Kilimanjaro #3: Remembering the Mountain, Remembering My Mom

A year ago I took my Mom to the garden center to get flowers we could plant on Mother’s Day. Over the previous two years, as her aging mind had increasingly lost track of much it had once known, this remained: her passion for flowers. In the early morning hours she was still “the Queen surveying her Kingdom” as she walked between her tiny flower beds.

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Mom never met a flower she didn’t love, but she was especially partial to ferns. I’m sure she knew every variety of fern known to man. She also had a spectacularly green thumb when it came to ferns, and was always trying to give away cuttings from her over-abundance of ferns.

Several months before that Mother's Day I had told my parents I was considering climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in March 2016 with One Million Thumbprints to raise awareness and money for women in warzones.

True to form, Mom said, “Oh honey, that sounds scary. I know you could do it, and I can understand why you want to help women who are suffering, but are you sure about this?”

My Dad, also true to form said, “That sounds like a great idea. Of course you’re going to do it!”

As it turned out, watching the rapid decline of my mother’s memory made the decision for me. I realized that within a year she would likely not even know who I was. I wanted to make the most of the coming year with her.

The Year of Mom, I called it, and I scheduled no major trips from spring ’15 to spring ’16. Together with my dad and brother, we would make it a good year for Mom, a year as filled with joyful moments as we could make it. I would not climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

Planting the Mother’s Day flowers proved to be a wonderful idea. For weeks we tended the plants together, deadheading the petunias and rearranging plants that we’d planted too close together or too far apart. Mom was forever “re-adjusting” her little flower gardens.

Then on a Sunday evening in July, Mom suffered a sudden and massive stroke. Family and friends gathered around her but she never regained consciousness. Within 24 hours she had slipped away from us.

Had Mom not had the stroke, the coming year would likely have been extremely painful for her. Dementia would have undoubtedly continued its daily theft of memories, words and skills.

Realizing she would not have to suffer through a year like that was, and continues to be, a gift of grace and comfort for everyone who loved her.

In the months after Mom's death, I grieved deeply, but also reconsidered potential commitments, including Kilimanjaro.

"Do it," my Dad said. "Mom would be so proud of you!"

Training for Kilimanjaro included miles of solitary walks on quiet, snowy trails. Often while I walked I thought of Mom--how much she enjoyed wintery days, and how often in recent years we'd walked slowly, arm-in-arm through her neighborhood.

After her death I began wearing Mom's gold wedding band which her mother before her had worn. Inside my mitten, I twisted the smooth band around my finger, remembering how often she'd said to me, "You know this ring was Grandma's, don't you? I want you to have it."

I know, Mom, I know.

"Will you wear that ring to the top of the mountain?" my brother asked.

"Of course," I said. "If I make it to the top, that ring is going to make it too!"

One thing that intrigued me about Kilimanjaro was its spectacular beauty. I looked forward to climbing through several distinct ecosystems, from a rain forest at one extreme to a glacier at the other.

Knowing how Mom had loved nature's beauty, I knew she would be cheering me on.

As we began our first day of climbing, our excitement and energy pushed us into quick steps and noisy chatter. But our Tanzanian guide, Lucy, would have none of it. Pole, pole, she said. Slowly. Slowly.

As we settled into a slower pace and quieted our nervous chatter, I suddenly realized where we were.

In the rushed inattentiveness of excitement I'd almost missed it!

We were walking through a forest of ferns. The biggest and lushest and most glorious ferns I'd ever seen!

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As the tears streamed down my face, I was glad I was wearing sunglasses and that we were walking quietly in single file. Nobody needed to know I was in my own small world of grief.

Sometimes grief is almost unbearably painful, but sometimes it's profoundly beautiful. That day's grief was a very precious and healing gift.

I thought of how much Mom would have loved walking in that forest of ferns. I thought of how very pole, pole we would have walked, as she stopped to exclaim over each new variety of fern.

I thought of what a good woman she was. What a truly good woman she was.

It was almost like we were walking that path together. It was truly a lovely experience.

If she were here today, we'd probably be at the garden store right now making incredibly hard decisions. A pink theme this year? Purple? A blend?

Or maybe we wouldn't be there. Perhaps she would be too weak or too confused for that. Such a hard thought.

And so I sit here with tears. Grieving, yes. But even more, grateful.

Grateful for last year's Mother's Day.

Grateful for the weeks Mom and I busied ourselves with "re-adjusting" her garden.

Grateful for the gold band on my finger.

Grateful for a tearful, healing walk through a forest of ferns.

Grateful for the good, good woman who was my mother.

Grateful for you, Mom.