My husband and I are planning our next vacation. My daughter, who will be a month old in a few days, is sleeping. And I am getting the video camera ready to go do something essential — taping a video I hope she will never see. It’s the tape of what I want my last words for her to be if I die.
Let me explain: My husband and I are mountaineers. We spend the precious, expensive vacations we have climbing the finest of God’s creations. It is an itch I must scratch (ever since I was young and my parents introduced me to it). I have heard it called a compulsion, an unstoppable urge. I embrace the famous words of George Mallory, who when asked why he would risk life and limb to climb Everest, just replied “Because it’s there.”
Our personal life goal is to achieve the Seven Summits together (the highest peak on all 7 continents, culminating in Everest). Throughout pregnancy, people told me “”It will be different now that you have a child. You won’t want to take such risks after they’re born.” And I think a part of me wanted to believe that.
But less than a week after giving birth, I was back to scratching the itch. Frequenting the forums to determine what peak would be next, bundling her up to go to the gym for my regular workouts. I realized I could not stop pursuing my life’s dream. I know some people will believe such a hobby is too risky for a parent. It’s unreasonable, has a high chance of failure and a possibility of death. Yes, I know. But I also know that it’s far worse to let dreams die.
If I stopped climbing for my daughter’s sake, I would grow over time to resent her. I would hold it against her that a misplaced sense of obligation not to die kept me from attempting to achieve. I’d rather take the risks that come with climbing and live fulfilled than not and live a resentful life. It’s worth the trade.
But how to explain the decision to risk your life to a child? That’s not so easy.
Once my husband and I decided that we are going to keep climbing, we did have to face the harsh reality — mountain climbing is dangerous. The more advanced peaks you face as you progress are increasingly dangerous. Many things can kill. On some level, you need luck to survive. And the more you do it, the greater chance you face that luck will run out.
So here I am, making a tape for her in the event I do not return. First, I want to tell her I love her. Second, I want to explain to her why her mother chose to climb a mountain despite the risks. Maybe she’s angry with me because I did something risky and unnecessary. But what I want to say is that it is necessary.
People tend to think anything not essential is unnecessary, but I want her to understand that at least trying to achieve your dreams is as essential to life as food or water or healthy love. Giving up your dreams is a death of the heart that ensues. I never want her to experience that. But I know what she’ll think: “Mom, why couldn’t your dream have been safer?”
Even if she never has to experience my loss, I know when she is old enough she will worry during climbs. And I’m not sure I can give her a satisfactory explanation. I want to say that on some level, we don’t get to pick the experiences that thrill us, fill us with satisfaction of the highest degree and make us find a stronger, braver self. I like to think that I didn’t choose the mountains; the mountains chose me. I want her to understand that climbing, for me, makes me a better mom because it helps me realize the power of myself, which makes me more able to be a capable mom for her.
Dreams are important. They are what will drive you forward, keep you going when stuff is hard and why you might have to do things along the way you don’t enjoy just to get to a point where you can do what you love again. If she is fortunate, she’ll have multiple loves in her life — a family, a partner. But she’ll also have the love she cultivates for herself by doing things she enjoys and give her a sense of power. And that is critical to life.
I want her to know that risk is worth it, absolutely, if the risk is taken in the pursuit of happiness and joy. That is what I am doing — I am chasing joy and happiness. I want her to know that even in her short month of life, she had brought me more satisfaction and pride than I imagined. My love for her is what makes me want to impress on her that risk is good and that her parents never stopped chasing their dreams, and neither should she.
The greatest thing I can give to her is the command to pursue her own dreams, whatever they may be. And to give her that, I must give it to myself first. That was what I am trying to do. That is all I can say to her. And up the mountain I go.