By: Catherine Gayle

IT WAS IMPOSSIBLE to do almost anything at this time of year without thinking about my father. I never thought of him the way he’d been right at the end. That hadn’t really been him. It had just been the shell of the man he once was, nothing more than a body barely holding on. Instead, I remembered him as he’d been when I was a boy learning to play goal. Big. Strong. Unbreakable. Seemingly immortal. Much like the Japanese cherry blossom trees scattered all around me in this garden right now.

Actually, the cherry blossoms were really fitting, come to think of it. For centuries, they’ve been a symbol of life and death, of transience and mortality. Watching the multi-colored leaves fall to the ground and thinking of how fleeting life could be was a morbid way to spend my day, though, and it would only lead me into dangerous territory better left in the past. I forced my eyes away from the brilliant orange of the cherry blossom leaves and shuffled along the trail, moving on. That was all I could do, after all. Move on. Maybe find a new path. It had been more than long enough since he died for me to do that, after all, and a lot had happened in the interim.

When I was a boy, my father had spent countless hours tirelessly shooting pucks at me and correcting my stance, my push-off, and other bits and pieces of my technique. There was no one I’d trusted more to teach me back then, and not just because I’d thought him to be indestructible. Dad had played goal for a few years in the National Hockey League and for many more than that in the Swedish Elite League. He’d been a backup goaltender for Sweden in the Olympics a couple of times, too. He knew a lot about proper goaltending skills and what it took to make it as a professional goaltender—definitely more than the coaches of the teams I’d played for in those days—and so I’d soaked up as much as I could. I had wanted to be just like him…only better.

He hadn’t wanted that for me, though. He’d wanted me to make my own path. Instead of playing like he did or any of the other goalies I’d idolized as a kid, he’d encouraged me to play like myself, whatever that meant. To create my own style. To become my own man.

I was still working on that last part, but I had definitely followed his advice in terms of goaltending style. Most coaches didn’t quite know what to do with me.

The NHL’s new season was set to start in less than a week. My team—the Portland Storm—had already finished all our pre-season exhibition games. We were due to head out of town for a few days for a team-bonding event that leadership had planned, but today was dedicated to the fans.

The entire team was at the Portland Japanese Gardens for our annual Ice Breaker event, a day when the fans could come out and meet the players and coaches, get some autographs, and generally have a good time. The Storm Foundation and the Light the Lamp Foundation had representatives here, too, jointly hosting a private event for the team’s season ticket holders and hoping to raise a little money for their causes while they were at it.

In all my years with the Storm—closing in on a decade now—I’d never come to the Japanese Gardens before. I tended to spend my time off with the boys, and this wasn’t exactly at the top of most of their lists in terms of places to go for a good time. The more I saw of the gardens, though, the more I wanted to come back another time. Alone. Sometime when I could just sit and breathe and take it all in without being surrounded by dozens of acquaintances and strangers, or even friends.

The world felt peaceful here. Fall was in full bloom, and all the leaves were changing colors—oranges, reds, yellows, and greens creating a vivid landscape where it seemed impossible to feel anything but serenity. That was something I needed more of in my life. I needed a place I could meditate, clear my thoughts, and focus on the positive. I needed somewhere I could be alone with myself and not give in to the urge to take a pill, have a drink, or bury all my negativity in oblivion. Sometimes I felt as though everything was falling down and crushing me, but here, I felt light and free.

I’d just finished my turn signing autographs for the fans—actually, I’d just finished sitting at a table, watching the long lines in front of the rest of the guys, and wishing a few more people would come over and ask for my autograph—and now had some free time before the season ticket holder fundraiser. Several of the boys had gone off together to explore, and others had broken off with groups of fans to talk. I needed some time to myself, though, and few of them really wanted to spend time with me anyway. They would, but that didn’t mean they wanted to. Anyway, that made it easier to wander off alone.

That was something I’d been learning about myself over the last few years, since my addiction started and my father died—I needed time to be alone and just think. So I headed out in the opposite direction from the rest of the guys, trying to find somewhere away from the crush. Somewhere quiet and hopefully secluded.

I had been walking along the path for a couple of minutes when I saw the perfect spot below. Most of the gardens here had a theme, I’d noticed. This one wasn’t filled with plant life, though. It was a big, rectangular area, with white-gray rocks covering the surface and a few larger, moss-covered boulders placed strategically throughout. A stone wall surrounded it, with a few benches along one side. Someone had traced lines through the rocks, it seemed, making patterns within the uniformity.