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 shortcut that would take us there and back in just one day. My mother had never climbed a real mountain before. But she’d recently quit smoking and started hiking, and she was proud of her new lungs.
I had — and still have, two years after her death — a 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. Mom heard about the hike, and wanted to come. I had no idea how to say no.
It was a bright midsummer day, and we walked up over endless land that rolled in a rocky wave to the top of the peak. There were hardly any trees; just open meadows and lumpy boulders splotched witH electric-bright lichen. My mother, who could never do anything without talking, kept up a stream of chatter as she chugged uphill. 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 my mother, either.
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. “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 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 one of the few 14,000-foot mountains 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. (“You mean you walked all the way up here? Don’t you know there’s a highway?”) Mom was goofy with exhaustion, 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 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. And suddenly I wasn’t tired at all.”
We celebrated with coffee and hot donuts, 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.
“Help,” she said. “No. Help. Ma.”
I chattered away, sounding a lot like she used to. “Mom,” I said, “do you remember when we climbed Pikes Peak?” “HelpNoNoNOHelpNo,” she said, her voice starting to rise and shiver and shriek in the 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. She didn’t, at the end, remember me, or even herself. 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 her on the other side.
Diane Sylvain is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a staff illustrator and copy editor for the paper in Paonia, Colorado.