A few weeks ago, my brother and I agreed to summit Mount Timpanogos. I was excited for the adventure because I’d never climbed a mountain before. Even more, I remember Mitch tugging softly at my arm, deep in the evening shadow of Aspen Grove, as he pointed to this mountain and said, “Dad, I wonder what it’s like up there. I guess I’ll never know because my legs are so weak.” I hugged him softly and said, “Son, one day I’ll climb it and take pictures for you.” My sweet boy smiled and tucked his head into my arms.
The next year Mitch was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy and in less than a year he died. I forgot about my promise to Mitch because my heart broke and I was trying to keep him alive. Then, after he passed, I was just trying to survive grief. I’m still trying.
It wasn’t until my brother and I decided to climb it that I remembered what I told Mitch. I didn’t say anything to anyone, because it was a promise I made my son. I quietly printed a painting of Mitch and slipped it inside my backpack.
On our first night, we camped at Emerald Lake and I took a photo of little Mitch and said a prayer in my heart, “Hey Mitch, it’s Dad. I’m sorry I’m late … but I’m going to take photos for you. I hope you can see what I see.”
I learned a lot on this hike. Firstly, I learned that I can do hard things. I learned that I don’t like heights and I especially don’t enjoy standing on the edge of nearly thousand-foot cliffs. I learned that it’s probably a good idea to train for hard hikes – whereas I jumped in before I was physically ready. An indiscretion I’d pay for on the way down the mountain. We’ll get to that in a minute.
Despite the difficulties of the hike, I was inspired by the majestic beauty of earth. I loved the fresh air, mountain flowers, vast glacial valleys, and wildlife. Had Mitch he been with me physically, he would have been in awe of everything.
On day two, my brother and I reached the mountain summit. The view was breathtaking.
At the summit was also a small fiberglass storm shelter with autograph laden walls – I added the signature Mitchell’s Journey 2018. In my heart, I said, “It took me seven years to get here son, but we did it, Mitch.”
A few hours later, we were back at basecamp. My knee was starting to swell from a surgery years ago, and I knew I was going to be slow. I didn’t say anything about it but told my brother to head down the mountain ahead of me because I was not going to be as fast as him. As I started my slow descent, I began to walk strangely to compensate for my injury. Doing that made my legs incredibly weak. It was a struggle. What should have taken me three hours, took nine.
There were times I wondered how I could go on. I looked down the vast mountain valley, 4 thousand feet below and got discouraged. “Oh, Mitch, I don’t know how I’m going to make it.” But I remembered what my sweet wife taught me, “Just take the next best step.” So that’s what I did. I had to stop looking at the vast distance ahead of me and just concentrate on the next step. It made all the difference. Though I started to walk like a drunken toddler, I looked at the ground and said to myself, “Okay, I have the strength for one more step.” One step turned into two steps, and before I knew it 2,000 steps had passed – then I’d turn around, startled by the distance I covered. If ever there were a metaphor for grief, this is it. We can look across the vast valleys of sorrow and wonder how we’ll ever make it. That’s how I survive grief – one step at a time.
There was a point that my legs were so weak that I was sure I’d collapse at any moment – and I almost did a thousand times. My brother kept tabs on me via text. “How are you doing?” “Call me when you get to your truck.” “Are you okay?” There was a brief moment I tried to take a shortcut through some tall bushes, only to meet a 500-foot cliff. I wasted precious energy and water trying to climb up the mountain to find my way back to the trail – I made the same loop three times. I learned that uninformed shortcuts in rugged terrain are not a good idea. I texted my brother about my misadventure, and he became especially worried. I assured him I was okay.
By the time the sun was setting, my phone was almost dead, and I had to turn it off to conserve what little battery I had left – should a real emergency arise. Every step was a huge struggle. My awkward walk to preserve my knee obliterated my leg strength. I was literally stumbling over pebbles. I began to think about Mitch and other boys with DMD. There I was, looking at a simple dirt path, struggling to put one foot in front of another. Though I don’t pretend to know their struggle first-hand, my struggle with leg weakness helped me empathize in new ways. To a young boy with DMD, a simple staircase may as well be Mt. Everest.
As I found myself finally near the bottom of the trail, I turned my phone on to check my position on the trail. I then saw a text from my brother, “I’m on my way.” I texted him back, “I promise I’m fine. My legs are just really weak … I have less than a mile to go.”
At long last, with the mountain’s night breeze pressing on my skin, I looked down a dimly lit corridor of trees that led to the parking lot. My legs were jelly and getting to the parking lot was going to be a struggle. As I slowly exited the canopy of trees, there was a small grassy field separating the forest from the parking lot; and out of the corner of my eye, I saw my brother running at breakneck speed toward me. I said, “Oh, Doug, you didn’t need to come back. I was fine … my legs were just weak, that’s all.” He insisted on carrying my pack to my truck. Though I was exhausted, I noticed his eyes carefully studying me – looking for signs of trouble. Even when my 40-pound backpack was relieved, I found it difficult to take a step without the help of my walking sticks.
In truth, I became emotional at the sight of my brother running toward me with a look of deep concern. I was emotional not because I needed to be rescued – but because he cared enough to try.
A lot happened on this hike. I kept a sacred promise to Mitch. I learned I can do hard things – even when I’m not prepared for them. I was reminded that any difficult journey, including those of grief, is best traveled one step at a time. I experienced a new level of empathy for children with muscle wasting diseases like DMD. I learned that naive shortcuts can be dangerous. And perhaps, most tenderly, I witnessed what brotherly loved looked like when I saw my brother running toward me at the trails end.
Though in this photo I’m standing on the summit of a mountain … in a way, I’m also standing on a different summit – one that can’t be seen with mortal eyes. From there, I see life differently; and in the haze of the distant horizon, I see taller mountains yet to climb. I can reach their summits, however slowly, one step at a time.