Five years ago today I had just reached the ledge at Rattlesnake for my first solo sunrise hike. I had to laugh at myself a little this morning knowing I could barely climb my own stairs up to the tub. As I’ve been reminded a dozen times, this is not my forever. This transition to a new drug for my RA has been painfully slow, but I’ll get to the other side and be climbing again by summer.
That morning comes back to me like it was yesterday. A friend I was meeting called to say she had been delayed and I should go up alone. It was Easter Sunday and it was expected to be a beautiful sunrise. The call came as I was standing in the pitch black parking lot. I had just minutes to decide what to do. Sunrise would not wait. I could either wait for her to arrive and miss it, or I could keep with the plan and head up alone. I flipped on my headlamp, grabbed my pack and headed up.
The sounds in a dark forest can be unsettling. Every snap of a branch, every loose rock under my feet sent my heart racing. I imagined animals in the shadows. After coming through the lower part of the woods the trail began to climb and I could see the moon through the trees.
The headlamp illuminated the path ahead and my pace quickened. I didn’t think about what might be behind me or that I was breathing heavily. It was all about the very next step. Only later would I recognize the metaphor and mindfully log in my memory what it was to be so purposefully in the moments.
It is just over two miles and 1100 feet to the first ledge. It took me just 50 minutes from the parking lot, an impressive pace for me and my quickest time ever up this trail. As I neared the top, the color was already spreading across the sky and my love of civil twilight was born. A couple others soon joined me there as the sun peeked up from the Cascades.
Over the course of that year I would go up often. My heart would still race with every noise in the woods. As I learned the path I noted how many minutes to the foot bridge, where the birds were singing as I reached a certain point along the ridge, where the rocks looked like hearts on this rocky, rooty trail. I saw new life as we moved through spring into summer.
This year I found myself on another new path. My heart raced on this new one too, and I was definitely poised to face new fears and even more unknowns. My Mom led the way down this new path and armed with necessity as my headlamp, I dutifully followed.
I’ve been dreaming a lot these past several weeks. I can’t be sure of the role exhaustion has played in conjuring these sleepy mind-reels, but they have been vivid and in full color. The most disturbing one has a re-creation of something I never witnessed.
I see my Mom in eerily bright light on a steel table with bright white sheets and an imposing figure standing over her. He’s replacing a valve in her heart and as the wire he is using to guide it into place begins to retract, the end of it plunges into her heart. Blood spurts out through her chest onto the sheet and floor and I can see a river of deep-red, pooling inside the open cavity of her chest.
I know it didn’t happen exactly like this. There was a surgical team and an operating room and it wasn’t open-heart surgery. I didn’t lay eyes on her until she was in recovery, and even then, I never saw the drain in her chest. They had carefully draped a sheet over her upper body but there were splatters of blood on the floor. She was awake and in pain, pale and clammy. I could feel my knees turn to rubber and my whole body go slack as I stepped away after kissing her forehead. Quite unceremoniously, I went down. I came to, moments later, with quite a fuss being made over me and a half dozen new eyes on me as I pulled my cheek from the floor.
When the dream comes, my mind returns to that recovery room. On waking, the very real feelings of helplessness come over me and I realize that in those moments just beyond sleep, that I am holding my breath. As I finally exhale, the dream begins to fade, held in memory for only a split second then gone like vapor.
I had little to conjure after that. She would spend three nights in ICU with no visitors. Covid has robbed us of a lot of things, but this clearly, was the one that I would feel most keenly. Technology has limits. A face on a screen, uncharacteristic and one-dimensional, will never be a true substitute for a held hand. Reassurance comes with touch and with looking right into someone’s eyes. I had no way to comfort her. No way to fulfill the promise I made to be with her every step of the way.
It didn’t end there. In fact, her return home would begin an odyssey beyond description. An irreverent introduction to caregiving. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew the day would come that my parents would need help, but this was a plunge off the high dive into the deep end and I would soon be treading water as fast as I could.
That story will come.
In the meantime I will marvel at how facing my fear on the trail has helped me navigate some new mapless paths. Everything is so beautifully, inextricably connected. Separateness is such an illusion. All that really matters is what we do with the moment. All other measures will take care of themselves.
” We work in the dark. We do what we can. We give what we have. Our doubt is our passion. Our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art …” ~ Henry James
There is a light somewhere. It may not be much light but it beats the darkness.