The mountain looms up ahead.
On either side the gigantic orogeny of the Rockies rise up toward the heavens wanting to touch the sky.
The steep angle of the road causes the burn in my legs and the pressure in my lungs to increase more and more.
A drop of sweat falls on my left thigh, sunburnt from the hem of my shorts to the top of my knee, right where the sun hits it all day long as I ride my bike on Day 4 of the guided cycling trip I am on.
Every so often I dare to look up, hoping that maybe now a slight leveling of the road will appear but I am lying to myself… it only gets steeper and why I think it’ll ease up I don’t know, especially when I’ve been forewarned during our debriefing that this is THE toughest ride of our trip; if we choose to, the day’s total distance will be 125km with our destination the Athabasca glacier.
Death. The Grim Reaper has come for my mother in the form of the ruthless disease that is terminal cancer.
I haven’t had a close encounter with Death before, but now, with my mother’s terminal diagnosis, we are on a course collision, bound to meet and I feel Time ticking away.
The Grim Reaper, usually envisioned in black as a cloaked figure, face hidden, a scythe and mysticism surrounding him does not appear this way to me at all.
In fact quite the opposite.
Death is invisible; a non-physical presence that is palpable; an electrified, oppressive force that makes me feel there is never enough air. Death appears in sterile white examining rooms, in weighings and measurements of tumour size, in the pretense of acting strong and composed.
Death is certain, powerful, silent, intimidating and mockingly calm.
The Central Conflict
How on earth do I face Death and cycle the Rockies at the same time?
Both are gargantuan and require all my resources. I am not prepared for this. When I paid my deposit for a cycling adventure in the Canadian mountains months earlier, I had no idea I would also be facing one of the most difficult times of my life. I don’t know how to do this, how to push my body’s physical limits while carrying the unbearable weight of my mother’s imminent demise.
I am literally between a rock and a hard place.
The Inner Conflict
I must surrender to watching my mother deteriorate and experience pain levels unimaginable to the human mind. I must watch my parent lose their independence, their self, their life, their dreams and hopes. And I must watch all this and not do a thing because I can’t. I cannot stop any of this; all I can do is observe in compassion and offer all my love, my time and presence, my heart and words. It truly feels intolerable.
The Physical Experience. The Pain.
I keep pushing down on the pedal, slowly, with even force.
The route is so challenging that looking up is not an option, all my focus has to be in powering through, in movement.
I grip the handlebars with forearms tensed, torso bent forward, braced against the frame and wanting nothing more than to stretch open the front of my body, to ease the ache in my low back.
Sweat is dripping down the sides of my forehead and into my eyes.
My lungs feel heavy, inflated, and on fire and all I want is for this feeling to stop.
Why do we humans love vastness? Is it because it looks powerful? Or majestic? I’m not sure, but the Rockies are something one needs to experience; their beauty is ineffable and their immensity cannot be captured in words or photos.
Before me I see millions of years of history thrusted upward at inconceivable angles; near vertical layers of sedimentary strata that have been folded, molded and shaped by forces my simple mind finds difficult to comprehend. What my eyes behold is beyond breathtaking and awe-inspiring.
Now add in colours. Magnificent colours.
Blues – Turquoise lakes so opaque and intense, you swear some trick is being played on your eyes, they don’t look real. The sky. Ah… another dazzling shade azure.
Yellows – flowers and fields along the road.
Greens – every shade in trees, pastures, fields and valleys.
Reds – wildflowers and railway cars snaking through looking like a toy train set, the scale of the mountains is that immense.
Whites – countless snow-capped peaks, slow-winding glaciers and puffy, glorious clouds.
How the Conflict is Resolved.
I decide to be as present as possible.
In this moment. In this laboured breath. In this downstroke.
I return my attention again and again to the present; to the gravelly detail of the black asphalt, the sound of the chain, my rhythmically rotating legs, and the feel of the tiny pebbles shooting up at me from the front wheel.
I decide to put things in perspective. I imagine that with each tough push of the pedal I am adding one extra day of life to my mom’s short one.
IF I could enact that barter with the universe, how many such downstrokes could I do? How difficult would each be?
All of a sudden the mountain is not just conquerable and rideable, the experience of physical pain is transformed for me.
What is this in comparison to adding life to my sweet mother? Nothing! This is a joke! This keeps me moving forward, slower and slower perhaps, in my granny gear, but spin those tires I do.
“Life, life, life, life..” I keep grunting in my mind…
On the last day, we camp at Honeymoon Lake. A stunning location I have visited before and that has left an enduring impression upon me.
As the sun sets I go out and sit alone while the rest of the group helps with dinner prep. I can’t believe I am seeing this place again, I have longed to revisit it and finally I am here.
As I take in the vast, grand silence I am enthralled by the mountains’ breathtaking beauty, solidity and “there-ness”. I become acutely aware of my own smallness and insignificance by comparison.
I think of all these mountains have seen, the innumerable seasons and weather permutations, all the lives come and gone and I realize these cliffs and crevasses will tower long after I am gone from this earth…
It hits me then… that the next time I visit these ridges, my mother will no longer exist, but these mountains will.
I staunchly hold back the tears during dinner but after I enter my tent and zip up my sleeping bag, the tears begin to flow. I never move or make a sound the whole night long, I simply lie on my back allowing the silent tears to stream down my face. It is one of the most painful and longest nights of my life. I do not sleep at all and the tears continue to flow even as the sun comes up…
10 years later, What I Now Know is…
…that life’s purely joyous moments go by fast, just like the downhills of a bike ride; even though the grade of the slope is the same on both sides of a mountain, climbing takes a much longer time and you’ll feel each aching, cursing, pained millisecond because it takes all your effort, focus, and will to defy gravity;
…that the moments at the top give you glimpses of the vastness of it all, the larger view unseeable otherwise, the view that inspires, elevates and enlivens you;
… that the way down the mountain is glorious. It’s fast, fun, beyond words. The feeling of freedom and flight is the height of human existence… it requires no effort, gravity does all the work. You are dumbfounded by joy, by speed, by the view whizzing past, by the lack of pain, the fact there’s no more agony and toil but only free fall. Effortless glee;
… that due to the speed and the fact that you’re working with, not against, gravity, the downhill moments experienced seem fleeting, over in a fraction of the time it takes to climb up; before you know it you are at the bottom of the mountain – in between two peaks, at a low point with all the work ahead, looming before you;
…that being at the low point is not only conquerable, but welcomed; and the only real opportunity of a transformative experience.