I am inside a cabin, standing in front of the door. My 6 year old daughter Melanie’s hand is in my hand. The cabin is at the base of Mount Rainier. My Mother-in-Law Mary and 10 year old daughter Isabella are also in the cabin.
The cabin is old and beautiful – Douglas fir beams, pine subfloor, cedar siding. I had spent the morning chopping wood with my favorite oak handled maul so that we had fuel to fill the cast iron woodstove. It was warm, cozy, and familiar, but also small – just one room. No privacy, no escape except out of that door. I reach for the knob with my free hand.
“Don’t go, Mama.”
I love mountains. I love looking at their jagged snowy peaks from afar and love even more when I’m on top, looking down on the clouds. The bigger the mountain, the longer the journey, and often the more gear that is needed. The heavier the pack, the bigger the reward. After descending a mountain, I look back at it and say to myself – “I climbed that. I did not take a gondola, helicopter, or use a Sherpa. My own two burly piston-like legs took me there. “
When I look down on the world from the summit or look back at the mountain after descending, I feel omnipotent. I realize I can do anything. I feel deeply how the best things in life involve some suffering along the way.
Melanie stops me before I can turn the knob.
“Don’t go, Mama. Stay here. Dada died on Mount Rainier. You can’t die.”
Of course, while mountains make me feel powerful, they also remind me of all I have lost. My sweet John, taken in an avalanche last year. His team of 6 climbers was swept off a ridge, 3300 feet straight down onto the Carbon Glacier. They did not suffer. It is I who suffers.
Despite Melanie’s resistance, I can’t help but open the door and gaze through the doorway at this mountain that calls to me every moment of every day.
“Mama, stay here. I need at least one parent here, and Dada is dead, so you have to stay here.”
“Melanie, I will be careful. I will not die until I’m very old.”
“That’s what Dada said, Mama.”
As she squeezes my right hand tighter, I open the door with my left. Oh how glorious Rainier is! The cool blue glaciers crisscrossed with 100 ft deep crevasses and halo of clouds – fierce and peaceful all at the same time. It has never been hard to understand my husband’s love affair with that mountain. He told me so many times during our 10 year marriage that when he died, he wanted his ashes spread in a crevasse high up on this glorious peak that he had gazed upon for his 40 years on this earth. Mount Rainier was home for his heart then, just as it is home for his soul now. He almost got his wish, in a way. His body remained buried in ice and snow on the Carbon Glacier for 3 months before a helicopter spotted him and plucked his remains off the mountain. Now I have his ashes and have to wait until I can bring them back to his desired resting place. I want to go now, but I have to wait until Melanie will let me.
“Mama, only mountains with no avalanches. Why do avalanches have to exist, Mama?”
Melanie’s hand grounds my right hand here while at the same time my left hand reaches up to John in the sky. He shines his light down on me and waits for me, but does not pull on me as Melanie does, because he and I both know that it is not my time to ascend. It is my time to shoulder the family responsibilities here on earth. Still, I keep reaching and dreaming of being with him. It’s such a lovely and intoxicating vision – John and I, swirling above Mount Rainier, dancing with the birds, watching over the mountain, soaring into eternity together.
“Mama, I don’t want you to die and go to heaven EVER.”
I have climbed Mount Rainier before. A friend of John’s told me of the day that John received word, from afar, that I had had a successful summit. He had never before seen John so happy or proud. John grinned and told him “That’s my badass mountain girl.” I set an intention to climb Rainier every summer until I was too old for my legs to carry me to the top. John decided to do the same, but we were not destined to do it together. We knew that if we climbed on the same rope team and tragedy hit then our girls would be orphans.
“Mama, Mount Rainier is dangerous. You can NOT go.”
When will she let me go? When can I leave the cabin? How long do I let her hold my hand? Do I wait until she lets go someday, or do I get to choose when I pull my hand away? I want to climb the mountain.
Alas, I close the door. Is this warm cozy cabin a sanctuary, or a prison? Do my children ground me, or are they an anchor? It is a sanctuary and it is a prison. My children ground me and they anchor me.
I stoke the fire, feed the family, and tuck the kids into bed. I sleep for 3 hours. As has been my rhythm since John died, I wake up, remember that he is dead, and can no longer sleep. I want to get up, leave the cabin, and gaze upon the stars that twinkle above the mountain, but I must not wake my children and so I just lay there in the dark. I reach for him. His soul swoops down. He presses his forehead against mine and allows me to run my fingers through his full coarse auburn red beard.
“Sweetheart, I want to be with you.”
“I know, babe, I know. But it is not your time. “
“Will you wait for me?”
“Do you have to ask?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Thank you for staying behind to care for our children and my mother. You and my mother need each other.”
“Anything for you, babe.”
And just like that, he flies back up above the mountain, where he belongs.
I will return to this cabin every summer until it is my time to walk through that door and climb the mountain. That time is not now. Wait for me John, and I will wait for you.