Nothing could be heard except the crunching of stones beneath my feet, the grinding of my heels as they were pressed deeper into the trail. Already, I could see the dust settling on my once-black socks, turning them an uneven shade of brown. My eyes followed them as I placed one foot down and then the other. Behind me, a black backpack sagged from my shoulders. It contained almost nothing. Just a single water bottle, a granola bar, an extra pair of socks, and a leather-bound journal paired with what was left of a simple graphite pencil.
A single line of sweat trekked its way down my spine, trickling uncomfortably between my skin and my thin tank top. I stopped to wipe my brow with the back of my hand. It was a miracle I had made it this far. Every time I tried to go on this hike, the sky had opened up and the rain poured down, drawing me back into the safety of my home. As if the heavens were warning me back.
But I—the girl with nothing to lose—was determined to do this.
My decision to hike a mountain alone and with no prior experience or training had no point of origin. As though it had always existed in my mind.
I found no used hiking book in my favorite local bookstore, heard nothing from friends about the location. I simply woke up one day and knew, I am going to climb a mountain. The trail I explored was as vague as my reasons for being there. It may have had a name. If it did, I didn’t know it. I was an unnamed hiker on an unnamed mountain.
Now I leaned forward into the first promise of a true incline with my eyes fixed on the two feet of trail in front of me. I watched, hypnotized, as my Timberlands appeared beneath me and then disappeared again. A small fleck of blue paint adorned the toe of my left boot as a reminder of a different time and place.
Three and a half years ago, I was told my mother was going to die. I was seventeen years old. Words like glioma and necrosis meant nothing to me. The only word that registered was cancer. This word plagued my life for as long as I remember. Cancer appeared in my life when I least expected it, flitting in and out of view. Sometimes, it was gone for years. Other times it stuck around like a stubborn parasite. This time was different. This time, my mother wasn’t just sick. She had collapsed at work from a stroke and rushed to the hospital. They didn’t know what was wrong. They didn’t know a killer was rapidly growing in her brain. They didn’t know how to stop it.
This time was different because we knew she wasn’t going to get better.
The trail sloped upwards, and I leaned with it. Dirt gave away to a looser, rocky path that disappeared into the green on either side of me, forcing me to dig in to keep my footing. I could feel the muscles in my legs contract and quiver with the effort of the climb. For the first time since leaving my car and stepping into this lonely world of trees and bracken, I lifted my eyes and bent my neck upwards. The tall canopy framed me, turning the blue sky above into a second trail, a mirror of the one I was on.
I looked down, stopping mid-step.
A small body lay bent and broken in the very space in which I was about to place my heel. Skinny, nude, and veiny, its eyes still glued shut, this creature was barely recognizable as a bird.
I bent down to make sure it was dead, resting on one knee in a sort of muted respect. I touched its teeny foot with my finger. There was no response. Its chest was still. Ants wiggled around the poor thing like a chalk outline at a crime scene. It was Darwinism at its finest.
Kneeling with the rocky trail digging into my knees, I couldn’t seem to stop looking at the poor creature. I tried to think of a metaphor to make sense of the tragedy before me, but came up empty. The dead bird was not a metaphor for my mother. It was not even a metaphor for myself. It was a reminder of the random catastrophes that come unprompted into our lives.
I couldn’t wait and watch it be consumed by insects. I brushed the dirt from my palms and moved on.
Four invasive brain surgeries, three rounds of chemotherapy and radiation later, and my mother is still alive. I feel like I shouldn’t be allowed this. Every day I get up and shower. I grab a lunch. I go to classes. I have friends and activities and clubs. I am happy, but I am also deeply sad. My mother sits at home with only 90% of her brain left in her cranium and watches television. She cannot drive. She is a slave to the medications that line one side of our kitchen counter.
I am not allowed to be sad. Grief is for those who have lost someone they love, who can no longer talk to or sit beside their mother. I am an outcast of those individuals who are mother-less, and yet I feel their pain. I have a mother, but she is not the same mother who used to drive my friends and me home from grade school, singing show tunes. She is not the mother who used to craft elaborate undersea-themed cakes for my birthdays, or would cook family dinners five days out of the week. That mother is a ghost now, nothing but an outer shell of the mother I once had.
I still don’t know what carried my feet up those slopes and crags of an unknown Massachusetts mountain that day. It could have been the solitary wilderness that drew me to such an impulsive act. It could have been the desire to push myself to my limits. It could have been something we all have to learn about the cruelty of the world, and what it takes to move past it.