A Return to Writing as Grief Evolves
About four years ago, I made my debut on the Appalachian Trials blogger page, with fiery optimism and about zero experience. I posted, irregularly at best, while I “prepared” to hike the AT. By “prepared,” I mean I thought about and waited for the day to come. I didn’t post much for that reason, I didn’t feel prepared, and my grand ideas of hiking extensively to get my body ready were totally lacking in execution. Turns out, just like I had read but wasn’t willing to believe, the physical preparation is the least important part.
I may not have felt at the time that I was preparing myself mentally for the journey, but as it turned out, I was. The AT was just about my only topic of conversation for nearly a year before I ever stepped foot in Georgia. I answered hundreds of incredulous questions, some of them funny, some insulting, and hardly any of them original. The constant consideration of the trail and my place on it was exactly the preparation I needed. The thing that I did not prepare for was the death of my mother, on my third day on the trail.
On March 24, 2015, I woke up at Hawk Mountain Shelter and set out for a nine-mile day with some new friends I had just met. When we reached Gooch Gap, there was trail magic going on and the famous Miss Janet was there. We set up our tents and got our bowls out for free hot chili before I turned my phone on. I had been having such a good time out in the woods, enjoying being disconnected from technology, even if only for a large portion of each day.
When I turned on my phone, it dinged over and over, new message: Dad, new message: Dad, new message: Dad. For most of my early 20s, the only conversation I had with my dad was via my mom; we almost never communicated directly. So I knew something was up before I read the first message. It was a series of messages requesting that I call, call now, call as soon as I get this message, come home as quickly as possible.
I called, my mom had deteriorated quickly since being admitted to the hospital the day before, and she probably wasn’t going to make it through the night. I was in shock; she had been sick with cancer for more than two years when I left home four days previous, but this was unexpected.
I asked Miss Janet if she knew how I could get back to Atlanta as quickly as possible and she offered me a ride. Not long after, another hiker and I got in her van and we headed south. I got to the airport late that night, but wasn’t able to get a flight until the next day. I spent the entire night crying in the Atlanta airport alone, on the phone with friends who were willing and able to talk to me into the night.
The thoughts that went through my mind in this moment ranged from anger, pain, and surprise at my mom’s death. Disappointment and loss for the hike that I had been planning for over a year, that was supposed to be a formative experience for me. Embarrassment and fear of being alone and vulnerable in such a public and uncomfortable place. The confusion and profound loneliness of becoming a motherless child, void of identity and without an anchor, adrift. It is difficult to feel all of these feelings at one time and the numbness that ensued was unlike anything I had ever experienced.
I walked into a different home than the one that I had just left a few days before. I felt lost and detached, neither here nor there. I was unable to stay present with the family members who had come to grieve; all of our losses felt profoundly different in my mind.
A few days after I got home was the memorial service, at which a distant family member asked me, “When are you going back out on the trail?” The question awoke something in me; I hadn’t even considered that possibility. In my mind my trip was over as soon as it had started. How could I possibly spend the next six months hiking through the Appalachian Mountains? How could I abandon the daughterly duties expected of me in this time? What even were the expectations of a motherless child in the months after her passing? Where is the script for this act?
It dawned on me that there wasn’t one. Nothing is expected of me. Nobody here needs me to do anything, and it became clear pretty quickly that my presence wasn’t needed. But then a second series of questions came through. Am I still a 24-year-old hoping for a coming-of-age story? How does the death of my mom change my journey? Is it a selfish pursuit to be trying to “find myself” under these circumstances? Will I be able to engage the trail community with this burden on my shoulders? Do I want to remember my AT hike as that thing I did when my mom died?
I gave it a lot of consideration, and perhaps for lack of better option, I decided to go back on the trail. My dad agreed to take on the support position that my mom had originally taken on, much to his initial disapproval. Ten days after my overnight in the Atlanta airport, I was landing back there again.
At the time, I did not want to be the girl that was hiking the Appalachian Trail because her mom had died. That was not my original purpose, but life has a way of redefining your purpose when you aren’t expecting it, so there I was. I struggled with my reality for the entire 70 days I spent on the trail in the summer of 2015. But in the end, I was the girl who had lost her mom three days into the trail. Who else could I be?
I did not, however, have the strength or wherewithal at the time to continue blogging. How could I write about the wonderful new friends I had made? The pains of lying down at the end of the day with a body so sore I couldn’t sleep? The joy of a grungy shower in a disgusting budget hotel room? The fullness associated with eating an entire day’s worth of calories in one sitting? How could I express these things when they were all overshadowed by grief, when the times that I forget to feel grief were quickly followed by guilt. How does one write the story of the three months following the death of the person they love the most, and who loves them the most, while avoiding that subject altogether?
I wasn’t ready in the summer of 2015 to share the story of my grief with the strangers I had only just introduced myself to. And I don’t know that I am ready to share that story in great detail now. But time has passed and life goes on and I have new stories to share, and some old. Some about hiking and some about love and some about life and some about being a motherless child.
Hopefully, some of you will come along.
PS: I’ll figure out how to add photos for the next one. 🙂
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Hi Christine. Death is part of life and, as you get older, the passing of people close to you will become more common. My parents died years ago, both having suffered from mental and physical decline for some time. Wish I had appreciated them more while they were alive and in their prime. I got prostate cancer (successfully treated) and had some memorable conversations with staff and patients at the British Columbia Cancer Agency. Some could be cured, or at least treated but, sadly, some could not – just the way it is. To be, perhaps, somewhat blunt, your mother is gone, you are in the prime of life and should make the most of that. Do as much and as many different things as you can, while you can. Walking is always good, especially when morally restless and wanting to think about life. Two nights ago, had a rather uncomfortable dream about bears all around. Went for a hike the next day and saw two – perhaps confirmation of a vision. Seize every day while you can.