I park in front of her house, grab the salad and wine from the passenger’s seat and whack my head on a low-hanging limb. Dana answers the doorbell and after a hug, we head into the kitchen.
“I get it,” I announce, like I’ve deciphered some secret code. “This is what single women do. Single women eat together. On week nights.”
“With a day’s notice,” she chimes in, “or an hour. Yep, this is what we do. Welcome to the club, sister,” she says, smiling, and opens the chilled Classico Superior.
“Your email came yesterday,” I remind her. “Katy left a voicemail an hour ago, asking me to dinner. Tonight. I LOVE this! No more dinner parties! No more setting the date three weeks out and suddenly I’m slammed with work and I turn into this crazy person, worrying about what I’m going to cook and when I’ll buy the food. This is SO MUCH BETTER!”
We clink glasses.
Women taking care of one another, creating community, sharing food—this is, after all, what women do, what we’ve been doing for eons only I’ve been doing it for a family, like my mother before me and a whole lot of Lake Wobegon women before her. But the kids are raised and living in apartments. My husband moved out in July. Our dog died last May. It’s me and two goldfish who are wintering in a rudimentary aquarium in the laundry room, counting the days until they’re back in the enormous clay pot under the weeping cedar in the garden they share with the Buddha.
More than you want to know? Let’s move on.
For a good ten years before I met Tony, before my friend Phoebe left Denver, she and I were one another’s Friday night date. When her Himalaya-guiding boyfriend was in town, we were a trio. In the summer we’d sit on Phoebe’s front porch with a glass of wine—in the winter, on stools in her kitchen—and kick around the evening’s possibilities: Tattered Cover, a movie, Chinese food. Twenty minutes would pass and she’d ask if we were hungry, then magically pull odds and ends of fabulous food from the refrigerator. Three bites into dinner, relaxed, tucked in and happy, we had no reason to leave.
“I hope you like spinach,” Dana says, and ladles the greenest split pea pureed soup imaginable into two white bowls. “There’s a lot of it in here.” We move from the counter in the kitchen to the table in the dining room. Two placemats, two napkins, two spoons, two forks. I pile the salad plates with greens. Small hunks of Humboldt blue nestle among dried cranberries, kalamata olives and Clementine wedges. We top off our glasses.
“Give me the best part,” I say. She’s just back from Malawi and Morocco. “God, this soup is delicious.”
“I was unplugged for an entire week, one whole WEEK.” She looks dreamy-eyed. “It was incredible.” Now she looks incredulous. “Getting all wired up again? Not so fun. The stillness in Malawi was remarkable. So is this salad, by the way.”
Dana shares the idea twirling in that outsized brain of hers: create the Dana version of unplugged adventure. “Maybe not for a week—that could be a hard sell—but a few days? Come on,” she says, “it’s amazing what happens when you stop. There’s a whole world out there, a whole LIFE!” Her blue eyes are on fire. “You know what else? I’ve been more productive this week than I was before I left, even with the jet lag.”
The company of female friends: one talks, the other listens. We volley and change it up. We ask when we don’t understand, high-five when we do. We support, empathize and encourage. We take leaps. We hold up the mirror so the other can see her truth. If we’re afraid, we say so and if we’re lost, we ask for direction.
It’s July, early evening on a Sunday. “How do I get back to writing?” I ask my friend, Niela. If I could just write, I had reasoned, maybe I could let go of the anxiety, not feel so abandoned. I had a hunch that if I could put words to the shock, confusion and heartache that had settled in my bones, I wouldn’t feel so afraid.
Moments ago the sun had dropped behind the maple tree in Niela’s front yard, leaving us in shade on the back patio. A split of her favorite retsina sits between us.
“The writing will come,” she says. I hand her a cracker smothered with hummus. “There’s too much right now. Tony has left. The house you built and lived in for 17 years is for sale. You’re mowing two lawns and taking care of all the gardens. You’re under pressure to earn money. You’re trolling for clients. Ali will leave the neighborhood in a month. That’s huge. Tess has already left. You lost Molly. My god Rebecca, it’s a lot.” She’s leaning forward now. Her voice softens. A light breeze stirs the scent of lavender in the bed near the walk. “The writing will come when you feel settled. Give it time.”
I eat a slice of cheddar and take a bite of cracker, savoring the salt. She segues into her own challenges—those boxes of unsold books in her basement, the audio book that needs more editing, the artifacts yet to be catalogued, and yes, the unpainted walls from the kitchen renovation two years ago.
“We’re quite the pair,” I concede. “I can’t get started and you can’t finish.”
I text Dana about seeing Rosewater on a Sunday afternoon. I pick her up. We swing by Glenna and Michael’s and the four of us drive through snow to the Mayan for Jon Stewart’s first movie. On the ride home, we’re unanimous: the man can do anything.
“Forget the movie,” Dana says. “I want to know if you’ve started the piece about single women.”
“You write it or I will,” she says, and pauses. “I’m serious. In fact, I’ve started it.”
I take my eyes off the road just long enough to catch the smirk. She means it.
Sunday afternoon at Ali’s. She’s parked at the foot of her bed and I’m propped against the headboard, two pillows in purple cases between me and the white iron frame. A purchase from IKEA. The bookshelves, too. But those don’t matter.
This matters: Ali has put down a deposit on a studio apartment for fall semester. The complex is called Campus Village, located on Auraria campus where Ali’s a student. She and Sarah visited while I was in Nepal, then made arrangements for me to see it in January. Ali and I strolled the long, wide hallways, visited the cyber cafe, saw the workout room, study lounge and cafeteria, and toured the two-bedroom model. It was winter break. The place was empty.
Ask Ali why she wants to leave the home renovated with her in mind and she will tell you this: I want to live by myself and I want to be on campus so I can do things on my own.
Children of all shapes and sizes want life on their own terms. By the time that first zit appears, it’s full steam ahead on their quest for independence. Emancipation is what we parents aim for, at least the ones I know. But throw in the ridiculous cost of a college education, the anemic job market and the private bedroom, free food, wifi and cell phone provided by dual-income, high-achieving, baby boomer parents and you’ve got between 25 and 40 percent of America’s millennials living at home. Make that 26-year-old a person who requires the assistance of another adult to get out of bed and the percentage of twenty-somethings living with their parents soars.
That my twenty-something possesses the confidence and the courage to want a room of her own under a roof other than mine thrills me. Beyond measure. But Sunday afternoon, plopped on Ali’s bed, my feelings on the subject of the apartment’s proximity to our house register somewhere between acceptance and panic.
“I’m in a push-pull about this Village thing,” I say, easing my way into what could be a delicate conversation. “You know that expression, right? Push-pull?” Ali pumps her forearm up and down. Yes. She’s staring at me now, wondering what’s coming, not at all convinced this push-pull thing is going in her favor.
“Well, you know,” I stammer, wishing I’d given this some forethought, “it’s that Mom thing. I mean, what if you need to pee and no one’s coming for an hour, then what? It’s not like you shoot me a text and, bingo, I show up two minutes later.”
In a flash her left hand goes to the talker. The knuckle of her pointer finger starts typing. You. Need. To. Let. Go. Of. That. She hits the Speak All command: “You need to let go of that.” Her eyes lock on mine. She’s smiling now. We both are. “Stop worrying,” she types, and shoots me another grin. “I’ll be fine.”
Wait, isn’t worry what mothers do, and don’t mothers of special needs kids get extra good at it? I’m talking about the worry that kicks in around the time your daughter gets her period, picks up steam when she graduates from high school and has you by the throat on her twenty-first birthday. What will the rest of her life look like, you wonder, and while we’re at it, what happens to her when you’re dead? That worry.
These days it isn’t what happens when I’m gone that’s messing with me. It’s Ali leaving the neighborhood. No more standing on our front porch knowing she’s in that house less than a hundred feet away, or whispering “goodnight, Cat” as I pause at the window on my way up to bed. No, we’re talking out of sight and a lot less parental control. What kind of special-needs mother agrees to those conditions?!
The kind who wants to help her kid create the life the kid wants even if that life holds fewer constraints and a big dose of trust. Years ago my kid wanted to move to Boston where her friends from Camp Jabberwocky lived. She was 14. Was she serious? I couldn’t tell. It didn’t matter. I said no. But twenty minutes away, at 26? I said maybe, and then I said I needed to see this place.
So Ali arranged for us to take that tour in January. We went back a few weeks ago to see the ADA studio, the one she’s counting on inhabiting come August. A pleasant young man currently occupies the apartment. He made a special trip home between classes so we could see his place, arriving the same time we did. He and his girlfriend slide the sofa three feet in one direction and move a few chairs so Ali can get in the door. We inch our way into the living space with me in the lead, discreetly pushing the clothes and shoes and video games and empty food containers and I can’t even tell you what all out of our way, cutting a path through the debris. Ali drives into the bathroom where we spot the roll-in shower (big thumbs up). Strands of long black hair (girlfriend) and whiskers (the guy) float on the scum in the plugged sink. I shove the towels piled on the floor into a corner and Ali tests the turning radius of the room, proving to both of us that the bathroom would work. It takes everything in me to look beyond the grime and the clutter and imagine my daughter in this space. Russell, the Resident Life Manager and obvious mind reader, scans the room, then does his best to sound reassuring. “We do a deep cleaning after every student moves out, before the next one moves in,” he says. Deep cleaning, yeah right. I’ll be back with bleach.
The next day I send Russell an email, thanking him for the tour. Opening the door with a keycard could be an issue for Ali, I write. His reply arrives in less than 24 hours. He’d talked with the maintenance super who said they could install a keypad and, by the way, are there any other accommodations Ali requires? Nice. They want her.
I lick the frog on a Saturday afternoon and complete the paperwork. The young woman who gave Ali and me the tour in January is working the front desk when I walk in Monday morning with the lease and the first month’s rent. She’s a gorgeous African American student, perfect for the job, friendly and smart.
“Tell me I’m doing the right thing,” I say to her, pulling the lease out of a folder. How could she possibly answer that, I think to myself. How could she know what it’s like to let go of a child who took her first step at the age of five on the day she finally pushed the joystick and made her wheelchair move, who said her first word on a device that lit up like a Christmas tree when she pressed the icons.
“She’ll love it here,” the young woman says, and smiles. I remember then how she was with Ali during that tour. No talking down, no changing the tone of her voice or talking over Ali’s head like she wasn’t there. She waited while Ali typed. No rushing in to finish her thought. She treated Ali with dignity and I felt good just watching it.
I walk to the car, sit for a moment, staring at the courtyard, then wipe my wet cheeks. I decide to believe the young woman. Ali will love it here. A long sigh comes as I pull away from the curb, and with it, the sweet release of letting go. Again.
After breakfast we walk out the back side of Gokyo and cross a wide, shallow stream that takes us to the base of Gokyo Ri. At 17,570 feet, she’s the tallest peak of the trek—2,000 vertical feet from where we stand. We head up a trail flanked by mounds of ridiculously white snow on familiar terrain: packed earth, large boulders, loose rock. Keep the core tight, bistare, bistare. A young couple on their way down steps off the trail and waits for us to pass. “We left at three this morning,” says the woman, perky and fresh, flashing a smile. “We wanted to see the sunrise.” More smiling. “God, it was amazing! So worth it!” Chipper comes to mind, light on her feet, poured into those hiking pants, gorgeous. I remember thirty.
We start again, panting those first minutes until the heart finds her rhythm and the lungs fill. The air is thin and crisp. We don’t talk; everything we’ve got goes to the mountain. Prayer flags whip in the wind on the spiky ridge overhead. “Chhongba,” I yell between breaths, “is that the summit?”
“No, that is false summit.”
Of course it is. I won’t repeat Tess’s comment, only to add that it seems like we’ve been out here since July. Moving through the clearest air imaginable feels to the lungs like slogging through mud, the legs heavy as logs. The physical challenge turns mental. I pull the mind into the present: plant the poles, lift the leg, place the boot, make the step.
Lynn and Steve are waiting at the top. I step onto the summit and turn full circle. White peaks everywhere, colorful prayer flags, people, gear. Down below the houses of Gokyo spread like legos at the water’s edge. We hug one another. We cry. We give our cameras to a stranger. He snaps the shot.
Behind us, beyond the wide swath of the Ngozumba glacier, sit Everest, Lhotse and Makalu, three of the five tallest mountains in the world. On the back side, the mighty Himalaya gradually recede to the vast Tibetan plateau—nearly one million square miles of moonscape known as the Rooftop of the World.
I step away from the ledge, set my pack in the snow and untie the khata from Ami. On this day 26 years ago, I stood with Jim and my parents in the international terminal at O’Hare in Chicago, waiting for the flight carrying five-month-old Ali from Seoul, Korea. November 19th: Ali’s Arrival Day, her second birthday. I kiss the yellow scarf, drape it over the line strung with hundreds more, and tie it with a double knot. “This is for you, Ali,” I say into the wind. “This is for both of us.”
I was a runner during those early years with Ali, destined to discover that no amount of exercise—no amount of anything—could turn a compromised brain into a normal one. I had no idea what we were in for, didn’t want to know and if someone tried to tell me, I didn’t believe them. Mostly I did what people like me do best: I kept going—without a trail map, a Sherpa or a departure date. Over time, our ordinary days and months and years slowly unfolded into our own remarkable story. Along the way I learned what it means to be fueled by something more powerful than muscular strength and stamina. I looked into the eyes of fear and disappointment and called them by name. I learned the limits of willfulness and effort, and I learned about love, the juicy, no-matter-what, forever kind of love. Ali was four when we moved to Denver. The friends I found in Colorado traveled frequently to Nepal, bringing back treasures and sharing their stories. Maybe one day was the best I could do at the time. Barbara knew better twenty years ago, and now I know better, too. I am a traveler.
We’re down from Gokyo Ri in half the time it took to go up. Lama and Matt are waiting at the bottom. We eat, rest for an hour and leave, eager to sleep at lower elevation. Lynn has diligently calculated our ascents since we walked out of Shivalaya. On day 15, we’ve climbed more than 40,000 vertical feet.
We cross the river a few hours out of Gokyo and walk into a farmstead in Nha La owned by a man who herds yak and leads expeditions. He has summited Everest sixteen times, the first at age nineteen. He teaches high-altitude climbing to Sherpas at the Khumbu Climbing School in Phortse, a four-hour walk (for us) from his farm.
“Do you train for Everest?” Matt asks during dinner.
“No,” the man says. Lama explains: the man runs to Phortse and back.
We ask what it’s like to be on the top of Everest. He stares at his shoes, thinks about his answer. He’s taller than most Nepalis. Expedition posters from Everest, Cho-Oyu and Ama Dablam decorate the walls.
“You get a little tired,” he says, finally, and laughs. That’s it?!
Our mouths hang open. “Do you use oxygen?”
“No, I do not.” He pauses. “I carry oxygen bottles for the other people,” he says, shaking his head. “Yah, it’s a heavy load.” He’s laughing again. Joy fills the room. The man is amazing.
The next day we think about him running when we climb, drop down and climb again into Phortse. Across the expanse we see the trail we took to Gokyo, snaking along the ridge on the opposite side of the gorge. At our backs the towering Cho-Oyu pokes through feathery clouds.
In Phortse we meet up with John and Bai Dahnu, who’ve spent two days at Tengboche’s Mani Rimdu festival. We also meet up with the short trek group—Ally (Matt’s wife), Nick and Gail, Kelly, and Becky—all friends from Denver. We hike another five days, visiting the monasteries at Pangboche and Tengboche and the nunnery in Deboche, then climb back up to Namche for one more night in Lama’s brother’s lodge.
We spend the morning reading and dozing on the lawn above the terminal while we wait for the fog to lift in Kathmandu. The landing strip on the other side of the chain-link fence is one of the shortest in the world; the airport, the world’s most dangerous. There are no runway lights—there’s barely a runway—and no control tower, just more letting go.
We fly out in a 19-passenger DHC-6 Twin Otter. Lama claps when we’re airborne and again when we touch down in Kathmandu.
“Hey Lama,” comes a voice from the back of the plane, “nothing is impossible!”
“Yah,” he answers, breaking into a laugh. “Nothing is impossible.”
Special thanks to Lynn Hetterich, who supplied many photos for this series.
Much love, dear friend. You and Steve made it all possible.
We climb out of Namche and make our way north passing stone walls, grazing yaks and dung patties drying in the sun. In Khumjung a young man splits wood, an old woman crumples her dried saag and three young monks headed to school pass us on the trail: simple village life in a setting of staggering natural beauty.
Before dinner we step outside to catch the full moon rising above Ama Dablam, wildly snapping photos in the last light. The mountains appear bigger in moonlight, omniscient and more powerful. A tinge of longing comes then, followed by a flash of child-like awareness: I’m a long way from home, groundless among all this rock and sky.
I duck to enter the shack behind the teahouse, shine the headlamp on the hole and squat over a pile of dried leaves. All night I stare at the moon making her way across the star-packed sky. I don’t sleep. The stomach cramps start before daylight. At breakfast Tess looks at my plate, looks at me. “You need to eat.”
“I know.” I poke a piece of egg, set the fork down. “I can’t.”
We leave Mong Dhada on a steep descent to the valley floor, weaving between sunlight and shade. I decline chai when we stop, choosing instead to rest in the corner, eyes closed, feeling light-headed and puny. When it’s time to go, Lama asks for my backpack. I’m reluctant. “Yah,” he says a second time. “We carry it today.” He takes the weight from my shoulder, hollers for Bhai Dahnu and passes the pack to the youngest Sherpa. “Ok, ok,” Lama says, “we go now. Zum zum.” Climbing again, I will the legs into gear. Tears burn behind my sunglasses. I quietly chant Om Mani Padme Hum, establish a rhythm and plant my boots where the water would go.
In Dhole we eat lunch on the grass, nap in the sun. We climb the hill to a gradual incline that runs the lip of an enormous valley, walking into Machhermo in waning mid-afternoon light. We head directly to the Rescue Post. Kathy has convinced me to see a doctor. Others want information about Acute Mountain Sickness.
I follow a young woman down a long, unlit hallway into the last room on the left. She’s wearing a wool cap and down jacket, mountain pants, a pair of heavy-duty sandals and super-thick socks. Lean, strong body, blonde hair to her shoulders.
She extends her hand. “Hi, I’m Susan.” Beautiful smile, blue eyes. She asks questions, we chat. The staff are all from New Zealand, up here since September. They’re leaving in two weeks.
“It’s too cold to stay the winter,” she says. “The Gokyo post is already closed. You going to Gokyo?”
We talk about our route. She takes vitals. “You definitely don’t have Altitude Sickness. Did you bring an antibiotic?” Before bed I take one gram of cipro and wake up feeling like a new person—with no appetite.
We leave Machhermo and begin the walk to Gokyo, the northern-most point of the trek, the jewel in our journey’s crown. Blinding blue sky, radiant landscape, an endless expanse of brilliant white against stark gray: spectacular, sweeping, deceptive. We round a bend and drop down to a stream.
“Go on ahead,” I tell Tess. “I’ll take your picture on that bridge.”
She quickens her pace, stopping in the center of the plank. I watch through the lens as she inhales and grows tall. With the exhale, her arms raise into a V, trekking poles reaching skyward, muscles springing to life. She flashes that pricey smile, her young skin gleaming in the sunlight. I watch her settle into her body, wholly, completely, and for an instant, I watch her own everything she is, everything she ever will be. I press the shutter. Never has she looked so ready for what’s next, so willing to say yes.
Hundreds of cairns dot this spiritual place of virgin snow, outrageous mountains and glistening aquamarine water. At 15,700 feet, the tiny village of Gokyo rests quietly at the base of Gokyo Ri, in the shadow of Cho-Oyu, a mammoth, broad-shouldered giant of a mountain. Before tea we walk up to the moraine of Ngozumba Glacier, a gargantuan body of ice and rock filled with lakes that look like puddles from our spot on the rim. We can’t see where she starts or ends but when we sit in stillness, we can hear Ngozumba move.
The scent of burning yak dung permeates the air inside the teahouse. A half dozen Sherpas sit around the stove. We sit on benches against the windows, drink chai and talk about headaches at altitude, eating at altitude, sleeping at altitude, trekking at altitude, taking Diamox at altitude. Outside, dusk comes to Gokyo.
In the morning we spin the prayer wheels and head up-trail toward Pangchung, stepping into the grassy clearing hours later to see our porters and cooks pitching tents, unloading cookware, gathering wood for a fire.
Tess and I crawl into the two-man tent, throw back the flap to catch the last of the afternoon sun. Two pans of washing water sit side by side on the canvas floor. We clean dirty fingernails and dusty feet, wipe the salt and sweat from our chest and back, and change into night clothes in a tent too small to stand in. I re-attach moleskin to both big toes and wrap the upper third of each foot in new tape. I floss teeth and clean my face. The sun drops behind the ridge of peaks. We lower the flap and close the zipper. Before leaving the tent, I take inventory of the clothes on my body: liners plus two pairs of socks, felt booties, cotton leggings, wool pants, wind pants, short sleeve wool t-shirt, long sleeve wool t-shirt, zip-neck long sleeve pullover, zip-neck long sleeve fleece, down vest, wool hat and wool mittens. I grab my down jacket and walk to the fire pit where Matt is teaching Chhongba to sing “Oh My Darlin’, Clementine.” In the next hour all of us will sing several rounds of “Sunshine Mountain” and after that, we’ll learn the motions to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” We’ll do anything to stay warm.
The leggings Tess left on top of the tent are frozen in the morning. Frost coats our sleeping bags. We greet Tara and Mingma with glee: steaming hot bed tea, so delicious! After breakfast four of us head with Chhongba and Bhai Dahnu into the rhododendron forest at the edge of the clearing. We’re climbing to Lumding La, the 15,000-foot pass nestled in the peaks three thousand feet above us. Damp brown leaves litter the trail. Icicles hang from rock ledges. Snow lies mounded on the forest floor.
Above tree line the trail winds around rocks and boulders, shrub and ground cover. Mount Everest and Lhotse mark the horizon on our right. We stop for water, look to the top of the ridge. “Is that it, Polar Bear?”
“No.” Chhongba herded yak in these mountains when he was young. He hasn’t been up here in sixteen years. His return feels nostalgic, even sacred as he bows and makes an offering at the white khata.
Heads down, eyes on the trail, we climb. Grateful for long legs, I fire up the quads, hamstrings and glutes, plant the poles, engage the core and make the step.
We circle round the backside of the false summit and continue the climb, over, around and on top of rock, boulders and dirt trail. And then we see the pass, marked by a tall pole wrapped in frayed khatas and prayer flags. The trail is buried by ice and snow. There are no tracks, no footholds. No one has brought crampons. We stand in silence, staring at snow-covered rock leading to colorful flags up top, whipping in brilliant sunlight.
Polar Bear goes first, digging his boots into the snow to ensure solid footing. I follow Matt, looking neither up nor down, leaning into my poles, the boot firmly planted before I give it my weight.
Ten minutes? Twenty? Focus that hard and time stands still. Nobody falls. No one slips. We step onto the pass and look across a gorge thousands of feet deep, maybe a mile wide, to an expanse of massive mountains, their snow-covered peaks brushing the blue overhead.
We follow Chhongba another hundred yards along the ridge and sit, mesmerized by the view and the sheer enormity of this place. A breeze kicks up. We pull out hats and jackets, snap photos, and then Steve says what we’re all thinking: “Now we’ve gotta get down.”
A lot of hikers find going down harder than going up. The altitude is more forgiving but the joints feel more stress, knees especially. Hips, too. Balance is a bigger factor, particularly on steep terrain and scree. Steve finishes his thought. “How about we go down before we eat. Once we’re on the other side of that snow, we can wait for the guys to bring lunch.” Everyone’s in agreement: let’s get her done.
Bhai Dahnu leads this time, placing his feet in tracks less than an hour old. Steve goes next, followed by myself, Matt and Lynn. I imagine Chhongba standing on the pass, saying goodbye to this place he knows as home before following us down.
At dinner that night, we squeeze together under a comforter in the dining tent, eating quickly while the food is hot. Time for favorite things. I go first.
“Today we walked on rock and dried leaves. We stepped over boulders and made our way through ice and snow. I have a daughter who has never taken a step.” My voice catches, my eyes burn. “It was a privilege to climb the pass in her honor.” I look at Lynn. Her eyes are filled with tears. I can say no more.
We break camp early the next morning and head down to the Dudh Kosi River to pick up the trail that will take us north to Gokyo. We stop in Chusermo to visit Tsering, our cook in 2010, and sit on his stone wall, devouring our sack lunches: a wedge of sharp cheese, two circles of fried canned meat, a flat cake with shredded carrot. Tsering’s wife, Ami, pours steaming chai from a large thermos and passes a plate of sweet apple slices. I pull the oversized bag of chocolate-covered acai berries out of my pack and pass it down the line. We grab handfuls. When we can eat no more, Ami steps out of the house with a pile of boiled potatoes and the hottest red chili sauce imaginable, strong enough to render even Matt speechless.
A night in Toktok, departing just after dawn to get a jumpstart on the donkeys. Sound strategy but it doesn’t work. We hear the clanging bells before the sun reaches our side of the valley. We’re in shirt sleeves going up “the highway” to Namche, hot and sweaty, tired but strong, determined and happy. The trekkers coming down look depleted and ready to be home, wearing wool hats and down jackets. One by one we step into a tiny clearing for a glimpse of Everest and the tell-tale wisp of jet stream wafting from her tip.
We walk into Namche Bazaar in late afternoon, circle the stupa and spin the prayer wheels thousands of trekkers have spun before us, beseeching the gods for safe passage. We climb ancient stone steps to the house where Lama was born, now the Sherpa Lodge teahouse run by Pembha, Lama’s brother.
We’ve exchanged life as we know it for a new, less complicated routine: eat, walk, eat, walk, eat, and go to bed. There are no cars or roads, no supermarket, athletic club or shopping mall, no client meetings. Logistics are someone else’s responsibility. Lama consults with Lynn and decides where we spend the night, where we stop for chai, where we eat lunch. I have one duffel’s worth of belongings. Everyday I wear the same pair of boots and choose clothing from the same stuff sacks: dressing is simply a matter of how many layers. Personal hygiene is accomplished with a basin of warm water, Dr. Bronner’s biodegradable soap and one air-dry cloth the size of a hand towel. I buy no groceries and have no input about choice of food. Mahesh and his crew feed us well. I crave protein and yes, I would kill for a salad but I miss none of the work that goes with eating, which only affirms what I already know: if we were rich, I would hire a cook.
Late afternoon, a knock at the door. “Washing water?”
“No thanks,” Tess answers, and turns to me. “What’s the point,” and I agree. Our shirt sleeves are more brown than turquoise, my orange vest slowly turning gray. Sock liners, well, they’ll never be white again. Our headband and visor are as gross as our sticky, windblown hair. We wear the remains of the trail like an outfit we’ve purchased in a stall at the market.
I think about writing a book when I get home. My responsibility, I write in my journal, is to make the time and stay in the room. My inner self will hand up the language, the images, even the voice.
Back home, the confidence I felt in that thin Himalayan air threatens to evaporate. Starting a new draft is still the scariest thing I do—scarier than traversing the ice and snow on Lumding La—but there’s been a shift. Walk in those mountains for a few weeks and one thing gets real clear: only a fool believes she has forever.
To hear Tess tell it, the time we spend organizing the contents of one large duffel is crazy. Day three and we’re still fumbling. Every item in my duffel is in a stuff sack or a zip lock bag: the sleep outfit separate from the hiking outfit, the facial wipes nowhere near the two pair of clean panties. In theory, the pack-by-category system means finding things more easily—if I remember that leggings and long underwear are in the blue bag, socks in the green and the pullover fleece in the sack with the night outfit. And don’t think for one minute that this is an aging brain issue. Tess at eighteen struggles more than I, and Matt, by his own admission, is, well, hopeless.
We spend the morning descending to the river, passing lush poinsettia, blossoms the color of Lancome lipstick and toilet huts covered in sweet potato vines.
“Go where the water would go,” Chhongba tells us. I watch his feet find the worn rock and smooth edges as if by instinct. “Watery steps,” he says. “They are best.”
We step onto a bridge strung with cable, bouncing across raging water hundreds of feet below. Prayer flags and khatas whipping in the wind send prayers through the gorge. I feel blessed to be here, grateful for every tabata class I’ve taken, every hand weight I’ve lifted, every yoga pose I’ve held, every mile I’ve walked, hiked or cycled to prepare for the journey.
Favorite things is a family ritual Matt brings to the group. Short, simple observations shared over dinner, often heartwarming, occasionally profound, sometimes so basic you’d think we were in boot camp: clean hair, sleep, off the trail at three. Tess offers up a real gem one night at dinner: “This is weird cuz it’s not exactly a favorite thing, but sort of. I’m thankful this is happening: I’m getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.” Whoa, that alone is worth a gap year.
Keeping germs to oneself in this environment is about as far-fetched as finding that straight-away trail we fantasize about. Sharing sleeping rooms; elbow to elbow at mealtime; blowing snot rockets on the trail without breaking stride. It isn’t just the germs: everything about this experience is intimate.
Leave the table with your personal roll of toilet tissue and everybody knows what’s up. Squat to pee at the trail’s edge. Get a status update on diarrhea, constipation and insomnia at breakfast. No one showers. The men don’t shave. Forget hiding your snoring, farting or giggling; teahouse walls are made of plywood. We have no secrets, and with that loss comes freedom. We no longer care what anyone thinks.
We step off the trail at the Sundup Lodge in Bupsa. Someone checks their watch. “Oh my god! We have an hour of sun! Lama, this place sell beer?” We carry plastic patio chairs to a grassy area in the sun. Boots come off. We stretch legs, flex feet, roll ankles. The Everest beers show up and ten minutes later, a bowl of warm popcorn doused with salt.
“Chhongba, will we get washing water?”
“Yah, we bring washing water.” Chhongba has already rinsed his socks and hangs them now on the clothesline at the edge of the grass.
“Maybe I’ll wash a pair of underwear, some socks.” Matt’s thinking out loud. “Will they have time to dry, Chhongba?”
“No,” he says definitively, and laughs. “Hang them on your backpack tomorrow. They will dry, no problem.”
“Lama, can we stop for chai?”
“You want chai? No problem, we stop at my friend’s house. Twenty minutes more, we stop.”
“Lama, is it possible to buy a beer here?”
“Nothing is impossible! How many beers you want?”
“Lama, we can’t eat gluten. We can’t eat wheat.”
“No problem. I tell Mahesh you no eat wheat. Everything is rice flour. You can eat everything, no problem.” Donuts, pancakes, Tibetan bread, all of it made with rice flour, fried in hot oil, exactly what the body craves: fat.
We drag ourselves into the Apple Garden Lodge in Junbesi at dusk, the finest teahouse yet, and spend the evening with our journals and books. Matt teaches Lynn and Tess how to play Pitch. We visit the monastery on our way out the next morning. The old man at the gate grants us permission to enter.
Mid-morning we round a bend and there they sit, decked out in snow-capped splendor: the mighty Himalayas.
We stop for the night in the private home of one of Lama’s friends, another trekking guide. He has a smile to light the night, his gold tooth gleaming in the shadows of the dining room. We slide behind the tables along the wall and settle on the padded benches, huddled in goose down and wool. I no longer remember what we ate, only that I felt like a pariah, with one nostril plugged tight as a drum and the other dripping like the faucet in the bathroom at the end of the hall.
Wanting to give Tess a special experience, Lama assigns her the family’s prayer room. “Wait!” Kathy looks at me. “You’re the one needing solitude.” More like solitary confinement. Tess concedes with a quick “no problem” and they head to the small room by the stairs, both of them relieved not to be spending the night with a germ bag. I drag my duffel to the last door on the left, take off my boots and step into a room unlike any I’ve ever seen, let alone slept in.
Wide benches covered in colorful pads and blankets line two walls of windows. Behemoth geraniums grow in pots on the deep sills, red blossoms brushing against glass. A bold and bright geometric pattern fills the ceiling, its center a swirl of blue, green and red. Butter lamps line a long, narrow ledge, unlit. Small stuffed yaks the size of beanie babies fill one shelf, miniature bells hanging from their shaggy necks.
Centered against a spectacular wall of buddha statues, painted baskets of flowers and rows and rows of cubbies filled with tightly wrapped scrolls sits a red wooden box. The sides are made of glass and on the front, a door with a small wooden knob. Inside, a flame floating in oil propels the spinning top mounted on the box, throwing off just enough light for me to locate the stuff sacks needed for the night, neatly wedged alongside one another in my well-organized duffel. I pull out the sleeping bag and spread it on top of the thick comforters piled on the platform bed. I grab the headlamp, book and journal from the backpack, take two ibuprofen and a sleeping pill, and crawl into my zero-degree bag. The Sherpas are chattering and laughing in the dining room one floor below. Pots and pans clatter in the kitchen. Tess and Kathy’s giggling travels down the hall and slips under my door, as if to say goodnight.
I take off my jacket. She notices the ring—a chunk of coral in a tarnished silver setting, trimmed in flat silver beads.
“I see you’re a traveler.”
“A friend brought it back from Nepal,” I tell her, and sit. “It was a gift. I haven’t been.”
“It’s lovely,” Barbara offers, “but you’re still a traveler. Even if you haven’t traveled yet, you will.”
The flight arrives at nine in the morning on the last day of October, 2013, nearly twenty years after Barbara’s comment. I step into the visa line behind a pack of loud Koreans bullying their way to the front of the queue. I’ve just spent two days circling half the globe—Denver, Chicago, Vienna, Delhi, Kathmandu—this time in Nepal to trek.
Early Monday morning our group of seven walks the lane from the Summerhill House to the main road. A thirty-passenger blue bus, chosen for its high clearance, is waiting. Lama and Chhongba toss the duffels to the young Bhai Dahnu up top. We snap a photo, pick a seat and slowly make our way out of the city, heading east through the hills of the Kathmandu Valley.
Men huddle over small fires, drinking chai, smoking. Women draped in shawls wait at the bus stop. Vegetable stalls line the dusty shoulder of the road. Young men on bicycles balance dokos packed with bananas, oranges and lemons, pedaling to markets in the city.
We leave the urban sprawl. The road narrows, the valleys grow deeper, the drop-offs more steep. Small-plot terraces of mustard, millet and rice; a woman turning over soil with a hand tool; another carrying a load of bundled greens three feet taller and two feet wider than her tiny frame, a baby tied in a sling across her bosom.
Outside of Jiri, the road turns to dirt. Heavy monsoon rains pounded the hillsides during the summer, creating ruts large enough to contain a small car. Tess steps across the aisle and quickly sits before losing her balance. “I can’t look over that edge another minute,” she says, and grabs the hand grips secured to the seat in front of us. The driver takes the curve at the bottom of the hill, grinds to the lowest gear and begins the next ascent.
The Road to Shivalaya will become our benchmark for hairy situations, a sort of mantra that fills the long hours on the trail in the days and weeks to come. Matt will write a rap. I will tell how Kathy leaned forward in her seat, mouth at my ear, summoning the holy figures of her Catholic childhood: “Jesus Christ, this doesn’t look good. Oh dear God, help us. Holy shit, Bec, I’m not kidding, this is Not Good.” Babe the BLue Ox rocks through yet another rut, wider and bumpier than the last one. “Dear Jesus,” whispered in my ear.
The story culminates with the front passenger tire dropping into a pothole and disappearing. It is dusk. The Sherpas jump out to assess the mess we’re in. They heave boulders into the mud to gain traction. With our men helping, they rock Babe like she’s a cradle. They push. They dig. They never stop talking. Lama phones the crew in the teahouse up ahead, then tells us women to start walking. Not fifteen minutes later, the road is lit from behind. Babe is out. We erupt in cheers, return to our seats and stare stone-faced as the driver fearlessly pushes on in pitch darkness, save the short patch of muddy, slippery, all-but-washed-out road lit by her headlights. The Sherpas jump in and out like boys at play, grabbing and throwing rocks into the potholes threatening to swallow us a second time. Inching our way to Shivalaya, we arrive hungry, weary and grateful, thirteen hours after leaving Kathmandu.
Nepal’s major rivers originate in the high Himalayan peaks and massive glaciers on her northern border with Tibet. Roaring water flows south through gorges thousands of feet deep. Rather than fly to Lukla, the usual starting point for treks in the Khumbu, we’re walking for a week through the Solukhumbu—the southern portion of the Everest region. The route will take us cross-country, west to east, in and out of the deep ravines. We’ll hike down to one valley floor and climb back out, only to descend into the next valley, up and down between 6,000 and 12,000 feet, making our way across five valleys. The idea is to condition, acclimatize, and grow stronger.
After planes, layovers and the bus ride from hell, it feels good to leave Shivalaya on foot, even if the trail heads straight up. Lama leads us out, Chhongba walks among us and Bhai Dahnu sweeps. Our duffels are on the backs of seven Nepali porters, nineteen to twenty-one years of age, most under five feet tall and less than one hundred twenty pounds. Mahesh, our cook, has three kitchen helpers who carry dokos filled with food and supplies.
“Bistare, bistare,” Lama says, setting a gentle, steady pace. “It is not good to go fast. Better to go slow.” Born in Namche Bazaar, the trading center in the heart of the Khumbu, forty-eight-year-old Lama has walked these paths since he was a boy. He has guided treks in the Khumbu and Solukhumbu for decades. Lama has been to the South Col of Mount Everest, but never to the top. “My father summited Everest, yah. Not me,” and he laughs.
“Lama, are you always this happy?” Matt asks one morning.
“Yah, I am always happy,” Lama assures him, and laughs. And so it is. In three weeks of buried bus tires and continuous requests for toilet tissue, organic peanut butter and more chai, we never witness an impatient outburst, not with us, not with his staff. His kindness is remarkable. We’re certain he can handle whatever comes up, and if he can’t, he either knows or is related to someone along the trail who can.
The village of Bhandor is within sight. It’s after four. We’ve been hiking since 7:30. An orchard of pale pink blossoms fills the meadow just below the trail. My boot slides on loose rock and I go down, landing on the right hip and forearm. Chhongba calls out from behind, “You are all right?”
“Yea, I’m fine,” I shout back, and brush the dirt from my skirt, rub my hip and start walking. Must be fatigue, I tell myself. A burn starts in my throat. The sixty-year-old pattern of strong and stoic, handling things, going no matter what has happened or how I feel, emerges out of the dust kicking up on the trail. Moist eyes; I pick up my pace, staying in front of Chhongba and John. I don’t want to talk. I want to remember how it was to be little, but this time, away from home, away from the familiar patterns, I let the hurt be okay.
We walk into the courtyard, drop our packs and poles and collapse into plastic chairs. Tara and Mingma bring hot chai and popcorn. We inhale the soup and dahl baat at dinner. We’re in our sleeping bags by 7:30, then up to pee all night long, the old doors and floors creaking, bodies jet-lagged, spirits eager and egos anxious for what’s ahead.
I’m not one to go around citing scripture, but I was moved to tears when our president did on Thursday.
Scripture tells us to run with endurance the race that is set before us.
He waited a moment, then recited the passage a second time.
Run with endurance the race that is set before us.
I arrive at Tattered Cover ahead of Dana for our Friday afternoon writing date, and wander the main floor. I land in an upholstered chair in the psychology section, facing thousands of titles stacked floor to ceiling: It Gets Better, God Wears Lipstick, Hold Me Tight, The Power of Now.
Twenty-some years ago a woman I had met in a journaling class suggested I write a book about raising Ali, who was three at the time. The woman was serious, I was flattered. I filled dozens of journals but never wrote the book. The time—what little I had for writing—wasn’t right. Single parenting, earning a living, building a house to accommodate a wheelchair, a sick mother, a depressed father, a new marriage, two more children, fear, lack of confidence, exhaustion, who would read it anyway, and really, it’s not like the world needs another memoir.
Three weeks ago. Madie has an extra ticket to Ann Patchett and off we go: front row mezzanine at the Newman Center. Patchett walks on stage to enthusiastic applause, her stride confident, not a note in her hand. She’s in a brown print dress that hits her leg just above the knee, sporting a pageboy and wearing what my mother would have called sensible shoes. She’s casual and friendly and I start to feel like a neighbor who popped in for a glass of wine on a Friday night. She tells stories. We laugh. She makes fun of herself and her husband’s neurosurgeon colleagues. She drops names and calls herself on it. “People don’t get how difficult writing is,” she says in a moment of seriousness. “They don’t get that writing is what I do. They treat the work like it isn’t a real job.”
The tales continue, about her writer friends, her Nashville bookstore, her imperfect marriage, and how hard writing can be. Patchett imagines her books first, for a year, sometimes two. She creates in her head the most exquisite scenario, characters, and plot line she can imagine, and only when not writing the story becomes more painful than the actual writing does she stop the head trip and begin.
“And then,” she says (and I paraphrase here), “this masterpiece I have imagined down to the minutest detail begins to appear on the page in all its ugliness, in the barest, dullest of forms, with none of the grace and eloquence I had imagined.
“And I have to forgive myself once again, for there is no way I can write what I have imagined, no way I can capture the creation in its original perfection. All I can do is to write the story as well as I possibly can, and then forgive myself for it not being as magnificent as the story I had created in my head.”
And then she said, “We writers have lots of opportunities to forgive ourselves.”
At that moment, more than envying her, even more than wanting to BE her, I want the wise Ann Patchett for a friend. I want to sit with her on the patio at Daz Bog, our hands cupped around steaming mugs of tea, and share the angst of getting started, the disappointing first drafts, the courage it takes to stick with it, and what it feels like to forgive ourselves.
In the days and weeks following Patchett’s talk, I set aside my love-hate relationship with writing—and the guilt I carry for not publishing a post in more than five months—and get to work. I type page after page of useless dribble. I consider if it wouldn’t just be easier to slash my wrists and get it over with. If Ann Patchett struggles—author of five novels, two works of nonfiction, winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Orange Prize, the BookSense Book of the Year, and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award—oh, and did I mention Bel Canto has been translated into 30 languages and another book is coming out in the fall—what am I doing… struggling alongside HER?! Seems more than a tad presumptuous. Preposterous comes to mind.
And yet this much I know: I have a story to tell. Twenty-five years ago I was handed a child who would test my endurance and challenge my stamina; who would require me tough as nails one minute and vulnerable as a spring blossom in a snowstorm the next; who would ask that I set aside that most fragile of beasts, the human ego, and give more; who would send me to the streets in search of relief, only to discover that no amount of running could chase away the hurt. Not once would these things be done, but over and over until the day, a couple of decades later, I would pack her things and carry them across the street into a house where she would live without me.
Two things saved me: I connected with the grittiest, strongest love that filled my heart, and I filled those journals. The only way out was through, and to get me through, I loved and I wrote.
Run with endurance the race that is set before us.
Life never allots just one race, but at this moment, on this afternoon in April, the race is the book, and I’m in training.
You home? I’m thinking I might come home after this period, I’m having some trouble focusing and having energy and stuff. Just a heads up. I have a key.
I pull over to read the text, and type back: Just left to write at Daz Bog. U need me to pick u up? I’d be there in 7-8 min.
Class ends in 20 mins so I can just walk.
You need rest and quiet. Take 2 ibuprofen and drink lots of water. I’ll be home in a few hours.
Tess and Tony were in Seattle last week looking at Cornish College of the Arts, then to Portland for a wedding. She probably picked up the cold on the plane. They flew home two nights ago.
“Feel good to sleep in your own bed?” Tony had asked the next morning.
“No.” She pauses. “I liked the fluffy pillows and all those comforters at the hotel.”
I’m not sure which went up first or raised higher, my eyebrows or my ears. The internal judge can’t let this slide.
She’d rather sleep in a hotel than in her own bed?! She told you about the sheet months ago and you’ve done nothing. Apparently she also hates her pillows. And she’d like a second comforter. She’s freezing to death in that basement. She’s a good kid. The least you could do is buy her bedding. What kind of Mom are you?!
Stop! Enough already! Surely you know the voice I’m talking about—critical, relentlessly judgmental, always petty and, more often than not, downright mean. If you don’t know it, you’ve either attained enlightenment or you’re delusional.
Earlier this fall Tess had casually mentioned that the sheet on her bed was torn. “I don’t know what happened, but there’s this rip in it.”
I stopped washing the kids’ bedding some years back, not long after we put them in charge of their own laundry and keeping their rooms clean. I dealt with my well-established need for order by avoiding said premises… It seemed the safest, sanest solution for everyone. Not much in this house escapes my attention. I hadn’t seen Tess’s sheets in the laundry room in recent memory. I’d completely forgotten the tear.
October arrives and with it, the winter catalogs, five or six a day. I check covers before tossing them in the recycle bin. The Company Store. Bedding, sheets, a light goes on.
“You like any of these colors?” I’ve opened the book to the flannel sheets.
“Oh yeah,” Tess says. “They’re nice.”
You’d think I was showing her attachments for a vacuum cleaner. I suggest she take the book to her room and see what color goes with her comforter.
The Company Store sits on the counter for two weeks. Tess and Tony go to Seattle and we get the I-prefer-the-hotel-to-my-own-bed comment the first morning they’re back, triggering the guilt that sends me shopping that afternoon.
I wander the aisles of Bed, Bath & Beyond, second level, scanning the floor-to-ceiling stacks of sheets, duvet covers and comforters, circling bins of pillows, racks of pillow covers and shelves of bedskirts. Rather than head to the nearest exit, I calm myself with simple instructions spoken in an audible whisper: You came for flannel sheets, two fluffy pillows and a duvet cover. That’s all. Ignore the rest of this shit and and find what you need. Then you can leave.
I can’t find the flannel sheets. I track down a sales clerk who climbs down from her ladder and leads me to the flannels like I’m a child who can’t find her mom. It’s a smallish section, with a limited choice of colors. I stand there, picturing the orchid bedroom walls and multi-colored comforter and land on a neutral tan. I retrace my steps to the bins near the elevator and grab two king-size pillows, hoping they meet Tess’s standards for fluffy, and pull a white duvet cover off the shelf. I know before leaving the department that white won’t work, that it’ll be trashed and dirty in a month—this child lives on her bed—but I buy it anyway. I’ve surpassed my tolerance for shopping, no longer able to make a sound decision. I leave the store, knowing I can return it, and do exactly that three days later—before driving home to a sick child.
With The Company Store in hand, I head downstairs and find Tess propped against her fluffy new pillows, the four old, flat ones scattered around her like props for a princess. The laptop sits on her thighs.
“I just started Rain Man. I’ve never watched it. Dad said he thought I’d like it.”
Together we decide that Brick Red goes best with the Anthropologie comforter. We look at the duvet and guess that it’s a full, not a queen. I had snipped the Do Not Remove Under Penalty of Law tag months ago.
Even tired and not feeling well, she’s stunning. So young and fresh, made even more appealing by the absence of any need to look beautiful. At home in her own skin, comfortable with her body, she neither flaunts nor talks about her lusciousness. When she was years younger, the two of us watched a neighbor’s toddler look for her mom in a crowded room, grabbing one pair of legs after another.
“I’ll never forgive you for not being in my life when you were two,” I tell her. All she can do is laugh.
The two of us found each other by way of Tess’s father. Nearly ten years later, it’s hard to say who I fell in love with first, the man or his daughter. Those first months of blending remain a blur: two single parents trying to find time for one another and three children scared to death to share the only parent they felt connected to, the one they were most afraid of losing.
This afternoon, while Tess was in school, I took the clothes and books piled on her bed and moved them to her chair, straightened the flannel sheets, fluffed her six pillows and stuffed the duvet into its new cover. I looked at the perfectly made bed, then scanned the rest of the room, resisting the urge to create order out of chaos in this cocoon inhabited by one of my own. I smiled at my longing to make it just right, with everything in its place, out of harm’s way. As if life were that simple.
I had some personal struggles last month that left me wishing for a wise guru, someone who would swoop in, sort things out and tell me what to do.
And then Skye called and asked if I’d meet her for coffee. She had an hour.
Her Royal Highness Princess Grace Jelly—Skye’s 9-year-old chow and January cover girl on the vet’s 2011 calendar—had been diagnosed with an osteosarcoma above the knee in her hind left leg. The oncologist had presented two options: amputate the leg, followed by six rounds of chemo, or euthanize her. Jelly was in pain, couldn’t bear weight, refused food, wasn’t sleeping.
Skye knows more than your average dog owner about what was going on with Jelly’s leg. She’s a physician’s assistant, formerly a massage therapist and before that one of six women who ran Nederland’s Rainbow Cafe when they were free-loving, drug-friendly hippies. She never had kids but has always had a dog. Always a chow and usually more than one. To come back in another life as her pet would not be a bad thing. Most children don’t have it so good.
That morning, over her latte and my tea, she tells me about the dog whisperer. Skye’s blue eyes are rimmed in red. Telltale bags hang below them. She and her partner have had two weeks to adjust to the news. They’ve had time to get over the initial shock of the diagnosis and entertain the possibility of Jelly moving through the world on three legs, or just moving on. The dog whisperer is calling at 1:00. She does her work by phone from Portland, telepathically tuning into the dog through images, and then communicating what she sees to the owner.
“I have two questions for this woman,” Skye tells me, those bold sapphire eyes fixed on my face. “I want to know if Jelly understands what’s wrong with her, and I want to know what she wants to do about it. Is she ready to die or does she want the amputation. Those are my questions.”
I’ve never worked with a dog whisperer. This one sounds remarkable. Skye had a chow several years ago who died just two weeks after the two of them had moved to Michigan. Ozone transitioned to the afterlife the week Skye started grad school.
“This dog was the love of my life. Truly. A black chow, gorgeous. I recovered from his death because I grew up in a working class family in the Midwest and recover is what we did, but it was difficult, the hardest loss I’ve ever had. I felt so guilty. I was convinced I had killed Ozone by asking him to move.”
With PA certificate in hand, Skye lands a job in end-of-life care in Pittsburgh. She stays for four years before wanting back to the place she loves best, the place she always returns to. Colorado. She tells a friend how worried she is about moving Ted and Jelly, the chows that followed Ozone.
“Last time I moved, Ozone died. I’m terrified it might happen again. Chows are inflexible by nature. They like their routines.”
The friend tells her about the dog whisperer. “Call her,” Donna advises. “I don’t believe in woowoo, but this woman is amazing.”
Skye figures she has nothing to lose, and places the call.
“Before we talk about your concern,” says the woman in the first minutes of that conversation, “I want to tell you that a black chow is with us and he says for you not to feel guilty. The move had nothing to do with him dying. Now, what is your concern today?”
“You could have knocked me over,” Skye tells me. “I had told her nothing. I was blown away, dumbfounded. Lottery numbers, the track, you name it. I decided right then and there to listen to whatever this woman had to say.”
Fast forward seven years. It only makes sense that when Skye got the news about Jelly’s tumor, the dog whisperer popped into her head. The one o’clock phone call comes in, with Jelly in the room, the phone on speaker. Skye has briefed the whisperer on the sarcoma and the optional amputation.
“Jelly understands she might lose her leg,” reports the whisperer from Oregon after a few minutes of “communicating” with Jelly. “She wants to know what will happen to her left front paw.”
“Okay,” Skye tells me a few days later, “this is the really weird part. There is no way in hell this woman knew that Jelly has had a pronated left front paw for two years. I didn’t tell her… not one thing. Never mentioned it. Scott didn’t either. But this is what Jelly wanted to know because that paw has been problematic.”
“She wants the amputation,” the whisperer told the anxious parents. “She says she wants to lie on the sofa again and look out the window.”
Of course. Her favorite spot. In the last weeks, with the tumor growing larger and increasingly more painful, Jelly hasn’t been able to jump onto the sofa. This is her dream, to once again spend her afternoons watching the activity on the street in front of their house, the bunnies running from garden to grass, the occasional biker. Affirmative on the amputation. She wants her life back. Who doesn’t understand that.
Jelly survived the surgery. Her leg was amputated high in the hip socket. The first days home were nightmarish, hard on all of them. Jelly made sounds that Scott and Skye, in all their years of medicine, had never heard a human utter. And then suddenly, literally overnight, she seemed better. The parents stood in the kitchen on a Saturday morning and watched Jelly crouch down and saunter out the dog door. She’s on her way back, they thought… begging for food, lumbering around the house, annoyed with her chow-brother Ted, generally acting like her chow self, albeit subdued.
I rode my bike the hour and a half to their house early the next morning to see for myself. Jelly slowly raised up on her three legs when I walked into the room and came over to say hello. She’s a gorgeous beast, rather like a lion head-on. The rear view, on the other hand, was a little raw but hey, the stitches were clean and evenly sewn. It looked like a fine job to my untrained eye. Skye and Scott declared their dog on the road to recovery and I concurred. We drank lattes to celebrate. Skye treated herself to a bagel with cream cheese. I left the house, imagining Jelly on the sofa, staring out the window the next time I saw her.
One day later, a Monday. Like a great weekend that turns ugly when work kicks in, the incision started to drip, then weep, then stream and finally gush—Skye’s words in an email. They rushed Jelly to the emergency department where they learned she had a seroma—a collection of fluid and blood—in the area of her incision, and that it would take “awhile” to stop.
“A while?! What the hell does that mean?!” ranted Skye. “And in the meantime we do WHAT?!” Skye is fried. They all are. The stress of no sleep, would Jelly be okay, what’s with all the blood. They cordoned the depressed and miserable dog in the living room to contain the oozing, icky drainage on a washable hardwood floor. Scott came down with the flu, and Skye washed bedding and towels and clean-up cloths nonstop. A day later, this email arrives:
Up all night again, exhausted, worn out, uncertain, flailing, loved, supported, filthy bloody house… We are all so tired… On my way to Nia, have to move. Will write more later.
Somewhere in all that, she wrote that she was more convinced than ever that she would have made a shitty mom. Can’t take much more of this were her words.
Like the surgeon predicted, the oozing took its time, then lessened and finally stopped. Jelly gradually got her strength back. So did her parents. There was one more trip to the ED and a final visit to the surgeon. He believed they got the cancer in her leg and it didn’t appear that her lungs were involved, not yet anyway. Day by day the recovery trended upward. And then the really big news came.
The biopsy results. Turns out that wicked tumor in the amputated leg wasn’t the aggressive osteosarcoma the surgeon had predicted but a synovial cell carcinoma, a quieter, more mellow form of cancer not likely to spread to Jelly’s lungs—or anywhere else in her round, thick body. He pronounced her “cured,” with the caveat common to chows: a relatively short life. Another three years, more or less.
Since then Skye, Scott and Jelly have had two more conversations with the dog whisperer. Both times Jelly affirmed with great conviction that she would not want chemo if it were ever indicated. Jelly has said that her pain is gone and that she’s feeling good, evidenced by her bullying behavior, her rolling in the grass and the two-block walk she’s tolerating twice a week. The dog with three legs is gradually trusting her abilities again although, at last report, she has yet to hang out on the sofa. All things in their own good time.
I never did find a guru to solve my problems, but I did sit with them for nearly a month. And then one day, as miraculously as the cessation of Jelly’s oozing incision, the “problem” lifted and I found my way. Maybe I’ll hang out on the sofa later.