A new love, an extended family in Aspen
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN, Colorado ” When Allison Snyder learned that her new friend, Art Daily, was a huge fan of Mark Helprin, she wrote to the prize-winning novelist. Snyder believed that Helprin might, in some way, be able to help Daily through the immense grief of having lost his family ” his wife, Kathy, and their two young sons, Tanner and Shea ” to an unimaginable accident.
Helprin was touched by the story, as anyone would be. Daily’s family was killed, in February 1995, when a boulder dislodged above Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon, and bounced into their car. Art alone was spared.
But the writer had little to offer Daily.
“He doesn’t need me. He needs my writing,” Helprin wrote back, declining Allison’s invitation to extend further aid. The response, Allison says, despite the polite tone, “was a complete rejection letter.”
Which didn’t stop Allison, a pretty, blonde tennis pro from Texas who had likewise experienced sudden, wrenching loss ” the suicide of her brother, Rod, some years earlier.
She kept writing to Helprin, often five pages at a time, detailing the life she was making with Art, which came to include marriage (she is now Allison Daily) and the birth of two sons, Rider and Burke, both now approaching their teens.
“I’d tell him everything I was doing, what the boys were doing,” she continued. “I don’t think he’d ever come in contact with that before, and it intrigued him. In a weird sort of way we became friends. He’d tell us about how he was raising his daughters. I knew there was this connection.”
Art was, at first anyway, mortified that Allison was pestering his favorite writer. But he had a strange connection to Helprin of his own. A few months after the accident, Helprin’s “Memoir from Antproof Case” was published. D
aily read the novel, and loved the story of an old man who reflects back on his extraordinary, up-and-down life and writes it down for the son he adores. But the final page got Daily’s attention like maybe nothing he had read before.
To Daily’s mind, Helprin’s writing abruptly changed tone. He stops being a storyteller ” with an offbeat tale about an aversion to coffee ” and seems to address the reader directly, providing wise, warm, big-picture advice.
“He shifts gears and goes into a few paragraphs about how you keep love alive after someone moves on,” said Daily. “It was extraordinary. It was the explanation I was looking for. He put it in words I hadn’t been able to quite capture for myself. It was like he was talking to me.”
On a wall of his Main Street law office, Daily has a collage that includes photos of Kathy, Tanner and Shea, and the closing thoughts from Helprin’s book: “You learn … that love can overcome death, and that what is required of you in this is memory and devotion. … To keep your love alive you must be willing to be obstinate, and irrational, and true … . Without this, you will live like a beast and have nothing but a broken heart. With it, your heart, though broken, will be full and you will stay in the fight until the last.”
Helprin and the Dailys have stayed in regular touch with each other through letters; they have also met once in person, a few years ago, when Helprin appeared at a book event in Denver. Among the more recent topics of their correspondence has been the practice of writing itself.
Art was beginning to put his experience down on paper ” mostly as a way of sharing with Rider and Burke what had happened in Glenwood Canyon, and afterwards. In time, Allison started writing her story: Rod’s suicide, her own divorce, how the simple act of reaching out to Art ” a stranger at the time ” led to a new love, a new family.
When the two saw how their voices interweaved, they wanted to make it a book. Helprin chipped in on the business side. “He gave basic advice on what to expect in the publishing world,” said Allison.
“Out of the Canyon” ” to be published Tuesday, May 12 by Harmony Books, an imprint of Random House ” tells the Dailys’ infinitely sad, improbably uplifting story. The book is one thing ” a well-told account of a brave, unlikely recovery from the unthinkable. But stronger than words are the Dailys themselves; simply being in their presence ” compassionate and humble ” is like being surrounded by an enormous grace. It is the convincing exclamation point on their book.
Art and Allison will appear at a book event tonight at 6 p.m. at the Avon Library.
Allison, spending a winter in Aspen following a divorce, heard of Art’s tragedy. Though she had never met him, she was moved to make him a tape of songs, and write him a note. The words were intimate and heartfelt, but not intended to lead anywhere; Allison planned to return to Texas 10 days later.
But Art wrote back, holding out the possibility of a friendship: “There is a part of me, secret, unobserved, that is quietly beginning to search for someone to love again,” Daily writes in “Out of the Canyon,” reflecting on his mental state at the time. He chooses to ignore the part of his mind telling him it is unacceptably soon ” just a month ” after his wife has died to become involved with another woman. But the two share their grief, their comfort, their hopes, and an acquaintance quickly evolves into an intimate friendship, then a romance.
That might have been the easier part of Art’s newfound openness. He also had to accept things he couldn’t have even dreamed of.
Two months into her friendship with Art, Allison went on a hiking trip through the Grand Canyon. On a steep part of the hike called the Tanner Trail, she saw something ” first a flash of color, then a boy. Only not a boy exactly, but a vision of a boy ” “half invisible and almost up in the sky,” writes Allison.
But it is not a momentary experience: The presence stays with her for hours, long enough for Allison to get a detailed grasp on his appearance: long, light brown hair, soft features, wearing a yellow fleece. It is Tanner Daily, and Allison asks why he is there.
“I need to talk with my dad. I have things I need you to tell him for me and Shea and mom,” is his answer, as Allison notes in “Out of the Canyon.” Tanner describes his after-life experience, mostly joyous and hopeful, but with a sadness for those who miss them terribly. Shea and Kathy also appear ” off to Allison’s periphery, but clear enough that she can sense what they are feeling. It is the first of many times that Allison has had an otherworldly contact with Art’s deceased family.
“I had some experiences as a young girl, I would know something that was going to happen,” said Allison. “I thought there was something wrong with me for knowing these things. Growing up in the South, I thought maybe that was evil. So for years I kind of pushed it all away.”
Both Allison and Art now embrace the idea that, even by today’s standards of anything-goes family units, they have a unique one. Allison very much considers Tanner, Shea and even Kathy as part of her family. There are pictures of the three all over their house off Cemetery Lane.
Rider and Burke think of Tanner and Shea not only as their guardian angels, heavenly spirits looking out for their well-being, but their brothers. All birthdays are celebrated, even if the guest of honor can’t enjoy a piece of cake and blow out the candles.
Allison was at first scared of her visions, then shy about revealing them to the world. Her sixth sense isn’t something she talks about in day-to-day life.
For Allison, probably the biggest hurdle has been accepting Kathy’s presence in the extended family.
“She really protects and watches over our family,” said the 43-year-old Allison, whose two jobs ” helping run Pathfinders Angels, which provides aid to cancer patients, and as bereavement counselor at Aspen Valley Hospital ” involve assisting others in times of extreme need. “All three of them do. Not on a constant basis. But when we need them. I feel we’re protected in a very unique way.”
“I’m not intuitive like Allison,” said Art, who has not been visited by such visions. “I’m not familiar with these kinds of experiences. But I don’t doubt them anymore.”
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