I awaken this morning to a symphony of sounds. As I lie in my tent at 5 a.m. the pre-sunrise light is bringing Peru to life. I hear songbirds singing “good morning” to one another as the day brightens. A nearby rooster chimes in a “cock-a-doodle-do”. The packhorses that have spent the night in the pasture a few yards from our tents join the chorus with loud whinnies. The underlying percussion that forms a continuous foundation for the morning chorus is the river. The Urubamba is rushing on its way to join the Amazon and then on to the Atlantic Ocean, thousands of miles away.
I get out of my tent and welcome the day. I feel a pleasant soreness throughout my muscles, reminding me of the work we have done in the past several days. Our guides, Carlos, Guido, and Alben have been up for hours already, getting ready for our day. Our guides are great. On the very first day we met I made sure that they understood the nature of our group. I wanted them to understand the significance of our journey. At first they couldn’t quite comprehend the nature of our journey, but as they have gotten to know our group and participated in our daily yoga, reflections, and blessings, they have become part of our group. Over the past week I’ve had conversations with each of them about the impact that cancer has had on their lives. Not surprisingly, they have all been touched by cancer. This morning as the sun begins to show its face, I offer our guides blank prayer flags to create tributes to their loved ones.
Carlos is our head guide. He has a mop of curly black hair, dark skin and a BIG smile. He, like all the guides, is officially “Catholic”. But, like most of the population of the high Andes, he and the other guides understand the Catholic religion as compliment to the ancient Incan spirituality that focuses on father sun and mother earth. It’s a very accepting spiritual view that focuses on the interconnectedness of all living creatures. Carlos sits at the camp table and chooses a blue flag to decorate in honor of his amigo, Martin. Martin is 40 years old and a fellow mountain guide. He’s currently undergoing chemotherapy for gastric cancer, one of the most common cancers in Peru. Carlos writes, “Por mi amigo, Martin. Con tu amistad siempre. Estaremos agradecidos con dios. Sabernos que saldras de todo esta.” The English translation is, “We will be friends forever. With the grace of God, we know that everything will work out.”
Guido chooses a green flag for his mother who is undergoing treatment for breast cancer. Guido has short dark hair and wears a “diamond” ear stud in one ear. His eyes tear up as he meticulously decorates a flag in his mother’s honor. “En honor a la Betty. Cuidanos por siempre!!!” In English, “In honor of Betty. May you watch over us forever.” He thanks me for allowing him to make this flag. He is single, still lives at home with his parents in Cusco and obviously loves his mother dearly.
Alben chooses a red flag to honor his father, Juan, who died of gastric cancer several years ago. Alben is a fun-loving, lovable, young man who is always smiling. His flag is for “Papa Juan Anibol, con mucho amor.” Alben, too, becomes quite emotional as he remembers his father and shares his story with me. The three blue, green and red flags of our guides join the others in my backpack. I will carry them to our Relay for Life ceremony that we will conduct later today. In the making of the flags, our guides have been fully integrated into Above + Beyond Cancer.
After breakfast, we gather at the center of our campsite and Mary leads us in yoga. This 5-minute yoga session helps stretch our muscles and brings us together in a manner that allows us to reflect on our higher purpose. After yoga, I share a reading with the group from John O’Donohue’s book, To Bless the Space Between Us. This reading is entitled, “A Blessing of Angels.”
“May the Angel of Healing turn your wounds
Into sources of refreshment.
May the Angel of Compassion open your eyes
To the unseen suffering around you.
May the Angel of Wildness disturb the places
Where your life is domesticated and safe,
Take you to the territories of true otherness
Where all that is awkward in you
Can fall into its own rhythm.
May the Angel of Death arrive only
When your life is complete
And you have brought every given gift
To the threshold where its infinity can shine.”
Today’s hike is along the Urubamba River. It’s a six-hour hike that is gentler than the previous two days. Today’s hike reminds me of the incredible geologic diversity of Peru. It has a long Pacific coastline and incredible deserts on the west side of the Andes. The Andes Mountains form a rugged spine. On the east side of the Andes, the rainforest dominates the terrain and becomes part of the Amazon basin. Today we are in the rainforest all day. We are witness to lots of birds, flowers and butterflies as we hike along the wild river.
Cyndi Elias is a 42-year-old cancer survivor from Minnesota. She has had three different malignancies: leukemia, sarcoma, and, most recently, breast cancer. One of her hobbies is bird watching. She has brought a pair of binoculars with her and quickly becomes our resident-expert on all things ornithology. She helps us identify flocks of parrots and several different species of humming birds. She’s also great at helping us identify many of the species of flowers we encounter.
Yesterday, Cyndi gave the blessing before lunch. She said that she didn’t really buy into the concept that cancer is a “gift”. In light of her multiple cancer diagnoses, she joked, “If cancer is a gift, it’s a gift that keeps on giving!” She did, however, acknowledge the silver lining that her cancer cloud has provided her. She describes Above + Beyond Cancer as a true blessing in her life. It has provided her with the opportunity to find purpose and passion in her life and connect with other cancer survivors from around that country that share the same purpose. Her eyes welled with tears and her voice broke as she expressed her appreciation to the entire team who had helped her through the difficult times on the trek.
The butterflies along the trail are numerous and colorful. The red, yellow, orange and black colors swirl about us as we walk through “flocks” of them. They also congregate on the ground along our path forming “gardens” of color.
The Urubamba River is a powerful force that serves as a constant companion today. Up ahead is a small footbridge crossing the river. It’s about 5 feet above the surface of the tumultuous river. The bridge is moves freely and has no railing. Even the thought of crossing it provokes some anxiety. No apparent anxiety for Scott however. Scott is a 40 year-old lymphoma survivor from Minneapolis. He is married and has two young daughters. His cancer journey was not an easy one. He has undergone high-dose chemotherapy and stem cell transplant. He is grateful for a second chance at creating a life worth living and he intends to live it to the fullest.
Without hesitation, Scott scurries over the large rocks beside the river and jumps onto the bridge. He crosses back and forth and poses for photos as the rest of us look on. Not to be outdone, several of us accept the unspoken challenge and take our turns crossing the rickety bridge over the cascading river below. Brian and Scott momentarily joust each other as I hold my breath. Kyle and Laurie take their turn on the bridge. Perhaps one of the photos we take of them will show up on a Christmas card someday. Joseph, the 23-year-old lymphoma survivor has come to life today. He joins me on the bridge, but I want no part of a jousting match. Crossing back and forth and posing for a few photos is enough for me.
Our hike ends at our campsite for the night. It’s a terraced yard on a coffee “plantation” owned by Freddy. Part of his economic sustainability is charging groups to camp on his property. It’s a beautiful plot of land. Our tents are pitched on three different levels of the terraced backyard along the banks of the river. Flocks of parrots fly overhead. Chickens are scurrying in and out of the coffee plants and onto the terraces. A big mother hen with eight chicks wanders in front of the tents. She suddenly gets nervous and puffs up her feathers as she stands and all her chicks run for the covered protection of her feathers.
We have lunch at our campsite. It’s another wonderful meal with fresh avocado, fish, potatoes and fruit. Kyle gives the blessing today. He talks about his sister who died of metastatic sarcoma several years ago. He and his wife, Laurie, are on this journey as caregivers and to help keep the spirit of his sister alive. His blessing before lunch is a reminder to all of us to cherish the blessings in our lives and to live our lives with optimism and hope. His sister was a graduate of Notre Dame. The university’s motto is, “Vita Dulcedo Spes.” The English translation is “Life, Sweetness, Hope.” In life there is sweetness and hope. The short duration of Heidi’s life does not diminish either the sweetness or the hope. She and all those whose faces adorn the prayer flags we carry remind us to cherish the sweetness of life and live with optimism even in the face of adversity. Kyle’s eyes become moist as he remembers his sister and his touching tribute to his sister remind each of us of the losses that we have experienced in life. Remembering is bittersweet – with time, remembering contains more sweetness that bitterness.
We spend the afternoon stringing up all the prayer flags that we have carried with us. There are over a thousand flags that we have carried with us on this trek. Everyone joins in the project. Some are climbing trees to tie ends of the strands in the branches. By the time we have strung all the flags, they fly in multiple strands crisscrossing the terraced landscape providing a canopy of color and memories.
Before dinner this evening we conduct an American Cancer Society Relay for Life. We gather together beneath the flags. This is has become a sacred space that focuses our attention. We begin with a celebration. We celebrate each and every cancer survivor who is part of our group. The 17 with us are part of a group of 14 million in the United States. We celebrate not only their “survivorship”, but also the passion with which they are leading their lives as they find new meaning, purpose and compassion in their after-cancer lives. Justin, a 30-year-old brain cancer survivor sings the “Cheesy Cancer Song” that he composed after his diagnosis as a tribute to survivors everywhere.
The next part of the ceremony is “Remember”. We remember all those who have died of cancer. As we look above, we see the faces of hundreds of individuals on the flags flying overhead. Greg, whose wife died of cancer 7 years ago, gives a moving tribute to his wife, Jill. Her beautiful face shines down on all of us. He also reminds us of that cancer affects the whole family. He tells us about the love that Jill generated and the outpouring of love and support that his family has experienced. Jill lived with cancer for 12 years before she lost her life. It was a life of courage and compassion. Her death inspires him and us to live our lives with passion, purpose and compassion.
The final portion of the Relay for Life ceremony is about fighting back. We vow that those who have died will not have died in vain. Their lives will continue to inspire us to do what we can to help reduce the burden of cancer. Michelle, a 44 year-old breast cancer survivor talks about her journey with cancer and her journey back to a life filled with purpose. She has started a program in Ames for cancer survivors called Courage in Motion. She has found meaning and purpose in helping other cancer survivors as they transition from patient to survivor.
We come together in a group hug at the end of our ceremony. We are overwhelmed with emotion as we remember those whose faces we see above us and we are overwhelmed by the love and support we have witnessed on this journey in the Andes. As I look above, I see, in addition to the flags that we brought with us from the United States, the flags that Carlos, Guido and Alben made. There are Martin, Betty and Juan flying in the Peruvian sky. They remind us of our common bond and make us feel even closer to our Peruvian friends that are taking care of us on this journey.
Before dinner tonight Lorel, a 59 year-old breast cancer survivor from Des Moines and Amy, a 48-year old breast cancer survivor from California, team up to provide us with the blessing. Lorel and Amy are both Jewish. Tonight is Friday night and it’s traditional in the Jewish tradition to come together for a meal as sunset begins the Sabbath. Lorel and Amy have teamed up with Carlos to get the necessary items for the traditional blessing. They have come up with two candles. The candlesticks are empty Cusquena beer bottles, adding a local Peruvian flavor to the ceremony. Peruvian bread and wine are also present. Lorel and Amy explain the Jewish tradition of a Sabbath dinner and conduct the ceremony that brings us all together to give thanks to God and wish each other Shabbat Shalom as we share the bread and wine. Their voices chant the Hebrew prayers in a beautiful unison. This ceremony and the common bond that have brought us together begin another evening of fellowship in the Peruvian rainforest.