We are climbing Africa’s tallest mountain, but that is not the whole story. In fact, there is no one story in all of this. And it’s more than a group of people, a series of days, an endless collection of photos. The pieces that make up our true tale are sometimes so tiny they can slip past the senses without being captured. You have to listen just right, look a different direction from the obvious, open the mind to what really is going on here.
After an unforgettable bus ride atop of seemingly impassible roads, bouncing off of infinite pine trees and laughing at the surreal feel of it all, we will go to sleep in the Tanzanian jungle tonight. This fact is certainly powerful, especially to those like 63-year-old cancer survivor Tim Meyer who is only eight weeks off having his prostate removed, and 47-year-old Philadelphia-based cancer survivor Nina Philipp, both of whom are overnighting in a tent for the first time in their lives.
But the power of this journey is bigger than the grandness of mountains or the exoticness of the jungles. The constant series of interactions amongst the cancer survivors and caregivers, the memories and thoughts and emotions being excavated, the external and internal discoveries being made amidst the densely green, desolate habitat, these are the real reasons we climb mountains. The presence of this peak we look toward may be huge, but there is nothing bigger than the little things.
To hear tent mates who were complete strangers just days ago in conversation, one offering to get the other one who had fallen ill warm washing water down the path as if they were family full of unconditional love. To see Jim, one of the caregivers, tossing small toys out the bus window at waving children who leap with joy when they recover the game of jacks. To see a collection of people travel from hyper-stimulated America find ways to entertain one another while waiting to catch a ride in a middle-of-nowhere forest filled with shy monkeys and miles of unknown all around. To witness Nina, opposite of an outdoors type, calmly allowing an unusual neon-blue insect to wander within her hands, observing and quietly uttering, ‘My family would never believe I was doing this,” – these are the moments which drift through the African air countless times per day.
These soft, subtle, mighty anecdotes make up the story. The mountain is the force that breathes life into them.
Nina suffered through multiple rounds of chemo and radiation treatments along with seven surgeries to combat her salivary gland cancer, which has been a foe for 22 years now. Prior to being diagnosed in her mid-20s, cancer was not on Nina’s radar. Why would it be for a young mother?
Through eight bouts with cancer, the challenge of raising a physically and mentally disabled child, a tough divorce, loss of body parts and a bit of confidence, she found inspiration in her caretakers and decided to pursue a career as a radiation therapist. Though it took place amidst one of the most grueling of her cancer recurrences, she graduated her program with honors and was presented with four awards the same night she gave a keynote presentation. She has been caring compassionately for cancer patients ever since.
Nina managed to find the beauty in the unexpected.
Now, out here in the unfamiliar jungle – worlds away from anything she’s ever known – she will look to find the unexpected in all this beauty.
“I truly hope that this trip will show her what she is capable of and enhance her confidence and self worth,” said Nina’s brother Vince. “I truly believe the amount of cancer surgeries she has endured must be demoralizing, but she goes along every day, smiling.”
The inspiration lies within the biggest of mountains and the smallest of creatures and everywhere and everyone in between. It’s both easy to find yet possible to miss if your eyes aren’t wide open at any passing moment.