And then there were 18
The cemetery was the last place I expected to be the Sunday before our departure. The message came through on Friday that our friend and fellow climber Vered’s father had passed away. A sick man, he had been battling the complications of a long-standing war with diabetes. At our Thursday night farewell, a few days prior, Vered had confided that she had felt torn about the trip. On the one hand, she was bonded with us, we were like family and the climb meant so much to her. She had even taken her mother training with her that morning up the infamous Westcliffe stairs. On the other hand, her father was desperately ill, how could she leave him?
I stood close to several of the other climbers from the group at the funeral. The atmosphere of love was palpable. We all felt sorrow for our friend. She had lost so much – the trip that has meant the world to all of us, the adventure, the chance to participate in a project that has inspired and ignited the imagination of an entire community and of course saddest of all, her beloved father. At a Jewish funeral, the comfort that is extended to the mourners is represented by the formation of two lines by the funeral attendees. Those present, form two columns which flank the mourners passing through the centre as they leave the graveside. As they walk, words of care are extended.
My heart broke for my friend as I watched her pass with her family through the supportive columns. And then a strange thing happened. I remembered how Vered had said to me that she just wished that the decision about whether or not to cancel her trip with us was taken out of her hands. Inexplicably, the sadness inside shifted a little and next to it, settled a small space filled with something like acceptance. This mountain journey has a whole heap of lessons to impart. For those of us who are so intent on controlling our environments, of needing to account for every detail in frenetic and over-stuffed lives, there is a degree of relief that comes with letting go. So often I find myself anxious or stressed about things I have absolutely no control over. At those times when I learn to just release my hold over the things I can’t change anyway, in the giving way, there is an incongruous sense of peace rather than the sense of defeat one might expect to feel.
After the funeral, I took a slow walk down to the gravesites of my maternal grandparents. It felt like the right place to be after all, on the verge of such a momentous journey. I sat between the two graves, and as is our custom, placed small stones along the rim of the tombstones, to show that I had visited. My eyes blurred with tears as I asked them to watch over me and the group. I prayed for a happy journey for all of us. I expressed a wish to undertake the climb with dignity and the hope that I will be able to withstand our challenges with a measure of resilience and good cheer. I asked my beloved Bobba and Oupa to hold my hands in the dark, and to guide me and my fellow climbers safely. I asked them to help my friend Vered to be comforted by her family at this difficult time of loss.
It’s a funny thing life. The numbers in the group have fluctuated up and down. There were at one stage 20 of us. Now there are 18. In Hebrew, letters have numerical values. The numerical value of the number 18, corresponds to the letters that represent a word which spells “Chai”, meaning life. In this moment of passing, as one dear friend loses a parent from this life, and leaves the group – bereft of her friendship and companionship, something else emerges: a new life, a different group, with a mission and a composition of its own. We pay tribute to our beautiful friend Vered and her family. We honour her with this climb and pray that as we ascend, so too will we fulfil our mission to bring hope to the many families and women who will benefit from this initiative. May we bring renewal and new life to all we touch through this project. I look at my fellow climbers. What a group! Determined, vibrant, supportive, clear eyed. We have trained so hard, we have prepared so well. We are ready! The mountain is waiting and we are on our way. Onwards and upwards.