“And at the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
We left Iowa 11 days ago. Subtract the time change and the layover in Abu Dhabi and that means we’re on our ninth day in Nepal. Back home, that’s nothing. A workweek bookended by a pair of redundant weekends. How many nine-day periods in our lives did absolutely nothing eventful happen? If a calendar page from a past time was ripped out arbitrarily and you were asked to describe the events of that week, you’d stare with empty thoughts more times than not.
The point is that we haven’t been away for long. But to many of the 14 cancer survivors who stand a day’s walk away from Everest Base Camp, it feels like an eternity. Here are a few reasons why:
-Trace misses his daughter climbing into bed with him and his wife for a 30-minute cuddle session every morning.
-Kathy misses her kitties.
-Theresa misses big hugs from her kids.
-Justin misses cozying up to a campfire with his wife and a bottle of wine.
-Emelia misses her mother’s voice and her dad’s laugh.
-Lynnette misses plopping her son on her lap and reading him a story.
The others also cite children, parents, husbands, wives, and of course warm beds as reasons for their homesickness. And these days are long, packed in with more excitement and adventure and overwhelming beauty and time to think than usual. Add thin air, hard days and cold nights on top of the thoughts that travel halfway back around the globe, and you’ve got a lot of mixed emotions.
These people don’t operate on the same calendar as us non-cancer-survivors. They have seen that life can be short, and they know the value of time better than any group of people I’ve ever been amongst. Many of the survivors seem to have embraced the live-like-you-were-dying mantra. As we stand in the shadows of the highest mountains in the world, having caught glimpses of Mt. Everest’s tip throughout today’s cloudless afternoon, life is simple and confusing at the same time.
Our only immediate concerns are finding water and taking the next step up the rocky trail. Our surroundings include a world stripped down of all its complexities added on over the centuries by mankind. We listen to yak bells and the chirping of birds and see clear blue pools created by glaciers that once stomped these grounds but made sure to leave their mark.
The confusion comes in because we don’t know exactly how much time we have on this earth. If we knew we had a month, we’d likely all be staring at that peak as we were today. If we knew we had a year, we might just hang out a while longer. If we had a day, we’d likely be reading books to our little boy, cuddling in bed with our daughter, sitting next to that campfire with our wife, telling jokes with our dad.
But we don’t know, so we do our best to make decisions based on a combination of hope, optimism, reality, and a surrendering to the fact that we don’t have too much control over these things.
For now, we are here, in this foreign moment, in this foreign place, extracting the meaning it provides and interpreting it however we choose. Tomorrow we will arrive to the destination we set our sights on from the fields of Iowa. The day after, we will begin the walk toward home, toward the things we used to know, but will soon know in a different way. A better way. Much of what we are learning won’t hit us for quite a while. Travel as a teacher has a funny way of sharing its lessons at the most unpredictable of times.
In nine days, the 14 cancer survivors will be with loved ones, possessing the ability to surround themselves with the comforts of home. But who knows? Maybe things will be different. Maybe they will pursue new food, new friends, new ideas. Maybe exploring home and embracing it for all it’s worth will become the next great adventure.
We are all living and dying in different ways at different speeds. If we all acknowledged that, we’ll become better decision makers. Some may cuddle in bed five minutes more, others may set their sights on peaks in other corners of the earth. These choices are all around us. Whether it takes place in Iowa or Nepal, whether it’s in the form of mountain climbing or reconnecting with an old friend, this journey has taught us that we can do anything we put our minds to. Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes it smells like dirty socks you don’t want to wear another day or feels like you can’t get enough air to breathe. But then you realize your friends still like you despite your stench because they smell worse, and you do find that gulp of oxygen when you need it most. And once you realize everything is okay, it’s more than okay. It’s invigorating because you are alive and you’ve rarely known it more. You may then proceed to use those new feelings as you please.
I overheard 27-year-old Justin talking to Dr. Deming on the trail today. He’d been having some anxiety about being away from home, missing his wife, and the fact that there is an 85% chance his cancer could recur began messing with his mind.
After the doctor shared comments I couldn’t make out, which were surely wiser than anything I could ever come up with, Justin walked at my side.
“If you wouldn’t have come on this trip, we wouldn’t be friends,” I said, quickly realizing that his new bride at home was light years prettier, cuddlier and more important to him than me. I switched gears.
“What we’re doing here is only a fraction of the best part. You’ll have all the memories to keep forever. Next week, you’ll be lying in bed with Alicia, telling her stories of what you did here. So many she’ll tell you to shut up… Or maybe she won’t say that, she’ll say, ‘Keep telling me,’” I suggested.
“No, she’ll tell me to shut up,” Justin responded with a laugh. “You don’t know her like I do.”
He smiled and walked on. It was so clear how much he loved her. Clear as the sky over the Himalayas he was exploring that afternoon. And for that moment, he managed to be in two places at once.