XV. The light has gone out of my life.
The last time my world ended there was an outpouring of support from family and friends who not only offered love, but also a forum to write long and hard about what hurts. For me, writing is a healing process and a way to cling to sanity. Please excuse my feeble attempt to find life’s light once again.
Sarah and I sat in the heatherlands, a scene straight out of The Lion King. As we sat on our rock, we could see everything the light touched: our little kingdom for the next week as we attempted to summit Kilimanjaro. We continued our uphill trudge until our guides came to a stop an hour outside of base camp. Here, a small spot on the side of our monster of a mountain, was our chance to find cellular service. No luck. Sarah and I stood there waving our phones in the air like those flailing blow-up dancing men found outside of used car lots. Our guides took note and with the understanding that I was trying to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society came over to help me flail a little longer. Viola, it worked! As I frantically started to post an update, the messages started rolling in.
Uncle Bruce: Call Home ASAP … Emergency!!!!
Todd: Please respond or call me when you get this. It’s important.
Bo: What’s your position and current status? I love you. You must call me as soon as you can. Please.
Panic took hold. I couldn’t dial out. My anxiety and fear rising with each foiled attempt. I didn’t have a strong enough signal to support calls. I frantically and incoherently began messaging through Facebook. No responses. With the 8-hour time difference, it was around 5:30AM at home. Then I saw that familiar bubble containing “…” coming from Todd.
Todd: I’d rather not tell you on a mountain over text. Please just come off the mountain and we’ll talk when you have better connection. An accident happened.
My mind is racing as my fellow trekkers ask if anyone in my family is sick. It must be Grandma I reply. She’s not sick, but she’s in her late 80s and lived a wonderful, full life. This is the first time I look back at my new friends. The weather has changed drastically and they are shaking in the cold. The guides are beginning to worry about safety as storm clouds begin to roll in. They want to get everyone to base camp as quickly as possible, which means leaving the precious connection behind. What Todd didn’t understand is that there was no walking off Kilimanjaro. The only way down is through evacuation and I needed a reason.
I’m not proud of what happened next. I pleaded with Todd to provide more details and he refused. My last resort was to curse at him.
Todd: Please just trust me on this and turn around and get off that mountain.
Me: I can’t do that Todd. I’m on fucking Kilimanjaro. Tell me now.
Todd: Ellen died.
Sarah metaphorically and literally caught me as I fell and held me as I wailed in the mud. I’m sure the mountain valleys still echo with my screams, but it was my friend who saved me that day. Sarah didn’t only empathize; she intimately understood the raw pain. After all it was the reason we were there in the first place. Sarah lost her father to cancer and over the years she shared her grief and love for him with me. When she looked into my soul, cried alongside me, and said I know how you feel, it was genuine and therapeutic and the only thing that enabled me to put one foot in front of the other on the hour-long hike to base camp.
We trekked in deafening silence interrupted only by Sarah’s sobs in front of me. We arrived at camp with the dusk and learned evacuation was only possible in the morning. I felt every minute of the freezing, sleepless night. Sarah patiently listened to me agonize over what might have happened. I landed squarely on a car accident. It was the only thing that made sense. But when? Coming home from a best friend’s wedding? To calm my racing mind, Sarah and I huddled in our tent, zipped up our mummy sleeping bags to our necks, and blasted the Harry Potter audiobook. I finished the first book with the sunrise.
“To have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever.” – Albus Dumbledore to Harry Potter, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
In the stark morning light, I joined my fellow hikers in the mess tent. Four mentally and physically strong, beautiful women: Sarah, Jessica, Nita, and Tiffany. As I forced myself to eat enough to endure another hike to the evacuation point, one of those women piped up and said, “I know it’s only been a short while, but I feel like I know you… and Bo, too.” I lunged into our story, but somehow ended with Ellen’s story of her engagement to Matthew. Like all sisters, our lives are intertwined, my story bled naturally and effortlessly into hers. In an attempt to describe my Bo, I described my sister’s most intimate of moments:
Bo is the most wonderful character, always found in a suit, even in the most ridiculous of circumstances. So when Matthew asked us to capture his proposal to my sister during a hike up Hawksbill, the tallest peak in the Shenandoah Mountains, Bo of course dressed down: A button-down collared shirt complete with boat shoes and a leather side-satchel. After Ellen exclaimed, “Are you fucking kidding me?” to Matthew’s proposal on the peak, we popped the champagne bottles stuffed in our packs and headed merrily down the mountain. As we stumbled down, a couple inquired about the reason for our celebration. Ellen held out her finger adorned with her newly acquired rock and beamed, “I’m engaged!” The couple immediately turned to Bo and without hesitation remarked, “Congratulations! We were wondering why you were dressed like that!” We didn’t correct them and all four of us relished that moment.
It was time for evacuation. Time to splinter off from the group. The physical separation was the first clue this wasn’t a terrible dream. I do not have my sister and I would not summit Kilimanjaro. A life and a dream vanquished at once. Then all 27 of us joined hands in a circle (hikers, guides, cooks, and porters alike) to say a prayer high in the sky on Kilimanjaro for my Ellen.
The last thing she said to me was, “Go get it you beautiful woman.”
I promise you someday I will.