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I sat in the fading golden light that spread out to touch every tree, every rock, and every soul in the Adirondack Mountains. It was my initial First Descents campfire gathering. A question was presented to break the ice, but most of us came to this place prepared to share our unique perspectives on the themes of our deeply similar stories. We were a circle of strangers soon to be friends, and we didn’t have to explain our laughter or tears. We came here to climb rocks and mountains and push ourselves into new places of body and soul.
After our initial cancer diagnoses, each of us had spent the last few years climbing beyond the crux of our young lives. Like climbing, surfing and kayaking, moving through cancer is an independent process. Finding ourselves at the bottom of what seemed to be an impossibly high mountain, each of us must truly walk the path alone. When you are in treatment, there is little else you can think of. Like climbing the rock face of a mountain, people from the outside can only make suggestions on how to move forward; they can only encourage you to be strong; they can only tell you to trust your supports. Ultimately the individual must have the presence of mind, while hanging from a rope, to face a challenge that is completely new. Whatever strength is needed must be found within. Only you can make the choice to continue. Only you can determine whether or not you have the strength.
When you are on the rock, there is no time for thinking of life anywhere else. There is only the challenge directly in front of you. But as soon as you push upward, another challenge is waiting, and over and over the process goes. A quest focused on upward movement and nothing more. Similarly, as you push through cancer treatments, there is little time to process beyond pushing forward. There is no time to understand the circumstances. There is no time not to be strong.
But on our first day of rock climbing with FD, we came to the top of our mountain. Each of us stepped onto the ledge and looked down. From the top there is no work to be done, you simply stand and view the landscape. You have already proven you have the strength to go up, now it is time to show you have the courage to look straight back at that challenge and recognize all that was at stake. It is a different view, a different set of emotions, a new perspective. This is where we are as we come to FD. Finished with the fight, now looking at the obstacle we overcame and wondering where to go from here.
As I look out over the lush mountains of northern New York, I wonder how dramatically these mountains would change if a raging forest fire swept through. The green would disappear, leaving only blacks and browns and greys. The vegetation would be destroyed, death would reign in a place that had once overflowed with life. Blackness would settle upon the mountains for years, yet the mountains themselves would remain. The seeds of the life that once thrived, would remain, waiting for the moment to begin again. From this mountaintop, I ponder a question I have been rolling over and over for months. When will it be my time to begin again?
So much of the life I knew before my diagnosis has been destroyed. Cancer wiped me clean both outwardly and inwardly. On the outside, my hair has grown and doctors reconstructed my body. Outwardly I have been restored. Inwardly, the seeds inside my soul are only beginning to break free from their shells and take root. They are still small and almost imperceptible. There is a tiny, fragile tint of green beginning to spread across the landscape of my heart. It is a tender growth that feels every pain and every joy with great intensity. It is a beginning. As I study these tiny growths inside of me, I wonder what they will become. Are they seeds of vines and shrubs that will clutter my heart and choke me, or are they the seeds of great Coastal Redwoods, released by the testing of my soul, to grow and connect and stand with dignity for the rest of my days.
At the last campfire of my weeklong program, I considered the falling rain, I listened to my peers and thought of the tears shared. I reflected on my week and how we threw our cancer into the river to be torn apart and sent far from us. I observed how each of us wears a new bracelet as a reminder that we are a part of a new family that will support and protect us. I thought of and how time on the mountain has offered each of us a new perspective. First Descents gave us a gift. I have moved from broken to inspired.