We took our time getting started this morning. The climb yesterday took a lot out of everyone, but one of the many rewards of the effort was a good night’s sleep. The sun rises over our mountains and invites us to begin a new day. The mountains that stand guard over our campsite have become familiar friends. Their faces are as recognizable to us as our family’s. I will miss them when we leave.
After a breakfast of hot cereal and hard-boiled eggs, we assemble in the sunshine for Tai Chi. It feels good to gently stretch our muscles after the demanding workout yesterday. Judith, a 59 year-old breast cancer survivor, is the perfect Tai Chi instructor. Her gentle voice and compassionate nature allow us to derive more than just a physical benefit from the Tai Chi. The group exercise makes me feel more connected to the group and to our world.
Following Tai Chi, I share with the group a reflection from our writer-friend, John O’Donohue. It’s called, “On Waking.”
I give thanks for arriving
Safely in a new dawn,
For the gift of eyes
To see the world,
The gift of mind
To feel at home
In my life.
The waves of possibility
Breaking on the shore of dawn,
The harvest of the past
That awaits my hunger,
And all the furtherings
This new day will bring.
Before leaving our campsite, we take down the strands of prayer flags that we had strung 3 days before. For the past several days they had been visible companions. A thousand faces of friends and family flying colorfully in the Himalayan breeze. As I place my prayer flags in my backpack, I share with the group a flag that has special significance. It’s a green flag with the face of a handsome young man smiling confidently at the world. This is Chris. He was a patient of mine who died at age 21 of metastatic chordoma, an unusual type of malignant sarcoma. This prayer flag was the beginning of our prayer flag project, a project that over the past two years has seen over 2000 prayer flags be created by family and friends to honor and remember individuals whose lives have been affected by cancer. The flag I hold in my hand now was lovingly made by Chris’s parents and contains a beautiful letter to Chris from his father. I read the flag to our team and we all choke to hold back tears, some of us unsuccessfully. It reminds us of why we are here. We did not come to Nepal just to climb a mountain. We came here because cancer will cause the death of 600,000 Americans this year, and that is just not acceptable. As I tell our group about Chris, his energy, his talent, his personality, everyone thinks of the loss that each of their prayer flags represent. These sacred flags tie us to our purpose and mission. Even as they reside in the bottom of our backpacks on the journey down the mountain, they provide us lift and support.
On the hike down the mountain, I walk with Kay, a 59 year-old breast cancer survivor and teacher. Kay had a very difficult time with altitude once we arrived at base camp. She wasn’t able to climb to the summit of Imja Tse, but she is now feeling great. She tells me that although the trip was difficult, she would do again in a heartbeat. She also tells me how grateful she is for her tent mate, Kelly, a 42 year-old melanoma survivor. Kelly helped nurse Kay back to health. None of us can do this journey solo. We all take care of each other and Kay is so appreciative of Kelly’s compassionate care. Kay is now strong again and hiking with determination. She’s enjoying the beautiful mountain scenery and looking forward to teaching her students in Murray, Iowa about the mountains and the culture of the Himalaya.
I turn back frequently as I hike down the valley to take a look at Imja Tse. I feel a bittersweetness. She’s not even out of sight, but already I’m missing her. I remind myself that the trip is not over. We still have 3 days of hiking left. It’s too soon to think of this as a trip complete. As I’ve been reminding everyone for weeks, “it’s a journey, not a destination.” I remind myself, “Be Here Now.” I focus on what’s ahead and the beauty of the mountains and the people I’m with.
Our home for tonight is Pangboche. The tea room is on the second floor and there are windows on three sides. It’s a great space for us to commune. Before dinner, Father Frank says mass. A German couple that is staying at the lodge that night joins us for mass. They are Lutheran, but find comfort in the fellowship. Their journey through the mountains has kindled a sense of spirituality as well.
After a dinner of rice, vegetables and fried Spam, our Sherpa staff surprises us with a large cake for dessert. The cake is decorated with a frosting sculpture of Mount Imja Tse protruding from the top like a stegosaurus spine. Around the sugary mountain is the phrase “Congratulations on Your Success.” I remind our Sherpas that it has truly been “Our” success. They have been an integral part of our team from day one. “None of us is as good as all of us.”