The memory of mountains
A long time ago, I climbed a mountain with my mother.
It was back in the early ’80s, when she was only slightly older than I am now — hard for me to believe, even though I’ve done the math and know it’s true.
The mountain was Pikes Peak in Colorado. We climbed it from its most affable angle, on the side you never see, and we used a private secret shortcut that would take us there and back in just one day. My husband and some friends made up the group; my mother, the oldest there, had never climbed a real mountain before. But she’d recently quit smoking and started hiking, and she was terribly proud of her new lungs.
I had — and still have, two years after her death — a complicated, protective, insecure, tender, and resentful relationship with my mother. She was charming, intelligent, manipulative, moody, stubborn and beautiful. I was in my early 20s, with no idea how young and stupid I was. Or still am, for that matter.
Anyway. Mom heard about the hike, and wanted to come. I had no idea in the world how to say no.
It was a bright midsummer day, all green and golden and deep blue sky, and we walked up over endless land that rolled in a rocky wave to the top of the peak. There were hardly any trees — we’d started out near timberline — just open meadows and great lumpy boulders splotched with whorls of electric-bright lichen. My mother, who could never do anything without talking, kept up a vivacious stream of chatter as she chugged uphill.
Oh, my dear mother. I had no idea how temporary that day was. There was nothing to show me the future — warn me that my marriage was doomed, I’d never have children, I’d end up walking crooked and with one crutch. I had no way of knowing what lay ahead for you, either, how far you would travel beyond even the memory of mountains.
That day, Mom refused to admit she was getting tired; she quickly figured out the "Oh, look at the view!" trick experienced hikers employ when desperate for breath. I stopped whenever she did, of course. "Beautiful view," she’d gasp, and I’d agree, and if sometimes I thought small, snarly thoughts, I kept them to myself.
But dark, deep clouds were surging above us, and we fell far behind the others. My mother began to lean on me. The view got more and more beautiful.
"I don’t think I can make it," Mom finally said.
"We’re almost there," I said, and this time it was true. "Look at the view."
Pikes Peak is the only 14,000-foot mountain that comes with its own parking lot, gift shop and restaurant. Though I’d climbed it many times, I was always surprised to find tourists at the top, gawking away. ("You mean you walked all the way up here? Don’t you know there’s a highway?") Mom was blind and goofy with exhaustion, limping, sunburned and in need of a restroom. She slumped onto my arm; I bullied our way to the front of the line.
Mom was gone for a long time. I waited and fretted and wondered how we would ever get back down the mountain. At last she emerged and leaned weakly against the wall, closing her eyes.
But five minutes later, when I came out, my mother was laughing — standing in the center of a ring of admirers, straight and proud and glowing. "Oh yes," she was saying, "I do things like this all the time. It’s not that hard, really. Everybody should climb Pikes Peak."
"Mom?" I hissed in her ear. "What happened? I thought you were done for!"
"Well," she replied, "I thought I was, too, but while you were in the bathroom, this lady came up and asked me if I’d really climbed this mountain. And I looked at her and realized, by golly, I really did do it. I climbed Pikes Peak all by myself! And suddenly I wasn’t tired at all. Can we have our coffee now?"
So we had coffee and greasy hot donuts, and then we had some more adventures dodging thunderbolts on the hike down. By the end, Mom really was done for, and she spent the next few days in bed. But for years afterward, every time she told the story, she made a point of saying how easy it was. I always made sure to agree.
At the nursing home, not that long ago, I wheeled Mom’s chair outside so we could look at the mountains. They were different mountains, of course. Everything was different. And all the changes had come so fast; sometimes I felt out of breath in a whole new way. But I remembered my old hiker’s tricks. "Look at the beautiful view," I said. "Look at the mountains, Mom."
"Help," she said. "No. Help. Ma."
I chattered away brightly, sounding — oddly — a lot like she used to. Funny how that happens. "Mom," I said, "do you remember when we climbed Pikes Peak?"
"HelpNoNoNOHelpNo," she said, her voice starting to rise and shake and shiver and shriek in the endless heartbreaking wail of dementia.
Sometimes there’s no way to help a person climb a mountain. Sometimes there’s not much you can do about things at all. She didn’t remember mountains, you see. She didn’t, at the end, remember me, or even herself.
But I remember, Mom. And so I remember for us both. I guess that has to be enough for now. A long time ago, we climbed a mountain together. One of these days, perhaps, I’ll meet you on the other side.
The author is an artist, and also HCN’s copy editor.