What have I gotten myself into? I cling to the side of the mountain as the path narrows and curves up the steep incline. The sun hovers over me and turns my once comforting jacket into a stove.
“Once you reach that peak,” the guide shouts, “everything else in life will be easy.”
Everything? Everything in life will be easy? Quite a statement. If true, I wish I had done this climb earlier, when I was younger. Maybe it would have changed everything. Maybe then the past two years wouldn’t have been so damn devastating. According to Munch over there, with his man-bun and “Life Is Good” t-shirt, a drawn-out, bitter divorce and bout with cancer are just child’s play compared to this peak. I look ahead. It does look pretty steep. I take a deep breath and step up onto the rocky ledge. One foot in front of the other. One foot in front of the other.
Victor and I had been married just over twenty-seven years when he made the announcement to me and our cat that he just didn’t want to be married anymore. Like it had nothing to do with me, but that it was the institution that bored him. He had used his fingers to make little air quotes around the word “married”. I thought about all the memories, all the time and places and people, that fit in between those quotes. He had thought about it for a long time, he said, the idea of ending it, of leaving. This was news to me. Sure, our communication hadn’t been the best recently, but I guess I just figured we had quietly slipped into those years of marital contentment where words weren’t necessary. Where you just enjoyed each other’s company without the hassle of having to talk about it. I knew it wasn’t great, but I thought we would find our way through it. And then, one night, he doesn’t want to be married anymore. Just like that. Cotton was draped across my lap and his purring was the only thing keeping me grounded while the rest of the world began to spin around me.
My first thought was how would we tell the kids. We, I chuckled to myself. How was I going to tell the kids? Jenny was in her last year of med school and had enough to deal with without a family crisis being thrown in the mix. I knew she would try to take it all on herself. Fix things. She had always been a fixer. I also knew it couldn’t be fixed. Vic had made that quite clear. And Thomas? He had just started his own family. What kind of message would this send to him as a husband and father?
“You can keep everything,” Vic had promised, sitting down on the couch beside me just a little too close. “The house, the joint account, everything.” My lovely parting gifts. Thanks for playing, here’s your lifetime supply of broken dreams and loneliness. But hey, it comes with assets. And that promise of his lasted for two weeks, until Cassie got involved.
Cassie was the woman who, it turned out, Vic wanted to be unmarried with. The first time I met her, three years prior, she was just another person at another benefit that Vic had said we had to go to. Not to say she wasn’t impressive. She was, very. She was elegantly tall with red hair to match any Irish beauty. She was perfectly put together, every detail seemingly organized by a team of image consultants and photoshop professionals. She had a strong command of the room and drew the attention of every male in the place. And the suppressed ire of every female. She was the legal counsel for the congressional candidate who we were there to support and kept herself busy with other important looking people. I had spent the evening talking about the proposed new town center park with some of the other wives while Vic participated in the boys’ club that hovered around the bar. I had seen Cassie on a few other occasions, but never considered her more than just another character in that political social circle. As threatening to my life as the overweight ex-mayor who attended black tie functions in stained, short sleeved button-ups.
Two weeks after Vic’s declaration that he wanted a divorce and the legal proceedings had begun, it became very clear that this was not going to be as easy as he had initially made it seem. Suddenly, he wanted everything. No, she wanted everything. Vic’s desire to leave me with nothing seemed to be spurred on by that redheaded temptress that was his new accessory at all of our meetings. She, apparently, had become quite accustomed to the life that she enjoyed with Vic and wanted to maintain this as they ventured into the new, more public chapter of their relationship. She wanted our money (how much had he spent on her already?), our vacation condo (how often had they gone there together?), and our house. And Vic wanted to give it all to her.
My foot slips and I quickly reach for something to grab. My moment of panic is cut off by the sudden jolt of Munch’s arms around my waist. Burly arms, thick with muscle. I demure slightly.
“Careful there, ma’am,” he says, righting me up onto the path and then hurrying up to the front of the group again. Ma’am. I hate that term. Not so much in general, but when it is used towards me. When had I become a ma’am? Ma’ams were old with graying hair and spent their days knitting next to doily-covered tables. I am out hiking mountains, damnit. Ma’am indeed. Who does this kid think he is?
“Mom, you can’t let him take everything.” I was visiting Jenny in Boston for the weekend to take some time away from all the divorce craziness. When I had first told our daughter about the divorce over the phone, she had immediately hung up. The dial tone was a harsh response that I had not been prepared for. I had stared at the receiver in my hand as if the object itself had betrayed me. She had called back minutes later, apologizing. She had panicked, she said. She didn’t really know how to take it all in. I told her I didn’t either.
“It wouldn’t be everything, honey,” I told her, sitting on the far end of her couch in her small, overstuffed apartment, sipping politely on a cup of coffee, the strength of which was only necessary for doctors at the end of a double shift or recovering drug addicts. “I still have my own savings account.” It wasn’t much, but it would provide for a while. “And I have a job.” Part-time, but still a job. It was enough. So, it wasn’t like I was completely destitute.
“Yeah, but still. It’s the principle of the thing.” Jenny had always been quite sensible in her thinking. No ties of emotion to the house or anything, just the dollars and sense of it all. She had taken some time off so that we could have a day of pampering. “You deserve it,” she had told me.
As we drove into the center of town, I found myself watching couples walking down the street. They all looked so happy. I thought back to when Vic and I had first been married and we would go out to dinner in the cute little cafés around our house. Or after the kids were born and we went on our “family outings” that Vic had insisted would keep us close. We had looked like that, hadn’t we? In love and happy. I had been. Maybe naïvely so. Had there been a point, ever, where it had been real for him?
Jenny parked in a small lot next to a brick, freestanding building that looked like something out of a colonial storybook.
“You’re going to love this, mom,” Jenny said, hooking her arm through mine and guiding me to the front of the shop. “I don’t get to do it often enough, but it has saved my sanity on several occasions.” Inside the salon, the rush of the city, and life in general, slipped away. I was standing in the lobby of heaven. Waterfalls flowed from every corner and cloudlike chairs beckoned us to sit, relax. Fresh fruit filled large bowls that topped golden tables next to trays of bubbly drinks. It was a tropical oasis. “See,” Jenny said as a smile crossed my face. “I told you.”
“My name is Liddy,” a petite blonde crooned in a soft whisper as she entered the lobby. “I will be your masseuse today.” She led me into a dim room humming with a sounds-of-the-ocean soundtrack and the scent of lavender. “Now, you just take your time. Go ahead and leave your clothes on the chair over there and cover yourself with the sheet. I will be right back.”
As I got comfortable on the table, Liddy returned and began warming up the oils. Minutes later, I was floating away on a sea of relaxation and letting everything from the past month disappear. Her hands gently broke through knots of frustration, anger, and self-doubt. It was exactly what I had needed at that moment. I was almost happy. That’s when Liddy’s right hand paused, and then pressed down near my armpit.
“I don’t mean to alarm you,” she said, still whispering, “but have you always had this bump here?” I reached my arm up from under the sheet and felt where she had been pressing.
“No,” I said. “I mean, I don’t think so. Haven’t really ever noticed it before.”
“Well, it’s probably nothing. But maybe you should get it checked.” There was no judgment in her voice at all. Just a kind whisper of a concerned mother. Worriedness settled in hard and happiness was gone. My mind stayed on the bump. I could suddenly feel it pulsing, thumping, radiating anxiety. I hadn’t enjoyed much of the massage after that.
“Now, listen up,” Munch yells back to the group. “When we get to that ridge just over there. You want to stay to the left.” We all look at him with silent nods. The man in front of me fidgets with his backpack, pulling on the straps and shifting the belt around his waist. I do a mental check of myself and my gear. I unclip the hose of my water pouch from my shoulder and clamp the nozzle tight between my teeth, taking in a deep gulp. “What side do you want to stay on?” Munch yells again. The wind is beginning to pick up and so some of his words are lost on the back of the group.
“The left,” the group responds in near unison. “Left,” I chime in, just out of sync, after letting the tube drop from my lips and swallowing my mouthful of water.
“Good. If you go to the right, it’s just a straight fall and I don’t feel like signing any death certificates today. I’ve already maxed out my quota for the week.” His humor is lost on us. He laughs anyway. But it’s so simple. Left you live, right you die. Why can’t the rest of life be that easy? You do everything exactly how you’re supposed to. You play by the rules your whole life. And still you can fall off the cliff, hitting all the rocks on the way down. And sometimes, several rocks fall on you all at once.
Back home from my visit with Jenny, two mammograms, three doctors, and a biopsy confirmed it. Stage three breast cancer.
“I would recommend a double mastectomy, just to be safe,” the third doctor said on my post-biopsy visit. His mustache balanced on his upper lip like a fluffy, white, suicidal caterpillar. “And then a full course of radiation.” The head of the caterpillar flicked upwards with the final words of his prescription. My mind couldn’t grasp what he was saying. The words just floated around me. I had heard these words before, but never directed at me. Things of this nature only happened on television or to a friend of a friend. A cousin three times removed. Not me. But now the words crashed into my world making everything else feel insignificant.
The surgery was scheduled and Jenny flew out to be with me. She stood at the end of my hospital bed reviewing my chart before they wheeled me away and that’s exactly where I found her when I awoke hours later.
“Looks good, mom,” she had said. “How are you feeling?”
“Like a weight has been lifted from my chest,” I said, not sure if the literal or figurative meaning was more accurate. Neither seemed to reach Jenny.
“Can I get you anything?”
“No, sweetie. I’m fine.” I shifted myself in the bed, trying to find a comfortable position.
“Okay, well, you let me know.” She paused and sighed. “By the way, he’s here.”
“Oh.” A tense awkwardness rushed into the room. I took a deep breath. My eyes darted around the room. I really couldn’t say what I was looking for. Escape?
“You don’t have to see him if you don’t want to.”
“No, no. That’s fine. I’m just a little -” Honestly, I didn’t know exactly how I felt about Vic being there. Should I be upset? Touched? “Surprised,” I finally said.
“Well it’s the least he could do.” She left the room and Vic entered.
“How you doing, Sue?” he said, pulling up a chair to the side of my bed. He looked casual, unconcerned, like this was a typical day for him. How was I doing? After everything that he had put me through recently, it took this for him to care how I was doing? Upset. That’s how I felt.
“Just dandy,” I replied.
“Well you look great,” he said, not even really looking at me.
I walk carefully to my left, around the break in the crest of the mountain. Don’t look down, I tell myself. Move fast, but not too fast. Steady. I hear the scattering of rocks bounce down the cliff face and I freeze. “You’re alright,” Munch’s words float up from the back of the group. I’m alright, I say to myself. I’m alright. I continue along the crest until the path widens and flattens out. I’ve made it. I glance back at the ridge, watching the last of the group find their way across. I can do this, I think, turning to look at the trail ahead. Just in front of us, the incline spikes and heads up into the clouds. I can do this.
After the surgery, I was noticing breasts everywhere I went. I noticed them on the girl scanning my groceries at the supermarket. I noticed them on the lady getting potato chips from the vending machine at the laundromat. But most of all, I noticed them on Cassie. Perfectly breasted Cassie. Sitting across from her in the conference room in the legal offices of Morgan, Mick, and Morall, I silently played a game of ‘real or fake’. Fake. They had to be fake. I ran my hand over the front of my ruffled blouse and sighed.
My legal battle with Vic continued on while I began treatment. He had offered to postpone things, being the oh so sweet guy he was. But I couldn’t. I had to keep going. I had to show myself that I could carry on with my life as normally as possible. And if that meant fighting two battles at once, so be it. The seriousness of each made me forget about the other.
I can see the peak. There is a cloud bank all around me and I can’t see much else. But there, in the very close distance, is the peak. This is the last stretch. And it’s straight up. I arch up onto the balls of my feet. I can feel a small blister beginning to blossom just on the outside of my big toe. I try to adjust my foot in my boot by rocking my body side to side. Blister or no blister, I am going to make it. I’m finishing this.
“Mom, are you sure you’re okay?” This was the third time Thomas had called that week. “I can come out there if you need me.” And that was the fourth time he had offered to come visit since my surgery.
“No, really, I’m fine.” Thomas was a worrier. Always had been. It would not help anyone having him pacing around in my house, fretting over everything in my life. I did enough of that on my own. “Melissa and the kids need you. I have plenty of support here.”
“Okay, but if you need anything, I can be on a plane tomorrow.”
“Thank you my dear. I’ll keep that in mind.”
A few months after I had finished my radiation, my divorce was finalized and I was starting to feel like myself again. Well, a new self.
“You know what you need?” Jenny said over the phone one night.
“May I remind you what happened the last time you told me what I needed?” Jenny let out a soft laugh.
“No, I’m serious. You need to do something to celebrate your new life.”
“Yes! You survived cancer. You’re single. Isn’t there something you want to go do to commemorate this new phase of your life?”
That night, I laid in bed thinking about Jenny’s question. This new phase of my life. Is that what this was? A year ago, celebrating was the last thing I would have wanted to do. And, I figured, when all the chaos of the divorce and cancer had ended, I would be able to just return to some semblance of my old life. But was that what I should do? Or, should I celebrate a new one?
We reach the peak of the mountain in a bank of clouds. The world is white around me and the rest of the group disappears as I walk to the farthest edge of the rocks. I stretch my arms up and take in a deep breath. It is quiet. Before me is complete blankness and, for the first time in over a year, I finally feel entirely at peace. And then, the view begins to change. It is as if someone has pulled the stopper from a bathtub. The clouds around me start to sink. I watch them drain down until they settle gently into the valley around the mountain. Standing here, I can see the expanse of the sky stretching out before me, punctured sporadically by other mountain peaks. I feel like I can dive right in and swim across to those other islands in the sky. I feel like I can bounce from cloud to cloud, safely landing in their soft, pillowy centers. I climbed this mountain. There isn’t anything I can’t do. Everything has changed.