This month marks the 20th anniversary of my mom’s death from brain cancer.
A few days after my mom died, my dad took me and my brother to Cape Cod for a few days. I don’t remember too much about the trip. I remember feeling mostly numb and realizing – this is it. This is our family now. We are a family of three.
Later that summer, we went to Juneau to see my dad’s mom and brother. That trip, too, has been blurred with time. I remember snatches of things – like being hugged by a friend of my dad’s family and dissolving into tears. Her arms were so maternal and it felt like it had been a long time since I had been hugged like that. It had been a long time since I was hugged like that.
What I remember most, though, is a hike my dad, brother and I took. In our family of four, my dad and brother would go on ahead and my mother and I would bring up the rear. We would always meet up eventually – at the summit, or during a water break. But it was nice to have that easy companionship. It was nice to feel as if at your own pace, there was someone who was right there with you going their own pace too.
As a family of three, it felt different. My brother and father stayed with me, but I could tell they were slowing down for me. I tried to push my pace, but I just couldn’t go as fast as the rest of my family could. I started adding on more water breaks, but they weren’t helping my legs go any faster. Finally, about ¾ of the way up, I gave up. “I can’t do this.” I said, and I began to cry. I felt self-conscious for slowing everyone down, even though my dad and brother were nothing but encouraging as we climbed. But mostly, I missed my mom. I missed having her in the back with me, asking me questions, singing songs. I missed the lightness and easiness of it.
My dad is such a good Dad, and he knew where the tears were coming from. “You miss having mom back here with you,” he said. I did. I really, really did.
“I’m just going to stay here. You go ahead. I’ll be fine.” They were maybe 20 minutes from the summit. After making sure I was okay, they both headed off. Going at their natural paces, they looked easy and relaxed.
I stayed under the shade of an evergreen for a while, feeling sorry for myself and missing my mom. But after a while, I had enough of it. Okay, so I didn’t have my mom to cheer me along and keep me company. But I was not a quitter. I was not going to let my tired legs, stupid cancer, or anything else stop me from getting to the top of that mountain.
I put my backpack back on and started climbing. My legs slightly refreshed, I was able to go at a decent pace. Most of the remaining portion of the mountain was above the timberline. It was a switchback, followed by a harder climb at the top. I weaved my way through the switchback, feeling my legs hit their rhythm. With only one more “V” to go before the summit, my brother and father began to descend. When they saw me, they started cheering. We all climbed up that last part together. Another round of pictures was taken for them, a first round for me. We had more water and snacks.
On the way down, my brother went ahead. He was always like a goat going down, so sure footed. My dad stayed with me, but it didn’t feel forced. My brother always went ahead, waiting for us at the car like he’d been there for hours.
We had a lot of work to do, to figure out what this new, smaller family was. But we would do it.