Day 21: Life At 8,000 Feet
It’s been a quiet week on the trail, as Michael has walked from Mount San Jacinto to Big Bear Lake. I think most of that time has been a descent into what looks to be a valley. I know that makes it difficult to get messages out.
Before he reached the valley, he called and told me about the accent. He said climbing up San Jacinto was amazing, but coming down was “terrible.” He said he lost the trail 10 times and fell twice, that he was inexperienced walking downhill in snow. He told me that he was alone, and ended up camping alone for the next night. He explained that the culture on the trail is to let people walk at their own pace, and plan to meet up to set up camp. I said “what happens if you don’t show up? Do they worry about you?” He said no, it’s kind of understood that people change their plans, stop where they want. No expectations, in other words. (Yes, this launched me into a week of worry. My fear, being alone on the trail, realized.) He said his friends were planning a “zero day” up ahead, and he hoped to catch up with them then.
I told him to send a photo of himself, so we could see his “transformation”. Oh boy. Man-child?
Last weekend was Mother’s Day, of course. My daughter Molly, after years of frustration chasing her brothers to Venmo their fair share of the Annual Mother’s Day Acknowledgement, decided to give up and send her own darn flowers. It’s a wonderful moment, receiving flowers from just one of your kids. It’s personal and purposeful and generous and it signified, in a way, the subtle shift that I’ve known for a long time: we’re now both adults. She can do whatever her heart desires, on her own. And she chooses, with joy, to love me. Just as I have her.
Michael gave me a wonderful gift of a different sort this year. Before he left home, while sitting one night at the dinner table, he noted “Oh yeah, it will be Mother’s Day while I’m on the trail. I sure can’t mess that up again–two years in a row would be really bad…when is it, anyway?” (This is in reference to his purposeful avoidance of all communication with the home front at the end of term last year. Yep, even on Mother’s Day.)
So as Sunday progressed with no call from Mike, my husband started preemptive counseling: “You know, you might not hear from Michael today. There’s no telling where he is and if he will remember or even have service.” And this year, truth be told, I was fully prepared and understanding. Of course he might not be able to call. I was even planning to pull his leg about it, make it a bit of family folklore, Mike’s inability to remember Mother’s Day.
Then after dinner on Sunday night, the phone rang:
“Helloooo! Happy Mother’s Day! You have no idea how hard it has been to make this call. I’ve been in a canyon for two days. I woke up this morning at 1,000 feet and realized it was Sunday. That means it must be Mother’s Day. So I knew I had to walk as fast as possible, to get into cell range. It was all straight uphill. I’ve rolled my ankle so I’m packing it in ice and I’m now at 8,000 feet. Did you get the picture of the rattlesnake? I had no idea if you would. I’ve been hiking alone for the past few days, and I came across it sunning itself on the trail. It was about five feet in front of me, so I jumped back and I think that startled it. It coiled up and started to rattle, so I knew it was prepared to strike. I stood still and it eventually moved off the trail and I could pass. So, how was your day?”
Kids grow up. It’s downright excruciating and in my opinion, people just don’t tell you that enough. You think the hard part is when they’re young and you’re afraid they’re going to dash into traffic when you’re not looking. It isn’t. You’re always looking. The morning my daughter got on that school bus to go to kindergarten, I realized I’d lost the absolute and total protective control I’d employed to secure us both for the past five years, and that it was a new day in my life as well as hers. (Never mind that I drove behind the bus and waved at her as she got off at the other end.)
And while I’m an emotional sap most of the time, melancholy over the fact that they’re not here sitting in their jammies, waiting for me to read aloud from the latest Harry Potter book we lined up at midnight to buy, I can’t deny that I love that my kids are now adults who make their own decisions to dig deep and offer what me what they have–their time, their attention, their efforts–of their own free will, to make me happy, because they love me. Not because they need me (although I like to think that they still do), but because they want to show me love, the way I’ve shown love to them, all these years. Could there be a better affirmation of the decisions you’ve made in your life?
Writing has been difficult this week. A wonderful Mother’s Day ended with news of the sudden passing of a friend. We graduated together from a small private school overseas, where we were, by in large, all ex-pats who’d moved around as corporate brats most of our lives. All of us were, and still are, a very close group. Kathy mentioned to us through her Facebook page a couple of weeks ago that she’d be returning to chemo and we all told her we were with her in the fight. But in fact, the reverse was true. In the fight, Kathy was with us. While in the midst of her battle, she was following Michael’s journey, reading and commenting on our blog, even sending me personal messages last week, like “How you doing, Max? Managing ok?” She told me that her nephew hiked the Appalachian Trail and that this journey would make Michael grow up and it would be a life-changer for him, that he was brave and confident and that it was wonderful, and that I was brave too.
And then we heard there were complications and that she needed prayers. And then she died and it is a devastating unexpected unfair terrible loss. My heart breaks for her husband, her sister, her daughter, and those who love her.
It’s just so darn fleeting. I worry about my son on the Pacific Coast Trail, but the truth is, every minute of the day, whether they’re across the country like my kids who live in New York, or standing next to me like my husband, it’s just fleeting and there’s nothing you can do about it. I’m so sorry that I didn’t send her a personal message last week, saying “How you doing, Kathy? Managing OK?” No amount of work or client demands, laundry or yoga classes, worrying or hand-wringing or blog-writing should take the place of digging deep and offering what we have–our time, our attention, our efforts–to the people who make up the relationship-fabric of our lives. I am taught this lesson over and over and over again, and yet I seem never to learn. My kids have learned it. My girlfriend lived it.
I aspire to be a person who sends notes that console, Kathy. To be a person who sends unexpected, personal and thoughtful gifts, Molly. I aspire to be the person who climbs 8,000 feet, Michael. Thank you for being my examples.