A very wise man once told me, “we should do things physically that mirror what we’re feeling emotionally.” My past year, emotionally, was marked by high highs and low lows- an emotional roller-coaster. In a year of grief, I felt emotions that can’t be confined by the parameters of language. It was the most excruciatingly painful year I’ve ever lived, yet it was also the year I began to acknowledge and appreciate the life and love around me.
The idea of a mental/physical challenge echoed in my head as I thought of what I would do for the anniversary of my brother’s passing. In a way, it was an anniversary to be celebrated; I had made it a year without my primary support system even though I’d assumed Ike would always be around to catch me and push me forward. I survived. I was okay. It would be an empowering day, but the day wouldn’t come without pain. Damn, I miss Ike.
I didn’t want to spend the day surrounded by others grieving. Although there have been times where I’ve only wanted to be surrounded by people hurting from the same loss, the pain is never uniform and therefore makes it difficult to relate. I needed space to sit with my emotions without the influence of others who were grieving the same person to a different beat.
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro felt like something Ike and I could still do together. It was something we were supposed to do together. The last time I saw Ike, as we sat in Starbucks after a yoga class, we discussed my upcoming trip to backpack Patagonia. We agreed that once I’d survived that adventure, we’d book the next one. We’d climb Kilimanjaro in the summer after my graduation. He died two days later. My trip to Patagonia was cancelled and climbing Kilimanjaro was added to the list of things Ike would never get to do.
I made Scrooge look like a holiday enthusiast on Christmas. Anger, resentment, and sorrow replaced my usual Christmas cheer as memories of Ike’s passing decorated the house instead of tinsel and lights. I was hostile, and it took everything going wrong in one day for me to realize that the holidays were awful because I was behaving like so. Thankfully, I got all the negative and unproductive emotions out of my system and left for Kilimanjaro a day late but not short of a Christmas filled with love.
Day 1: Dallas to Doha to Kilimanjaro (because time isn’t real when you’re traveling)
- I can’t believe I got a new passport in a day. God bless America
- I cried so much prior to my new passport photo that my eyes changed shapes. My new passport compared to my old one looks like a before and after black tar heroine ad
- I feel like super woman flying internationally alone. I can navigate myself across international waters… I can do anything
- My favorite thing to do in the airport is pretend like I’m going to buy the expensive creams in duty free. I sample an eye cream, a serum, and a face cream then walk away smiling without buying anything
- Fell asleep in Dallas. Woke up in Doha. The flight attendant was appalled I slept the entire time. She told me she checked my pulse to make sure I was still breathing
- Shared a cab to the hotel for my layover with a middle-aged man from Beirut who told me all about the development of Doha in light of the upcoming football tournaments. He’s a Chelsea fan. Didn’t tell him I don’t speak sport
- 4 hours in bed trying to sleep. Kept getting up in half hour intervals to scrummage through the snack bar. Ate the Cadbury bar, then the pringles, then the nuts, then the second tin of pringles, then the skittles, then attempted the licorice a few times before deciding I’d be better off hungry
- Shared cab with a red headed lady from Dallas back to airport. She just adventured Asia for a month. She’s excited to eat Mexican food
- No one next to me on the plane to Africa. 3 SEATS TO MYSELF
Day 2: Arusha
- Landed in Africa. Had to wait 4 hours in the visa line. No air conditioning. I smell horrible
- Watched sassy French couple cut entire line and make it out in half the time. I attempted then got called out immediately
- Driver from Team Kilimanjaro picked me up and drove me to hotel
- So many sunflowers everywhere and cows wandering around the streets like lost children
- Best hibiscus tea upon arrival at Onsea House!!!!! And the entire place looks like a tree house
- Trek leader Asthumani met me at the hotel to check my pack and run me through the logistics of the next day. What a nice guy. I trust him. I think he’s concerned of my hiking ability
- He left and I immediately began panicking about malaria medicine. WHAT IF I GET MALARIA?
- SHIT, I don’t have a written will
Day 3: Day 1 of trek
- Didn’t sleep a wink last night. Am feeling jet lag and nicotine withdrawal
- Thank GOD a man yelled on a speaker throughout the night to remind me to pray
- Still scared about malaria
- Asthumani is late picking me up. I was ready by 8:00 sharp. BUs arrived at 8:30
- My group? 15 African men who are there solely to help us get up the mountain, two other back packers, and myself.
- Atul- Male. 49 years old. Originally from India but currently lives in Philadelphia. Father of two kids. Divorced. Intelligent and talkative. Runs marathons and iron mans. Has done numerous serious treks. Has been preparing for Kili for almost a year.
- Vivek- Male. 41 years old. From India. Lives in Bombay. Divorced. Father of two cats. Intelligent and introspective. Has done numerous treks. Climbed Everest a year ago. Signed up for Kili a year ago.
- Cameron- 23 years old. From Texas. Lives in LA. ADD and talkative. Has done a few casual backpack trips. Signed up for Kili a month ago. Bought everything for the trip the day before my flight.
- Only two of the guides can speak English. The rest only speak Swahili
- I was NOT informed it would be a 6 ½ hour bus ride to the mountain
- I feel tired, car sick, jet lagged, and would kill for a cigarette and some skittles
- Our bus breaks down and we have to hike an extra hour uphill to get to the trail head. I am delirious
- Have seen only one other backpacking group- a father daughter duo from North Carolina. They are completely matching
- We hiked 3 hours up a plateau to a base camp through a terrain that looked like a classic hike in the woods
- I chatted with Atul the entire way up. He is climbing for the thrill and adventure. I am climbing to honor my dead brother. He doesn’t get awkward when I say this (in softer terms)
- Atul is a poet!
- I am the only person on the mountain with a manicure
- Today was easy! I’m going to make it to the peak of the mountain
Day 4: Day 2 of trek/ anniversary of Ike’s passing
- Weight on my chest when I woke up and realized it was the 30th. Jet lag? Nicotine withdrawal? Exhaustion? Grief? Delightful combination of all? Splendid!
- Vivek is a smoker. He has a cig before we take off. Hand rolled. I want one so badly, but I won’t
- Vivek hikes alone and walks swiftly. Atul and I walk together and do the “polepole” method (“slowly” in Swahili)
- Atul spoke of his life- how he loves adventure and finding ways to improve himself, of his aspirations- to run the 7 major marathons and how he was training for the upcoming one in Tokyo, and Buddha -the ways in which he agrees with his wisdom
- Atul asked me if there was anything I’d like to say about my brother and/or my experience with losing him. I spoke, uninterrupted, for almost an hour
- I laughed as I told him that Ike didn’t always like me. In childhood, I was annoying and a brat and all those clichés a little sister can be all the reasons you don’t want her around. Then we grew up and, I don’t remember when, but we became best friends. He slowly changed from being the older brother I admired, through the crack in his bedroom door, into the person I was constantly texting, my main confidant, and my most respectful advisor. In a lot of ways, he was still the leader in our relationship, but he had come down from his ivory tower and needed me just as much as I needed him- for advice, for entertainment, for companionship.
- I was proud explaining how Ike was the most respectable person I’d ever met. I would have said that even if he wasn’t my brother. He was humble. He was selfless. He was whip smart. I would have chosen him to be my friend if I wasn’t lucky enough to be his family. Everything I do for the betterment of myself I do with him in mind. I didn’t just love Ike, I admired him. I was in awe, constantly, of his intelligence, his strength, his individuality. Does every little sister think of their big brother as the most amazing person in their life or was Ike just special? He was my hero, my advocate, my best friend. Then one day he was just gone. I’m still getting used to a world without him.
- I talked about the depression I experienced in the months following his death. I was so bleak I could barely feel anything but sorrow. I didn’t even realize I had been depressed until the fog of his death finally lifted and I began to feel emotions other than sadness and confusion. I remember feeling gratitude and joy 3 months after his death. I remember the first time I felt hunger 4 months after. I remember the deepest spout of anger I felt 6 months later as I screamed at his tombstone in pure daylight (I won’t discuss the eggs I threw or yelling I did not in light of Ike’s death)
- I explained how slowly recovering from Ike’s death taught me a new fragile, softer, deeper way of being.
- It was so rare for someone I didn’t know to let me speak openly about my deceased brother. Typically, a new person changes the topic once they realize there’s pain there. Most people are afraid to hear of hardship. Atul wasn’t. I was grateful he let me speak my mind. I needed to speak Ike’s name out loud
- The human value of kindness is incomparable
- Over 5 hours, the hike went from enclosed woods to open terrain with a spectacular view of Kilimanjaro in the distance
- I am already so dirty and I don’t care
- I refuse to brush my hair the entire time I’m here
- I can’t wait to answer “19,000 feet” when people ask me “what’s the highest you’ve ever been?”
- These are the most vivid stars I’ve ever seen in my life
Day 5: Day 3 of hike
- I must have been a real asshole in a past life because my favorite thing in the world is to hike and be in nature but I’m allergic to all things green and outdoors. God bless eczema cream and antihistamine
- 5 hours at a gradual incline. My surroundings look like I’m in outer space. Breathtakingly beautiful. I LOVE THE THRILL OF LIFE. I have so much more to explore after this adventure
- Atul, Vivek, Asthumani, Frederick and I (all the English speakers) hiked as a team. It was nice being all together
- Frederick loves to sing, and I love him for that
- The altitude is making me feel like I’m on laughing gas. Whenever I stop walking and stare into the distance, I start to hallucinate
- The only way I am not making it to the top of the mountain is if I have to get helicoptered off because I am ill or injured. Where would they take me? This isn’t the middle of nowhere Colorado. This is the middle of nowhere AFRICA
- Oh shit, I didn’t even tell my family the name of the group I’m backpacking with. If something horrible happens while I’m up here, they’ll have no way to reach me. WHAT IF SOMEONE ELSE DIES?
- No one else will die. Deep breathes. One foot in front of the other. Listen to Atul explain old Indian folklore
- Vivek is a fucking character. Has a few cigarettes every time we take a water break. Has been hotboxing his tent
- In an effort to remain adequately hydrated I ALWAYS have to pee
- Our entire group danced once we made it to base camp. Uninterrupted dancing for half an hour. I swear dancing is better than any therapist I’ve been to
- Atul took a nap before dinner and Vivek and I laughed ourselves to tears over something so insignificant I can’t even remember what it was. Altitude is a wild. I am so not getting enough oxygen to my brain
Day 6: Day 4 of trek
- FIRST DAY OF THE NEW YEAR
- Nowhere better to be. I’m starting 2020 without WIFI and deep in nature. I’m so happy to be here
- All the hair that can grow on my body is long
- We’ve hiked above the clouds for a day and a half now. It’s cold to hike through them
- Today looks like we’re hiking through mars. To my left I can see a sky full of clouds below me and below the clouds is Kenya. To my right is a postcard view of Kilimanjaro
- I have sung Africa by Toto, out loud, start to finish, upwards of 8 times today. I’m so impressed no one has told me to fuck off. Vivek is on backup vocals and the air drums
- Toto has never actually been to Africa. Posers
- Kilimanjaro, in fact, does rise like Olympus but not above the Serengeti. That line is geographically innacurate
- African philosophy of “polepole”= slowly. Mindfulness. Actions with a purpose
- Whenever I’m not singing, I’m reflecting on the past and planning for the future
- I HAVE DEVISED A 50 YEAR PLAN
- Walked 8 hours around the mountain
- Atul has the best stories and loves to ask questions you can’t possibly give a final and uniform answer to, like “what is friendship?’
- We debate these topics vehemently
- NEW YEARS PARTY
- We sing and dance at base camp and pop OFF with a bottle of sparkling grape juice
- Zoom Zoom, our chef, even baked a cake! He didn’t have frosting, so he used mayonnaise. I genuinely liked it
- Malaria pills are giving me weird dreams. Unfortunately, no dreams of Ike. In a year of losing him, I still haven’t had any dreams of Ike I can remember
- To turn over too quickly in your sleeping bag is to lose your breathe and get light headed. That’s how high we are
Day 7: Day 5 of trek
- Every time we have a meal, we have a spectacular view of Kili
- This is the most luxurious backpacking experience I could have imagined. I only carry my day pack and I’m served 3 meals a day with 3 courses each. I had no idea it would be like this
- We hiked 3 hours uphill and gained crazy altitude
- We hiked VERY polepole
- Sang ‘in the jungle’ practically nonstop on the way up
- Asthumani bribed us with chocolate to walk faster
- Base camp is the highest we’ve slept and will sleep the entire trek
- BIG DAY TOMORROW!!!!!!!
- We have pizza for dinner at 4 pm and get in bed after. We’re waking up at midnight to climb to the peak. I feel so many waves of emotion about the trek coming to an end and finally going to the top
- Will I make it?
- Will Ike be up there?
- 8 hours is a long fucking time to hike in below freezing temperatures
- I really wish I had a written will
Day 8: Day 6 of trek/ PANDAMONIUM
- I barely slept
- By midnight, we were up and moving on up the mountain
- It was freezing cold from the start. Below freezing temperatures to be exact. It only got colder
- For the first hour, I tried to crack jokes and sang the entirety of The Climb by Miley Cyrus multiple times. Then I really started to feel the altitude and sang it in my head
- Vivek was practically sleep walking and I kept having to push him forward or make sure he wouldn’t slip off the cliff
- Atul was constantly feeding us words of encouragement. Bless
- Frederick was singing in Swahili. I would hum along when the chorus got repetitive
- In the second hour, I got violently ill and had to be sick off the side of the mountain in intervals. It took two hours for my body to digest the Imodium and begin to feel better
- 8 hours later, we reached the first peak just as the day was breaking
- I was cold, bitter, and grumpy before I looked around and appreciated where I was. The beauty of my surroundings instantly warmed me up
- I think this is what Heaven must look like, except my Heaven is warm and everything is bouncy and there’s not the blood of strangers on the ground
- Another thing they didn’t tell us previously, there are 3 peaks on the top. The first one is Gilman’s point, the second is Stella’s, and the third is Uruhu (the roof of Africa)
- It took us nearly two hours to get from Gilman’s to Stella’s
- At Stella’s Point, you see people coming and going from the main peak. It felt like an alternate universe. Not one person coming down from Uruhu looked excited or happy. This should have been a sign of what was to come
- It took another 45 minutes to get from Stella’s to Uruhu
- PLOT TWIST!!! Windstorm at 19,000 feet! I had my arms linked around Asthumani and Vivek. There was nothing except ice around us and we kept having to stop to brace the wind and pray it wouldn’t blow us off the mountain
- Asthumani asked me if I was okay or if I wanted to turn around. I laughed and said, “at this point, I would rather die than turn around 15 minutes from the peak.”
- We made it to the top and I started crying under my balaclava. Then my tears turned to icicles on my eye lashes and I decided to save my sentiments for a later time (one where my life wasn’t at risk)
- We stayed at the top for less than 10 minutes. Vivek and I raced back to Stella’s, arm in arm, and I kept seeing my short life flash before my eyes every time we had to stop to brace the wind
- Once we made it to Stella’s we erupted in laughter. “They really should have a sign from here that says, ‘stairway to hell’ or ‘this path will blow you away!’”
- From Stella’s, we began the downward decent. 8 hours straight downhill. WOOO!!!! Every step feels like my legs are breaking. “How much does it cost to helicopter down?” “How fast can it get here?”
- At the end of our 16 hour day, I was euphoric. Everyone at the final camp had made it to the peak. We were all dirty, exhausted, and had wind burn on our faces, yet we were all thrilled and giddy to have made it up and, more importantly, down
- It feels FANTASTIC to be horizontal
Day 9: Day 7 of trek
- We’re up at 6 and walking by 7:30
- I would have promised my first-born child to someone if they offered a trade for a helicopter ride down
- I ended up running down because I was so ready to be done
- Surrounded by the most beautiful and lush jungle
- By 9:40, I was laying in the grass with Vivek. He was having a victory cigarette. I was having a victory Pepsi in a glass
- By 12:00, we are in the bus on the way to drop me off at my hotel. Vivek and Atul were staying further up the road
- It began pouring rain. We sang Africa by Toto one more time. I felt like a hormonal pre-teen secretly letting a few tears fall as I looked out the window
- Will I ever see any of these people again? Each man gave the most incredible show of humanity over the past few days. I was a young, blonde girl alone in Africa and never once felt scared, unsafe, or unsure. I was so grateful for my group and heartbroken I’d have to say goodbye
- Realistically though, who lets their child go to Africa alone?
- Just before we got to my hotel, Asthumani admitted, “I thought you were going to be a real headache this trip. We were worried. But you ended up being a real pain reliever.”
- Atul, Vivek, and Asthumani got out before me once we reached my hotel
- I thanked the rest of the porters and said “asante” ten times. We all high fived as I got off
- Vivek was already halfway through his cigarette once I got off the bus
- We all embraced and promised to keep in touch. I hope we actually do
- I blew them all a kiss as the bus peeled out of the driveway and they faded out of view
- Back in my hotel room, I got in the bathtub and stayed there until I turned into a human raisin
- I took off Ike’s pin for the first time since I got to Africa
I climbed Kilimanjaro to physically mirror the mental challenge I’d experienced in a year without Ike. Fucking idiot. Had I forgotten how painful that year was mentally? Grief, anger, and confusion presented themselves in the form of jet lag, nicotine withdrawal, and altitude sickness. I had moments of excruciating pain- periods of prolonged exhaustion, dizziness, and confusion. But I never wanted to stop. Every time a negative thought popped into my head, so did Ike. I’d imagine him being there, physically, and it would make me press on, one step at a time.
There was something somewhat supernatural about the way I could feel Ike’s spirit with me the entire way up. I never stopped thinking about him. I thought of what I missed about him- the way could pull me out of any kind of pain and make me laugh or feel stupid for letting something disrupt my peace of mind. I thought of how passionately he lived- how he never stopped learning new things or making himself a better person. I let silent tears fall as I hiked and thought about the things he’d never get to do- get his PHD, have a family, run for public office. I felt sorry for myself thinking of all the things I’d have to do without him- everything. I kept walking because climbing the mountain felt like one of the last things we could do together. A tiny part of me felt like he would be waiting for me at the top.
There was truly no better place to process my previous year. It was just me, my group, and a whole lot of open space. I never once put headphones in. I never even thought to turn my phone on. Instead, I thought. I processed. I mentally noted all the habits, mindsets, and people I would choose to leave in the previous year and how I could improve myself going forward.
I chose to let go of all those stupid little things that come with grief that seem insignificant but hurt like hell if you fixate on them for long enough- like the fact that when I got a new phone all my texts with Ike were deleted. Or that I’d forgotten to save more of the voice memos he’d sent me. Or that the birthday card that Ike and Carter had sent back and forth, for years, was stolen out of my car before I made it to the post office. I processed my painful memories from the last year, ones that were keeping me wounded and heavy- hearted, as I endured the pain of climbing the mountain. I turned my pain into strength and kept putting one foot in front of the other as I realized I had to get through it to get over it.
My last night in Arusha, I sat on the balcony of my hotel eating dinner alone. To my left was a French family of 7 who had barely looked up from their devices the entire meal (the dinner was 6 courses or nothing and the service, though peaceful, was slow). To my right was an awe-inspiring view of the town, the neighboring mountains, and a majestic array of botany that made me feel spiritual. I’d left my phone in my room and sat in silence sipping tea, waiting on the next course, and trying to get my emotions onto paper before the euphoria of reaching the highest point in Africa faded away. The only noise was the hum of nature, the clinking of silverware to plates and glasses to table, and the mumbling of “merci” as the family next to me passed around the salt, bread, and wine.
The silence was broken as I erupted in hysterical laughter. I laughed then slowly started to cry. God. That French family must have thought I was insane, but I couldn’t control myself. I realized that I had done all of this for Ike when he actually would have fucking hated it. The guy despised heights. He didn’t even like balconies. He would have been hostile at 19,341 feet on a frozen mountain during a windstorm.
Thinking back on my trek, I get an overwhelming feeling of joy from the spontaneity of it all. I love the adventure of life. I could shout it from the rooftop, but my alley- view balcony will have to suffice. I’m still not sure how to exist in a world without Ike, but, I realize now, I’m not sure how to do a lot of things. Like bake. Or do my taxes. Hell, I can’t even spell restaurant without sounding it out in my head. There’s always going to be hardship I’ll have to overcome. Losing Ike was the worst thing I could have imagined happening, and it did. And I’ve survived. What next?
If anything, Ike’s absence means I have more to learn, more love to give, more life to accomplish in his honor.