Being a hero in the eyes of my children was far more important to me than the adulation I’ve received over the years for getting shot and stabbed and being any sort of a leader. The memories that keep me warm on snowy winter nights here in Yellowstone are of times when I was a real hero. I remember my son Ryder and his little sister Grace on Christmas morning gazing with wide eyed wonder at the presents under the tree while a fire cracked and popped in a log cabin steeped to the roof in drifts. I hold those perfect moments close to me, those fleeting times that were really gifts my children gave to me. I can now open them like a book, and I turn back the years to see that look of amazement they rewarded me with when I lifted a heavy log, carved a bow, or brought home a wolf cub. I wrap myself in those precious memories like a warm bison blanket to keep the cold at bay and stave off the lingering chill of things I would rather forget.
The winter Ryder turned nine, Grace was six, and the cold was bitter and long. Maybe with the telling of it, these many years later, forgiveness will find me and I can draw close and smile.
The Fall obliterated humanity about sixteen years before that season; the bombs and pestilence that followed The Fall pushed us to the brink of the abyss, but we managed to survive. In the nine years we had been in the west, the scattered groups of survivors inhabiting the region enjoyed relative peace and security. It was a time of rebirth and renewal, and my best memories live there still. The weaponized fungus we had come to call Tarantula still thrived in the warmer regions, but the cold of the north kept it at bay. We were full of hope, though we bore the wounds of the past. We believed we had made it through the worst of it.
I was then not yet thirty, and still very much in my prime, my hair dark and short, with not a hint of the white beard and long mane I now wear. “You look like Noah,” Crystal jokes these days. “What happened to my sculpted David, my Greek hero?” She laughs and there is no malice in it; the gray is earned and I wear it with the cantankerousness of an old Grizzly baring his yellowed fangs over a kill, long of tooth and the gold fading, but still dangerous. I was much more dangerous then. I stood six feet four inches, was broad of shoulder and narrow of hip, and I was strong. Hazel eyes, still bright with hope then, before they were faded and dimmed by sadness, which still burned with a zest for life.
“You’re old beyond your years,” I recall Crystal saying back then. “Such an old soul.” But really, I think that was all of us.