13 Aug Mountains of grief.
Several years ago, I had the amazing opportunity to travel to El Chalten, Argentina. My friend Brenda and I climbed a peak called Cerro Solo, and we spent 4 days traversing the Patagonian Ice Cap (the 3rd largest in the world). It was an incredible, indescribably amazing experience. Among other things, I dislocated my shoulder climbing Cerro Solo (requiring surgery when I returned home).
One day prior to my departure, my grandmother (dad’s mom) passed away. My grandmother, Rose, had been in a nursing home for several years after she had several, “mini strokes”. After an unsuccessful brain surgery to reduce the pressure within her skull, her mind slipped away. Just before her initial decline, I was able to visit her and play a few duets on the violin with her. My grandmother introduced me to the violin at age two, I started playing violin at age 4 and now, at age 35, I proudly use my grandmother’s violin.
As I left for my trip, I was distraught – grief settled heavily on my heart, and guilt at being away. Inside my bag, I packed the last photo ever taken of my grandmother and I playing violin together and a few Cowtails (her favorite candy – she literally chased me down for them when I discovered her secret stash).
I carried my grandmother’s photograph to the summit of Cerro Solo and across the Patagonian Ice Cap. I ate a Cowtail in each location. I remember lying in the tent, tears streaming down my face as memories from my childhood with my grandmother came back to me in waves – drinking earl grey tea with sugarcubes out of a fancy teapot… her make believe stories of the three adventurous girls named Shirley, Mimi and Tilly (which were meant to represent me and my two sisters)… and the hours spent in painting lessons (she was a phenomenal artist), or playing music together. The joy I experienced on the summit was met with a lump in my throat as I looked at her photo. A few days later, standing on the Patagonian icecap, looking out over the endless expanse of ice, my heart ached with both beauty and loss.
A few weeks ago, Brenda and Aaron and I had a trip planned for a peak-bagging excursion in the Glacier Peak Wilderness. A few weeks before the trip, my grandfather’s (mom’s dad) health started declining drastically. My mom rushed to Florida to be by his side, and on his 90th birthday he slipped into a coma, surrounded by his wife and four children. I knew in my heart that he was not the type of man who would allow himself to die on his birthday, and true to form, he waited until 45 minutes after his birthday had passed.
With no information about when the service was going to be scheduled, Brenda and Aaron and I decided to continue with our plans – not to be insensitive, but because sitting around the house was not going to change the facts of the situation. I was devastated. My grandfather was a proud Veteran of the US Airforce (a navigator on a B52 Bomber), and a retired civil servant. Growing up, I was extremely close to my grandparents – in fact, to this day, my grandmother says that offering to babysit for me while my mom finished her Master’s Degree was the biggest mistake she ever made – she was so crushed when my family moved away from Florida, that she vowed never to be that attached to a grandchild ever again.
I tucked a photo of my grandfather into my pack, and we headed off for our adventure.
Our itinerary for the next 4-5 nights was somewhat ambitious – our plan was to climb Mt. Fernow, Seven Fingered Jack, Maude, North and/or South Spectacle Buttes, Freezer Mountain, Ice Box Mountain and Carne Mountain. With a 70% chance of “torrential downpour” in the forecast, we headed towards the Leroy Basin, thankfully arriving just before the sky opened with a deafening roar and released torrents of rain on our camp.
After the rain took a break, we ventured out to explore the basin. Aaron and I wandered around, until we caught sight of a lone deer – a doe – standing in the middle of the grass. The doe turned and stared at us, ears perked and her deep, black eyes inquisitively analyzing our purpose for being there. We stood in silence and stared back – watching her as she gracefully moved through the meadow. Feeling comforted by the presence of Aaron and Brenda, I felt felt a tinge of pity for the solo doe, “She’s so alone”, I thought to myself. A little later in camp, I wandered to the toilet (a wilderness toilet is essentially a box with a lid). As I walked down the small trail, suddenly, the same deer popped out of the trees. We stood and stared at each other again – her eyes appearing almost sorrowful. I watched as she nibbled some grass, and then slowly and quietly slipped into the woods, out of my view. That night as Aaron and I lay in the tent, I was overwhelmed with a deep sense of grief – tears streamed down my face as I struggled to verbalize the sadness that I was feeling.
We attempted to climb Fernow on day two, but we were turned back by the chance of bad weather. As a “consolation prize”, we traversed on a steep slope to Seven Fingered Jack – a rocky, steep scramble that seems somewhat precarious at times.
On the summit of Seven Fingered Jack, I took out the photo of my grandfather. My eyes burned as I smiled for the photograph – again, joyful to be experiencing a summit but struggling with the emptiness of loss. On our descent, a lone boulder whizzed past us, silently warning us that we needed to stay alert.
The next few days were filled with adventure, joy, fatigue, excitement, fear and awe. From Leroy Basin, we followed the high route to the Ice Lakes Saddle, climbed Mt. Maude and descended to Upper Ice Lake. The following day, we ventured to Lower Ice Lake, where we decided to climb North Spectacle Butte. We had originally planned on trying to climb South Spectacle Butte, but we decided we didn’t have enough time – which was perfect, because two violent thunderstorms visited the Glacier Peak Wilderness that night, forcing us to cower in our tent for hours as rumbling shook the earth and lightning streaked across the sky.
On our final day, we scrambled up the ridge of Freezer in the fog, bailed on Ice Box (which was completely socked in) and exhaustedly plodded up the easy slope to the top of Carne Mountain, before beginning a long, tedious descent down the trail back to the car. As we slogged along, a completely unexpected, lost memory crept into my mind. Years ago, I went to a massage therapist who told me that she was an, “intuitive”. At the time, I thought that pretty much translated as, “weird”. She gave me an amazingly soothing massage, and at the end of the massage she did some, “energy work”, and told me that that when she was in my presence she envisioned me as a lone deer standing in a meadow. When she told me that years ago, I was at a point in my life where I felt very alone, and I assumed that was what she meant, but now it felt like it had a different meaning. The deer in the meadow that we had seen the other night – she wasn’t alone. Each part of nature that we had experienced over the past 5 days – the rocks, the rain, the thunder and lightning and the wind, the sun, the stars, the snow, the creeks and valleys and summits – they were all a piece of one gigantic, intertwined environment. The deer was a part of something bigger – something she couldn’t even understand, but something she felt and knew.
At first, I was confused by such a random memory, until another thought surfaced. In 2009, I climbed Mt. Hood, and when I got to the summit at 5:30 AM, there were two other climbers already there. I watched in silence as one of them tearfully removed a container from his backpack, opened it, and just as the first golden rays of sunrise streaked across the sky, he released a beautiful wave of dust into the air. As a realized what he was doing, I couldn’t help but feel emotional. I spoke to that climber, who told me that he was scattering not only the ashes of his grandmother, but also the ashes of his mother. He said that now, every time he looked at Mt. Hood, he would be able to think of them.
As we drove away from the trailhead, I could still see Seven Fingered Jack in the distance. I laughed to myself as I thought about how much my grandfather would have absolutely hated that climb. My grandfather loved watching football (the Miami Dolphins). He loved driving through New England to look at the Fall colors on the trees. He made the best blue cheese dressing on the planet. He desperately loved my grandmother, his children and his grandchildren. In absolutely no alternate universe would my grandfather ever willingly have chosen to climb a mountain. My grandmother was the same way – she loved music, opera, drinking tea and painting. Her meatballs and spaghetti sauce were so delicious that to this day, the thought of them makes my mouth water. But I can assure you, crossing the Patagonian Ice Cap was never a blip on her radar.
And yet, when I think of those two places – the white, endless vastness of the ice cap and the rocky, precipitous slopes of Seven Fingered Jack – I think of my grandmother and my grandfather. In the one true place where my soul can connect with the world around me, they are always there. My grandmother’s hysterical laughing, my grandfather pretending to be a 200lb “dancing Stromboli” – those moments of my life come back to me so vividly that I can hardly believe they aren’t real.
I am the type of person who feels a deep, intimate connection with mountains and the wilderness. The most secretive parts of my heart are revealed on those slopes which stretch higher and higher towards the sky. With each step further from the car, I feel as if one by one, the layers of my soul are peeled back – exposing my “true self”. As I reflected on those two completely unrelated moments – the massage therapist and the Mt. Hood summit – I realized what I had known all along. My grandparents are not gone. I have never been alone. I am connected to them, as the deer is connected to the environment in which it lives – never fully understanding the exact nature of the connection, but knowing that it belongs to something bigger than itself. I am connected to my grandparents as the memories of our time together travel through the neurons and synapses in my mind. I am connected to them as I play my violin. I am connected to them as I eat my chocolate at 9pm (my grandfather’s “medicine”). The imprint that they have left on my life is a connection that has shaped my character and my definition of myself. It is the same with each person that we are blessed with welcoming into our lives. We each leave an imprint that can never be removed. It is up to each of us to determine what that imprint will be.