The cold wind hissed and swirled outside our tent and I instinctively burrowed deeper into my puffy down sleeping bag, seeking warmth and protection from the unforgiving night air. It was late on a Saturday night, September 23rd and I was a few short hours away from the start of a summit attempt of Mt. Kilimanjaro, after a year of planning and preparation. Thoughts ran through my mind as the wind continued to howl. I was nervous. My hand dug into my pocket, feeling for the canister of ashes.
It was my cousin Kristin who first surfaced the idea of Kilimanjaro. We were sitting in my backyard on a sunny Labor Day afternoon, catching up on life and talking about her upcoming 40th birthday. She declared it would be the year of memorable experiences and dropped the possibility of a Kilimanjaro climb into the conversation like a fisherman casually casting his line into the water. I bit. Even as she talked about her initial research, I knew I would be joining her. Goosebumps began to cover my body as I looked over to the Rosie plaque hanging in the memorial garden I had created in my mom’s honor following her death from breast cancer. Rosie loved Africa, had traveled there twice herself and had always wanted to return with us – and with her beloved grandchildren. Now, that trip would never happen. Nor would so many others like it. My mom was a world traveler and adventurer and in my new reality, without her, I found myself trying to find ways of honoring her spirit while still in the throes of a grief that had knocked me to my knees. I wasn’t a fan of this “new normal.” I wanted my mom back.
We retired to our tents early, around seven in the evening. At 15,000 feet, more than halfway up Kilimanjaro, Barafu Camp was barren. We were fed and dressed in lots and lots of layers, as we’d been instructed to sleep in the clothes we’d be wearing the next day for the summit. My top layer – my mom’s retro orange down jacket from the ‘70s – warmed my body and reassured me like one of her hugs that I missed so desperately.
We lay stuffed in our bags, crammed into them actually due to the ridiculous number of layers covering our bodies, waiting for sleep to overtake us. But sleep did not come easily; there was just way too much excitement and apprehension.
The night’s silence was punctuated by the sounds of an active mountain. Around midnight, two groups of hikers passed through our camp. The crunching of their boots along the trail reverberated through our tent and the streaking flashes of their headlamps momentarily illuminated the black African sky.
I lay in my bag, shivering from both the cold and nervous energy. Inside my jacket pocket, amidst the Chapstick and Cliff bars, was the primary reason I had come to Africa. It might have looked like any other old plastic film canister, but this one was holding precious cargo. That little black container held some of my mom’s ashes, and I truly felt she was journeying up the mountain with us.
Years earlier, before my mom died, I would have told you that becoming a mom was the most life-changing experience I could imagine. But becoming a parent, with all of the highs and lows it entails, did nothing to prepare me for losing one. I had come to realize that having my mom around still made me feel like a child myself. It didn’t matter how old I was, or that I was already a mother myself. I was still her daughter, and it wasn’t until she was gone that I started to feel like a real adult.
After five long days on the mountain, on the eve of our summit attempt, it finally hit me. I am 42 years old. My mom is dead. My sister, cousin and I are here, on Kilimanjaro, honoring her. A trip that had been planned only a few short months after her death had become a reality. After more than a year of planning, organizing, and preparing, we were now facing our ultimate goal –the summit.
Tears streamed down my face as I tried to tell Katie and Kristin what I was feeling – many of the same feelings I’d had on and off the past year as I faced life without my mom at my side. Rosie had been my biggest fan, cheerleader, sounding board, and the person who loved the big and small moments of my life and the lives of my boys. She was the person I turned to for advice, wisdom, and perspective. When I said that it had taken me a year to learn how to live without her, it wasn’t an exaggeration. And here we were, sixteen months after her death, and her ashes were in my pocket as we prepared for the summit. I knew she was cheering us on, watching over us, with her big smile and her enthusiastic, never-ending support. I knew it because the whole trip I had been filled with so much peace and gratitude. I felt a sense of purpose, like spending the time on the mountain, with my sister and cousin and even more importantly, with myself, would be crucial to my healing process.
Sleep finally came, but a few short hours later, we were up and making the final preparations for our 5:00 o’clock departure. Layers of capilene, fleece and Gore-tex covered my body, a headlamp illuminated the trail and for a couple hours it was just the sound of our boots crunching over the rocky terrain. As the sun began to rise, the scenery was overwhelming and inspiring enough to keep us motivated onward. With each step higher, the air got thinner and our breath became more ragged and labored. Buoyed by my mom’s spirit and my determination to get to the summit, I felt strong and powerful as we trudged up that mountain. About seven hours later, we reached the top of the crater, Stella’s Point, which meant that the true summit of Kili was within our reach. Just thirty minutes away in fact, along a fairly gentle slope. As we walked toward that iconic sign at Uhuru Peak, declaring that you have reached the top of the world’s largest freestanding mountain, it was a feeling like none other. At exactly 1:30 pm, Katie, Kristin and I triumphantly wrapped our arms around each other, with huge grins, as we posed for the camera, capturing our achievement with pride, relief and probably some altitude-induced euphoria. We had done it! After posing for the requisite pictures, we moved on to the business at hand. We found an area removed from the rest of our group and had a short but meaningful ceremony honoring Rosie. As the heavy clouds miraculously gave way to a magnificent blue sky, we spread her ashes and gave thanks. There was no question her gentle and loving spirit was with us, just as she had been along the entire trek and would continue to be going forward.