Ama Dablam, the mountain known as Mother’s Necklace, is in full splendor this morning as I watch the sun come up on another beautiful morning in the Khumbu Valley. After 4 days on the trail, I’ve established a rhythm to my day. I awake early in order to spend time alone writing in my journal. As I write, I watch and listen to the day dawn.
There are yak herds in stonewall corrals that surround our lodge. The bells that dangle from collars around their necks sound like wind chimes in a gentle breeze. As the sun rises and warms the earth and all its sentient beings, the rhythm of the yak bell melody quickens slightly as more bells join in the symphony.
At 6 AM our Sherpas go room to room to awaken our group with a cup of tea and a greeting of Namaste. Namaste is a greeting that acknowledges the divine within each of us. It’s a beautiful way to begin the day.
Today is Kay’s birthday. Kay is 59 years old today. She is a breast cancer survivor and a schoolteacher. Kay’s knowledge of cancer is too expansive. Besides her own journey with cancer, she experienced the cancer journey with her husband, Bob, who died of lung cancer 2 years ago.
As Kay joins us for breakfast, the happy birthday song fills the air. Hugs follow, tears flow, laughter fills the room. Emotions are much closer to the service at altitude.
Kay says, “Can I share with all of you the prayer flag I’m carrying with me?” I was one of the doctors who had taken care of her husband, Bob, when he was diagnosed with cancer 3 years ago. I was sure that Kay was going to show us a flag that she had made to honor Bob.
Kay had a surprise in store for us. She pulled out a white flag from her backpack. “My daughter, Lori, and granddaughter, Miya, made this flag for me to bring on this journey. I said to them ‘It’s nice you made a flag to honor grandpa Bob. I made one for him too.’ But then my granddaughter said, ‘No, Nana Kay, this flag is for you!’”
Kay unfurled the flag that her daughter and granddaughter had made. She read it aloud for us. “A strong woman knows she has strength enough for the journey, but a woman of strength knows it is in the journey where she will become strong.”
After breakfast we assembled outside for a morning stretch. The sun has risen higher in the sky. Ama Dablam is a sparkling jewel above us. It’s already warm enough to remove our jackets.
Judith, a 59-year-old breast cancer survivor, is a practicing Buddhist and a Tai Chi instructor as well as a professor of psychology at Drake University. She had been feeling the ill effects of altitude yesterday, but she is now well and she takes her position in front of our group to lead us in Tai Chi. The yaks provide a lovely melody of bells to accompany our stretching. The children of the village come to watch us as we go through our gentle stretching exercises in unison beneath the warming sun. Some of the children join us in our stretching, as do some of our Sherpas. All the world seems to be in harmonious order.
In honor of Kay’s birthday and in acknowledgement of all the friends we have made on this journey, I share a reflection from John O’Donohue’s book, To Bless the Space Between Us. It’s entitled “On Friendship.” It concludes:
May you treasure your friends.
May you be good to them, be there for them
And receive all the challenges, truth, and light you need.
May you never be isolated but know the embrace
Of your anam cara.
“Anam cara” means soul friend, one who you can trust in. We are all finding anam cara on this journey.
Our hike today begins with a gentle downhill for several miles. We’re headed down to the river, Dudh Cosi, and them we’ll turn left and ascend to the village Tengboche. The climb to Tengboche is steep and we all fall into the rhythm of walking. It’s a great opportunity to get to know a fellow climber as we journey side by side for miles.
This morning I walk with Leah, a 45-year-old breast cancer survivor from Wisconsin. Leah is also a medical oncologist who specializes in treating breast cancer. Obviously, none of us is immune from cancer.
Leah and I talk about where we went to school and where we did our training, familiar “doctor talk.” I ask her why she chose oncology or why oncology chose her. She told me about a meaningful doctor—patient she had developed with a lung cancer patient she was caring for during her internal medicine residency program. From that relationship she came to realize the meaning, significance, and therapeutic value of authentic physician-patient-relationships. She understood how how being that type of doctor fit well with her own philosophy, values, and talents. Her patients are fortunate that she found her calling.
I ask Leah about her family. Her husband, Dan, is also a physician and was very supportive of her participation on this journey. He is at home with their daughters Ally and Lauren, ages 11 and 9. She speaks of them lovingly and I worry that our conversation will make her homesick. She describes her children to me. She talks about how affectionate they are and how her daughter always reaches out to comfort others even by she’s being comforted by them. I say, “she sounds like a lovely patient of mine who, when I gently told her that her cancer had recurred, took my hand ‘I’m sorry doctor, that must be so difficult to tell your patients bad news.’”
For the next hour I walk with the Yak Team. We have divided our group into three different subgroups, each one identified by an animal name. Suzanne, a 48-year-old breast cancer survivor from Alabama is a member of the Yak Team today. She says, “Doc, take a listen to your new favorite song,” as she hands me her IPod. I put the ear buds in and I’m greeted by a heart-thumping rebel country tune. “Ala-freaking-bama.” It definitely cranks up the dial on my energy meter as I begin to dance up the mountain. I’m beginning to get quite winded as I dance, sing, and climb the mountain all at the same time. My ego tells me that I need to continue until the song ends. Finally, after eight minutes and a near cardiac arrest, Suzanne informs me that she has set her IPod on loop and that “Ala-freaking-bama” will never end. I declare defeat and return the IPod to Suzanne and resume a slower pace up the mountain.
Our group reaches Tengboche in time for lunch. Tengboche is best known for the beautiful Buddhist monastery that sits at the edge of the village. It’s ornately with red, gold, and green painting and elaborate gates and statues. Maroon and saffron robed monks wander the grounds.
We all gather in the common room of our lodge for lunch. Everyone’s spirits are high. There is playful banter and lots of laughter. We’re at 13,000 feet in elevation, higher than most of the group has ever experienced. Over the past 4 days, everyone has experienced some misery and suffering – headaches, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, blisters, sore muscles, etc. But here, in this room, right now, there is happiness.
Andy, a 35 year-old Hodgkin’s Disease survivor observes the playfulness and joy that is present in the room. He says, “Well, if you have to miserable, it’s good to be happy.” Wise words from such a young grasshopper!
After lunch we are invited into the monastery for a service. We remove our shoes and enter the central room. A 20-foot tall golden statue of Buddha dominates the front wall. Other smaller statues are present, as well as numerous wall hangings that display the life of Buddha. Incense is burning and adds to the exotic nature of the experience.
Six monks enter and proceed to the center of the room where there are several mounds of cushions, each with a large dark heavy robe folded on top. The monks don the robes and take a seat on a cushion. In time, the monk that is sitting on the cushion in the back with his face toward the Buddha at the front of the room begins chanting. It starts as a spoken phrase, but soon transforms into a sonorous rhythm. The other monks soon join in. Over the next 30 minutes the chanting ebbs and flows. I close my eyes and let the sounds and smells transport me somewhere, I’m not sure. All is well in the world and it feels right to be here and now.
That evening we enjoy another delicious Sherpa –prepared meal of rice, lentils, potatoes, cabbage and yak momo’s. For dessert the Sherpas have prepared a huge birthday cake in honor of Kay. We enjoy the fellowship and new friendships that this journey has provided us. As I get ready to go to my room to find some sleep, Andy says to me, “Doc, you have to go outside and take a look!”
I go outside and to my surprise the sky has cleared and the moon is full. In the distance I can see the entire Everest massif illuminated in the moonlight. Ama Dablam is hovering overhead to our right. Her necklace is glowing in the moonlight. Clouds below us slowly start to move up the valley. Within a half-hour, we are in the clouds. The clouds continue to rise and soon the entire Himalayan range is enveloped in a white blanket of peacefulness.