Recently, I watched the Glen Campbell documentary “I’ll Be Me”. Glen Campbell has Alzheimer’s and is still able to play and sing beautiful music. This starts me wondering about life, and old age, and Alzheimer’s. I see, in his story, how he is still “in there” — still himself in the middle of a disease that steals. And in his story, I see my mom’s story too. There are days when she is her old self — joking, or giving advice filled with wisdom. Then, there are those days when she isn’t capable of getting out of bed, or forming words that have meaning, and we wonder where “she” has gone to. But I have learned that, in all of this, there is still a life and there is a death. My sisters and I attempt to take from each day what is given and we cry over that which is lost. When our dad died from cancer, we went through it together the best we knew how. We are challenged now, my sisters and I, to face this head-on, through the tears and the sadness. We try to go through this mist, where one day we can touch her with words and memories, while other days her world is out of reach. But, as with our dad, it’s the love, and the memory of love, that sustains us — all the way through the valleys and up the mountains.
I’m not a winter person. And not being a winter person, I don’t go out when it’s cold and experience the day. But now that the warmer weather has come and we were in Vermont for the first of it, I found that I had missed being outdoors tremendously. And so with that being said, I chose the first day it stopped raining in awhile, to venture out.
There is a mountain in back our hotel that is quite monstrous. It is a skier’s mountain but people hike it in the summer. They have accommodated hikers by making switchbacks — those criss-cross patterns that make it easier to scale upwards. Almost 20 years ago, in the late 90s, my husband, our 3 daughters, and I hiked this mountain attempting to make our way to the summit. We were “hikers” then, having the equipment (backpack, water, flashlights, trail mix, etc. etc.). I was also 40 lbs lighter. This hike, so many years ago, resulted in our ending up depleted of all water and food, and exhausted — a couple of miles away from our hotel. This was nothing new. Almost every hike Tom and I ventured on usually ended oddly; this time, all 5 of us were depleted — laying out by some gated-community’s pond, scrounging for bits of peanuts found at the bottom of one of our backpacks.
But this time, I looked up at the switchbacks lazily meandering through the greenery and the wild flowers, and thought “why not?” And so I did. Or attempted to. It looked so easy when I was on the porch of the hotel looking out. I started off by walking up the steps, which in the winter would take you to the base of the ski lift, and wished I had a Fitbit on; I would love to know just how many calories I was burning since my heart rate had picked up quite substantially. From this place I chose a path – they were well-marked and the green one looked right for me — and so I started the climb. What I had forgotten when looking out from the porch of the hotel, was that switchbacks, while appearing meandering and mild, were not so. All the while you are climbing, climbing, climbing.
My throat quickly became dry, my lungs started to burn, and what was that pain in my hip? That was new. I stopped often to take a drink, take in the view (which spanned over the valley), listen to the birds, and take in the smell of the sweet air. I forgot how rejuvenating this was. I could “feel” the gentle tug of the earth wanting to pull me backwards if I didn’t continue pushing forward. It was a little unsettling because I really do have enough trouble with my balance on a good day, never mind adding in this level of gravity. I looked down at the walkways around the hotel and they were a bit far away — but I knew I could go a little further. There was no danger of getting lost at this height with everything still in sight. A few more switchbacks and I was ready to call it a day. I felt the satisfaction of having done something I hadn’t done in a very long time. I looked up at the rest of the mountain and remembered our almost 20-years-ago selves climbing up even further. I remembered the sweat, the steep incline. I looked down from my position on the dirt path, having just crossed thru a stand of trees and over a small stream. My satisfaction took a turn; I was only 1/4 the way up. I hadn’t even made it off the base of the mountain. Not even scratched the surface.
But … I was happy with that, I had decided. I’m still in awe at the way the switchbacks look so calm and gentle from the porch of the hotel. I’m amused at how hard my heart was beating and how ragged my breath was at the small beginning of the climb. And so, almost 20 years separates me from where I once was, and who I once was, and where I am today. It would be a nice, tidy end to this story if I summed it up by saying “oh yes while my body can’t do the climb any longer, my wiser, stronger emotional self meets challenges everyday with strength blah blah blah.”. But this is just not true. What is true is that I’m still learning everyday how to meet the challenge of the day. I am still learning everyday how to adjust my sails to meet the winds. I am still learning everyday to embrace my limitations and to live within them. And I am still discovering who I am (since I don’t seem to like the same things I liked when I was in my 50s). So … I suppose all I can say after all is said and done is … nothing really has changed at all.