After the wedding Liz and I, along with Cecile, Laurent, JB, Bene, and Alice, all spent a week on Ile Aux Moines, enjoying each other, food, and peace. Despite all the people who have come and gone through that place, it's walls are saturated with memories that it willingly oozes out for its occupants. Every evening we did the ritual walk to Le Trech where I captured this photo. You were missed again this year. The chairs that you and Jacques have left vacant have been filled by the addition of new members of the tribe.

After the island Liz and I planned a few days in Paris, since she had never been (except to fly out last year). We stayed at Anne's studio apartment that was extremely well located. We did all the usual tourist things, but it's always so much fun to see old things through news eyes. I got to enjoy the Eiffel tower again because it was the first time Liz had seen it. That goes for everything in that wonderful city. We ate, walked a lot, and had a really wonderful time. Here is a picture I took while laying on the grass in the park. I remember overhearing a conversation in English between two quarreling tourists. It was nowhere near as satisfying as hearing two french people argue. What poetry!

Upon returning home we set out for Jackson, Wyoming, to meet with our friend Mary Chang and begin a 5 day backpacking trip along the Teton Crest Trail. It was the longest backpacking trip I'd been on, and by FAR the coldest. The first night the temperature dropped down to around nine degrees. The sleeping bag you bought me all those years ago has become quite worn with use and time, so I discovered on this trip that it was time for an upgrade.

We camped the second night with a view of the Tetons that was fantastic. In the morning we all sat in our sleeping bags on the rocks and watched the sun crest those ragged peaks, bathing us in the first warmth of the day. The last night we camped on the shore of Leigh Lake where I snapped these two other photos. A peaceful sunset and a spectacular sunrise. That night we heard Elk bugling, which is an almost prehistoric sound.

After our return Annaha, Lily, Lydia, and Mama Song arrived in Ennis to spend a week with us. We took them on hikes, showed them the town, and really enjoyed their company. Going from just Liz and I to the addition of 4 other people, two of them young children, was an adjustment for me. There's a certain level of chaos that is introduced when you have guests, especially when there are kids involved. Being a good host I believe means welcoming people and their chaos into your home. I really enjoyed the chaos that was brought, especially since it meant that I got to spend time with my caring sister-in-law, nurturing mother-in-law, and two wonderful nieces.

Since they happened to arrive on my 30th birthday, they brought a Korean feast with them! The Jarvis' came over as well and got me a collection of potato chips from around the country (how good it is to be known). I ate, and ate, and ate. You would have been proud.

Mom I have to tell you about a girl I fell in love with. I didn't expect it to happen you see. I think that's how love works, you're not looking for it, and then that special someone comes into your life and you don't know how you can ever live without them. Her name is Lydia and she was not yet two years old at the time. Annaha and Don, God bless their heart, had made me the most wonderful niece and I didn't even realize it. The week they were here was such a delight, and as much as I enjoyed everyone, getting to spend time with Lydia felt extra special.

We took everyone to Judy's where she made us the most AMAZING chuck wagon dinner. We are talking steaks cooked on an open fire, baked beans, fresh salad from her garden, and for dessert homemade vanilla ice cream with a peach cobbler made in a dutch oven. This is serious eat'n. Judy has been such a wonderful friend to us and we cherish the time that we get to spend with her. We have other great friends from the Ennis area that we really got to bond with (the Jarvis' and the Noacks' in particular).

After we hosted Annaha and kids along with Mama Song, Liz and I said our goodbyes to folks in Ennis and on October 6th moved into our apartment in Missoula. We weren't sure what to expect from the place but decided to commit to trying to out for a year. What an amazing choice this turned out to be. We've landed, totally not of our own planning, being surrounded by amazing neighbors. They are all in their 30's, and have become very dear to us. We all have dinner together every Sunday (we call our group of 8 the Sunday Supper Club) and these have been some of the more significant relationships we've formed in this town.

Missoula is turning out to be a really incredible place to be. It's small enough to get around easily on a bike (all the buses are free too!), it's large enough to have a lot of interesting things going on, it's surrounded by nature, and the people that live here truly love being here. This has turned out to be a really great move for us.

We decided last year not to head back to California for both Thanksgiving and Christmas, so went down for a three week holiday trip over Thanksgiving. It started in LA at the Chois, where we had Thanksgiving, and ended in San Diego with the Kims. In between Liz and I spent a weekend with Alice and Stephen on Catalina island which was a relaxing and great way to connect with them. How to describe this three weeks? Well I gained weight I'm still trying to work off (thanks Don!), spent time with Michael and Susan, and overall just really enjoyed family. Liz and I are still working out our California trip schedule, but it's great to know that our family is willing to come and visit us out here.

At the end of December our friend Jenny Morgan came from the Bay Area and spent Christmas with us. The next day we three got into our car and headed up to Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies. We had heard from a friend here in Missoula that "Banff makes Glacier look like a dump." I've never been to Glacier, but Banff was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. Everywhere you look there are towering mountains, we must have pulled over the car every 3 miles to just stand there gaping.

Above image from the very talented Happy Dawn Photography

After Jenny left we had the Kims for about a week. Need I say more? There was skiing, ice skating, sledding, eating, and spending wonderful time together. It's hard to believe that in the span of a year we've had almost all of Liz's family out to visit us in Montana (her dad and Don have yet to come).

I started my very own business this year! It's a life coaching business and my hope is to help people who feel stuck as I once did. After experiencing what I have in the last two years I've seen that there are far too many people living lives that are so much smaller than what they could have. Often times they just need someone to listen and invite them into something greater. I get to have some truly amazing conversations with people who offer me the gift of their vulnerability and their dreams. I'll see where this leads, but for the first time in a long time, I feel like I'm doing work that suites my abilities and interests. We'll see where this goes. I'm hoping that next year I'll have some great news for you.

So now let's talk about Montana. We have been here for a year and four months. The question we get asked most frequently from friends in California is if we're going to be staying here. I sometimes pick up a sentiment that Montana is viewed as a stop, but that all roads lead to California. I think we are in Montana for a while, and if we can pull it off, Missoula will be our new home. As winter gives way to spring, and spring eventually to summer, I am increasingly in love with this place. As a San Diego native who moved to the Bay, I've never had nature in my backyard the way it is here. We have the third largest wilderness areas in the lower 48 states a mere 30 minutes away from where we live. If that's not enough, we have the fifth largest wilderness area only 3 hours away, not to mention two national parks (Glacier and Yellowstone), and countless other wilderness areas all close by. The lifestyle here is different. People work to be able to have time and money to enjoy themselves, rather than for the sake of work itself. They work to enjoy what is outside and already exists, rather than focusing on creating something new. It's different, has it's own drawbacks, but is exactly what I want right now.

As I am struck by the beauty of this place, a thought has repeatedly hit me, which is that God must have modeled the Garden of Eden off of western Montana. I feel an immense gratitude for where I get to live and call home. I hope we will be here for a while.

Liz and I continue to grow closer together. This process is not without pain, arguments, and frustrations, but I love her more than ever. That's the mystery of marriage I suppose. It's an incredibly hard journey, but unbelievable fulfilling if you're both willing to work on it. We learned a lot about each other this year by being in many different contexts together. The amount of time we've spent together is amazing. Liz calculated that we ate over 1,000 meals together in 2014. I wonder how long that would have taken if we hadn't taken this time off together. We are entering a new phase of work. This means that a part of our lives are taking on separate directions, me with my coaching business and her with Snowqueen and Scout, and it's exciting to root for each other's success. I love this women mom, of the few things I am sure of in life, this is one of them.

So that was my year. I'm not sure how time works where you are, but down here things moved fast. I feel like I'm getting better at catching up to life though. Now even though it feels like time has flown by, I can look and see that I have still managed to pack a lot of life into it.

I am happy. I am really enjoying where I live, I am enjoying my marriage, and I am enjoying the friendships we are making. None of those categories are without their hardships, but the overall picture that is forming is one that I am content with.

You played a big part in getting me here. It's a shame that I couldn't do this while you were still alive, but I was simply too afraid. Your death made me fear something more than losing my security. Your death made me fear my own life, and of wasting it. The finality of your death provided me the ultimate perspective. What was once there is no more, never to return. My life, which is here now, will one day not be. The ONLY thing I get to get to decide, since I have such privilege of choice, is what story I will get to tell at the end of it. Is it a tale of adventure, pain, struggle, victory, and joy? Or is it a tale where chapter after chapter is filled with work, with routine, and with safety and security? Even after all my change I still wrestle with this question. But it's the wrestling that's the good stuff, it's in that tension where life happens.

I miss you as much as ever. Every year adds to the tales I will not get to tell you in this lifetime. You have left a mother-sized hole in my life, and that is a hard pill to swallow. I feel young as a son, but am feeling older as a man. I have gray hairs where once they were brown. I am seeing wrinkles appearing around my eyes and soreness where there was once strength. I am dying, every day I am dying a little. My hope is that I am also living. And that every day I am living a lot, so that in the end my life's statement will show an overwhelming balance on the life side of things.

I don't think anyone ever gets over losing one of their parents, but I am beginning to adjust, to fill that space with the wonders of life. As good as things can be, I know that your death is a bitter song that is never to fade. I wish you could see me now mom, I think you would be really proud.

Your loving son,
Samuel Mandell