Twenty years ago, my family and I headed to Mount Katahdin, the end of the Appalachian Trail. We were gathering to meet up with my mom, who was on the verge of completing her 2,100 mile through hike of the Appalachian Trail. We were in awe of her accomplishment, her drive, to take on a life long dream and to see it through.
Step by step my mom pushed onward, despite record heat that summer, despite her arm swelling up to three times it size because of lymphedema, and many other obstacles. She had the courage to stick it through the intensity of carrying her entire home on her back for 6 months, depending upon her resiliency even when she questioned if she truly could do it.
Our reunion was jubilant. I was so proud of how brave she was, how tenacious. I had missed her so much, because our daily chats had been reduced to a few phone calls and letters. It was pure bliss to be a witness to her strength of spirit.
No one that day could have predicted that merely a month later she would be told she had metastatic breast cancer. It was in her bones, liver, and lungs. In fact, when she received her social security disability approval letter, they estimated that her disease had begun a month prior to starting the trail. Who knows exactly how long it had been percolating, but when she and I read that in black in white, it hit us hard.
I came home to be one of her caregivers. In one of the rare quiet moments, I asked her, how was it possible that she had been able to do the hike with cancer rapidly growing inside of her? She replied…
Everyone on the trail was complaining of pain daily, so I assumed mine was no different. We had a private joke on the trail, saying that we all needed our daily dose of Vitamin I (ibuprofen).”
Recently, I’ve been focused on the fact that next year is the 20th anniversary of my mom’s death. Seven weeks ago I realized that this year was the 20th anniversary of her thru hike. I realized that I deeply needed to be on the mountain for that anniversary- even if I was by myself. I scrambled a plan together and invited my family to come if they could.
I felt so lucky. I found a cabin inside of the park. One that she likely hung because it was the closest to the trail and I remembered her talking about it. To think that I could stand where she had stood was very important to me.
My brother, cousin and uncle were all able to join me. We arrived on the anniversary of her finishing the trail. We told stories about my mom, our memories from that day 20 years ago. We talked about the changes we’ve faced and our families have faced since then. We retraced her steps on the Hunt Trail the following morning, 20 years plus 1 day. It felt magical.
We revelled in the beauty. We communed with this year’s through hikers, celebrating their accomplishment and sharing our personal mission for that day. We hiked more than 11 hours as an homage to her spirit, wondering if we could ever do what she did. The closer we got to the top, the more I spoke to her directly. At 5,269 feet, I felt close to her spirit, wherever it may reside.
We left letters and photocopied photos inside of the cairn that marks the top of the mountain.
As I reflected later, I realized that this act brought a deeper level of closure that I didn’t realize I needed until I did it. To leave a piece of her on a mountain that she had loved since childhood was more meaningful than I could have imagined.
So how deep is your love?
For me, the depth of my love had me once again facing my fear of heights (this climb is definitely no joke) and moving forward anyways. For me, this experience reminded me of how close I still feel to my mom even though it’s been so long since we’ve spoken. For me, it reaffirmed how important it is to take time to go on crazy, slightly overwhelming adventures, with myself and my extended family because after all, you never know exactly how much time you have here on earth.
If you’re feeling tender and raw, please know that you are not alone. If October has you immersed in deep feelings, take some time to honor that. Your life, and the lives of your loved ones, deserve that time and attention. Being on such a massive mountain in Maine reminds me that there is truly enough space to hold it all.
I’d love to hear about a time that you took to honor an important memory of someone you love or of crucial life experience that has happened to you. Let’s talk about it in the comments below!
-Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor, and a former oncology counselor at the Dempsey Center. She began Creative Transformations to help others who are healing emotionally from cancer. Through Creative Transformations, she works with people in person and online to offer the self assessment tool, cancer coaching, an Art as Therapy program,virtual workshops, and this weekly blog. Sign up today so you never miss a blog and find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.