Early this morning I climbed Mount Coolum. I didn’t do it for myself, I didn’t even really want to do it, but I did it because my son, Tom, wanted me to. Today it is one week since his wife, Kari-Lee, died of Cystic Fibrosis related illness and, at this stage, I am willing to do just about anything he asks me to do.
Climbing Mount Coolum is something that lots of people do. There is a track and even stone stairs and the climb is about a kilometre. The mountain itself is a volcanic dome that is two hundred and eight metres in height. The climb starts easy enough but gets steeper as you go.
I have done this climb before, when my children were younger (and I was younger) and I remember how tough it was then. I am now older and wiser (and I weigh more) so I was very hesitant to repeat the experience. I don’t do sweat well (there is no glow) there is only red face, streaming rivers of salty perspiration and heavy breathing. I know people run up it and then run down it and then do it again…but there is no conceivable situation in which this would be me.
But I did it. We started at about 5am. There were six of us; my son Tom, Kari’s sister Tiana, Tom’s friends Zac, Danielle & Nick and then me. I was the oldest and the most unfit. My son runs marathons and he told me that the last time he did the climb, he did it in nine minutes. I assured him that it would take me quite a bit longer.
As we climbed, I had a bit of a revelation (as I am wont to do at times) about the nature of living after loss. The last week has been so hard, for all of us. There are good days and not so good days and then there are the days when you don’t think you can go on. There is no “getting over”, “moving on” or “getting through” loss. How do you “get over” something like losing a wife or a child or a best friend? You don’t, you just learn a new way of living without them; you learn a way of living with the loss. The symbolism of climbing the mountain has helped me better understand that today and, maybe, it might help someone else.
Firstly, some days are going to be ok and other days are going to be hard. It may not even be days, it may be just moment to moment, hour to hour, minute to minute. Climbing the mountain was like that. Some places were easier, still challenging, but easier and other places were really tough going. There were times that I had to stop and rest and there are going to be days when it seems almost impossible to keep going, when the pain is so unbearable that it is too hard to even get out of bed. And that is ok. Take time to rest, take time to give the overworked muscles a break and then, the next day, or moment, get up and keep moving.
About a third of the way up the trail, I was so exhausted I didn’t think I could go on. I thought I had walked further than I actually had and it was discouraging. There are going to be days like that. Days when you think you have made progress, but then you realise you still have a long way to go. I had a few moments like that and my son just kept on encouraging me. “You’ve done so well” and “You’re nearly there” and “Just do this little bit more and then you can rest”. His constant encouragement kept me focussed, kept me going when I wanted to give up. You need people in your life that will be your encouragers, people who will show you how far you’ve come and how well you’ve done and will gently encourage you to keep going.
As I said before, my son runs marathons. He is extremely fit and the climb for him was easy, but he chose to stay with me. As we climbed, our group went at different paces, some going faster and further, others going at a medium pace and then stopping to wait for me bringing up the rear. Despite my protests that he should go at his own pace and I would eventually catch up, my son modified his stride so that he could walk with me. We need people in our lives that will go ahead and show us the way, and we need people that will go a little bit ahead of us and then stop to wait for us to catch up and we also need people in our life who will modify their stride so that they can walk alongside of us, helping us when we need help or just to keep us company.
There was also pain. There was pain in places I didn’t expect there to be pain. When you are walking up a steep incline, you are prepared to experience pain, but what got me was that there was pain in unusual and unexpected muscles and this made it harder. Learning to live with loss is learning to live with pain and sometimes that pain comes from the most unexpected places and it can wear you down. Pain is to be expected and when it gets too much, it is not failure, it is just time to rest.
About half of the way up, the cover of trees broke and there was a glimpse of the view and it was magnificent. I thought I had finally reached the top and I stopped to admire the view. But I was not at the top. Yes the view was good, but I was still only half way. It was tempting to stop there and not go any further, and sometimes you are going to feel that. Sometimes you will reach a place where you think that you have come far enough, learnt enough and you will want to stop, but then you will turn around and realise there is still more to do. Don’t be discouraged. Take a moment to admire the view. Take a moment to look at how far you have come. Take a deep breath and then, keep going.
The closer to the top, the harder it got. The trail was more treacherous, the incline was steeper and my body was tiring. As horrible as it is to say, it will get worse before it gets better. Navigating life after loss is going to be exhausting and you will feel like things are getting harder instead of easier, but don’t give up. Press on, resting when you need to and pushing through the pain when you can.
We passed (and were passed by) a lot of people on the trail. Everybody doing their own thing, having their own reasons for doing the climb. I stopped for a rest and a lady who passed me congratulated me for doing the climb and gave me advice, “Just put one foot in front of the other.” As well intentioned as she might have been, it annoyed me. I know I am overweight and, yes, I was struggling, but I didn’t need her to tell me how to do it. It may seem ironic that I am giving this advice, but here goes…People who see you along the way are going to give you advice, whether you want it or not. It is annoying and frustrating, but they are just trying to help and encourage you. My way of dealing with it comes from an animated Dreamworks film… “Just smile and wave boys. Just smile and wave.”
Finally, after about thirty-five minutes, we reached the top. And I was disappointed. It wasn’t what I expected. From the bottom it looks like it is covered in lush green grass, but it is not. The fact is, it is covered with shrubs and rocks. There is nowhere comfortable to sit and admire the view, there is no shade and there is nowhere to get a refreshing drink. And today the view was obscured by low lying cloud. I was disappointed. Where was the view? We had wanted to watch the sun rise over the ocean, but we couldn’t even see the ocean. Yes, the fog was pretty, but it was not what I had signed up for, it was not what I had expected. Now, I have done the climb before and I have seen the view before, so I know what it looks like on other days, but it was a different view today and I felt a little let down. What I had wanted to see, what I had expected to see and the reason I put myself through the pain was not there. In fact, the view from lower down had been better. And that is what it is going to be like living with loss. There are going to be days down the track when the view is magnificent and the pain you went through will feel worth it, but there will also be days when the view isn’t so great or isn’t what you wanted or expected. That is life and at the end of the day, I was glad I had climbed the mountain. I am glad that I got up early and went through the pain to get to the top, because even if the view wasn’t what I had expected, it was still beautiful.