In just under three months, 8 months before my 50th Birthday, I will set off to trek the highest peak in Africa. I am VERY excited. A 10 day journey, with 7 days of trekking to 5895m.
But why? Until last Friday, I had 3 reasons driving me to do this;
- Because I love walking and after climbing Mount Toubkal in Morocco on a whim 3 years ago, I decided I wanted to climb Kili as a challenge to mark my half century.
- Because my mother was diagnosed with Dementia last year and I want to reach out to others living with the illness, while raising money for the Alzheimer’s Society.
- Because five years ago, at the lowest point of my life, an 8 week course in mindfulness gave me my breath back, and set me off on my journey to love myself, live in the moment and lead the life I desire. And I desire to travel the world, its lofty peaks and its ocean depths.
Then on the morning of the 18th I received a call from my ex, that I had been dreading for 48 hrs; my lovely father-in-law, who endured and survived cancer just 18 months ago, had passed in the night due to septicaemia-induced heart failure, in a hospital in Greece, where he had been sailing – one of his favourite activities. His other one was trekking.
The 72hrs that followed taught me a lot about myself, about grief and about life. About living. Every day, as I teach children and adults alike Mindfulness, I share facts about how thoughts and emotions drive our urges and actions. About how anger, sadness, fear and loss awaken our amygdala, our survival instinct, and lead us to freeze, flee or fight. About how focussing on the breath can keep you present, grounded.
That Friday, on my kitchen stool, I breathed. Then I cried. Then I breathed some more. I watched my thoughts and noticed my urges. I contemplated not letting my pupils and clients down. After a solemn phone conversation with my sister-in-law, where we shared our disbelief, I heard that she was going into work, and judged myself for wanting to bail. Then I embraced self-compassion, chose to allow myself time to grieve and cancelled my lessons for the day; conscious of the thought that my stoic father in law might have pushed through, where I was choosing to surrender.
I sat on the stool staring at the counter. Having met him while at Uni in my late teens/early twenties (it irks me that I can’t remember the first time we met), he was an important figure in my life for almost three decades. In the early years he welcomed me, and my small family, in his house in Brussels as his son’s girlfriend. Maybe that’s why my first reaction was to connect with the people I had met at the same time? All of a sudden my Hippocampus brought forward memories. I was 20 again, mingling with my ex’s European School friends, some of whom I would become close to. As I sat on that stool, I felt a need to reach out to them, partly for me but also so they could support him on this dreadful day. My Insula went into empathy overdrive. Then sensations in my body, a frenzied tingle, a tightness, alerted me to my sadness-driven, desperate texting and I told myself to slow down. There was no real hurry, just a perceived sense of urgency.
As the reality began to sink in, I recalled the countless times his generosity had gone well beyond the realms of duty. A passionate sailor himself, he trustingly lent us, and half a dozen other friends in their mid-twenties, his beloved boat Tai-Luk, to sail the Med on various occasions. Years before we were even married, he showed his support and his faith and put down the deposit on our first home together, ensuring our place on the property ladder. For our wedding, which we announced by hijacking his 60th birthday party, he played the part my father would have done if her were alive, and funded the whole beautiful affair; not one celebration but two – one at his brother’s town house and one at his sister’s country mansion. My adopted family, each one as generous as the other. Providing me with the large family and sense of belonging I had craved since I was a little girl.
Hours had passed and I was still in my PJs, semi-frozen to the kitchen stool. My plans to go for a swim abandoned. My pre-frontal cortex unable to concentrate on anything much, other than my heart aching for my loss and my ex’s pain. The fragile quality of life was all too familiar to me, as I had watched my mother’s mental and physical health deteriorate for the last year. My sense of loss had been skimming the surface of my consciousness for months and feelings of sadness were on standby in the wings. Only no one would have guessed they would take centre stage so soon and for someone, who for decades was the picture of health.
I recalled my first adventure with him as his official ‘daughter in law’. During our 15 month stay in Buenos Aires, he flew out not once, but twice. First to take us, again generously, to the wild plains of Salta, in the North West, where we travelled on the highest train in the world – ‘Tren a las Nubes’. On that intimate journey with his then partner and 8 year old step daughter, we were all dumbstruck, as we heard her explain, proudly, that he was her ‘Papa de Coeur’ – a hint to the father in him I would soon see, when 6 months later he returned to meet his first grandchild. This is when his strength really began to shine, seen in his love for his eight grandchildren.
And so I turned my focus to honouring the sense of loss, holding it gently in my periphery, but actively remembering the good. On that stool I gave the many wonderful memories the mic until they had lifted me up enough to stand up and get on with my day. Life – and death – never cease to amaze; having found the strength to resume my ‘fish’n’chips with mum Friday’ routine, I was amazed when her first reaction to the news, with her dementia-affected memory and a tear in her eye, was also of how 18 years earlier Eleanor had called him her ‘heart father’. Funny what the heart remembers, when the mind cannot. And there on her kitchen chair, I was blessed with a mum full of presence and awareness. And despite the chronic pain of her aching arthritic body, I was in awe of her Richard-like stoicism, as she said ‘Maybe I shouldn’t complain about my pain?’. So now I have a 4th reason to climb Kili. Because he did when he was twenty years my senior. Because a month earlier at my 49th birthday dinner (which, yet again, he generously paid for in the face of my protests) he advised me to buy Diamox in case of altitude sickness, and I had arrogantly replied that, as I had been Okay in Salta and at the top of Toubkal, I should be okay. He answered as he always did, in his wise and loving tone ‘Anna, darling, I think you’ll find …”. Because despite being knocked for six by cancer and having his stomach removed, he continued to sail and hike and then sail and hike some more. To lead the life he desired. I sailed for the first time with him in 1995, skied for the first time with him in 1999, went for my first run with him in 2005. And in January I will climb Kili with him. Mindfully. Stoically. For, as he would say when he set off for a hash with the Boisfort Harriers in the 90’s, while I chose to laze in bed – “On-on”.