I don’t usually do this. Share things straight out of my journal, that is. But this year when I began my masters in Creative Writing at Stonecoast MFA to help me craft Finding Petronella into a full-length book, I met a woman named Rose. Rose had a boy she called her son who died on tour in Afghanistan. He’d volunteered to take another man’s seat in a mission, and his vehicle was blown apart. She was in the program to write her grief into something big and beautiful.
“His smile was big; his laugh was infectious; don’t tell anyone but he loved Randy Travis’s song “Forever and Ever Amen.” He loved to boogie down earning him the nickname, “Boogie.” He could and has eaten a plate of cheeseburgers; he hated insects; he lived to play basketball; he didn’t like beach sand between his toes, but would swim in the surf until his lips were blue; he wasn’t crazy about hiking, but he loved the view from the top,” wrote Rose.
Behind the CVS on Congress Street in Portland, Maine, there is a military processing center that holds stones engraved with the names of fallen heroes. It’s called The Summit Project. People can check out a hero from the “rock library” and take him or her up a peak.
It’s the magic time before everyone stirs. The sounds of yelling and car horns and electronics and motors are replaced with pigeon calls and the ticking of a clock. The ten-year-old boy in the bed across the room is beginning to stir. He just asked me, in Spanish, if I wanted to watch T.V. He doesn’t know I bring him and his sister card games and kites when I visit so they turn it off and live a little harder.
You and I, we’re in Lima, Peru. We’ve got a big exciting adventure ahead of us, but most of my big exciting adventures in Peru begin with a visit to this family. I can’t tell you why they’ve accepted me so. I wandered into the restaurant where they all work 4 years ago, and they let me stay after it closed. I played ukulele. They played cards. We watched a T.V. show where women and men in skimpy outfits try to knock each other off platforms with a rubber stick. I showed them a card trick, and messed it up. The next thing I knew I was running through fountains with their children on Peruvian Independence Day and they were putting me to bed in fleecy giraffe pajamas that belonged to someone half my size. I don’t know how it happened, Deon, but somewhere along the line I developed a deep love for these people, and felt it returned. The same thing happened with you and Rose’s family.
A typical visit to my Peruvian family goes like this:
The cab drivers will want to take me to the tourist district of Miraflores, but I’ll tell them “La Victoria.” They’ll cock their heads and frown and roll up the windows. That’s how I know it’s a dangerous part of town. When we pull up to the restaurant I’ll go inside and my Peruvian family will kiss me on the cheek as if I was just there yesterday and serve me a huge plate of arroz y mariscos. If there’s a kid they’ll be in my lap, on my phone, touching my hair, asking for a game, strumming my ukulele. The women and I will laugh and catch up as we sit and fold napkins. I’ll speak just enough Spanish to carry the conversation, until I say something horrible like “your hands are fat” instead of “your arms are full” or “can we take a penis?” instead of “can we take a picture?” I’ll bump my head on the doorway to the bathroom, and when we walk through the city 10-year-old Nedved will laugh because they’re all under 5 feet and I’m 5’11” and everyone is staring. We’ll taxi across town and take the bus back, and I won’t ask where we’re going, or why, or how, because I know better. It’s like a trust fall.
When it’s time to leave, they’ll say, “¿quando regresas?” (when do you return?). That is the question they ask me the most. I’ll shake my head and tell them I don’t know. But I always return. That’s how love works.
I know you died when you were 30, Deon, which is one year older than me. Most of the stories I’ve read through Rose’s writing are from when you were in high school, so that’s the image that remains in my head. I wonder how you’d feel right now, how far out of your comfort zone this would be. When we walked through La Victoria last night, Mari insisted her brother carry my backpack so no one tried to steal it.
“Ohh dear. Lo siento,” I said, forgetting the word for heavy. “Esta una roca.”
A rock in my backpack. They thought I was kidding. So did airport security, both times.
The city is waking up. Nedved has succeeded on turning on the T.V., Mari is blending papaya in the kitchen, music drifts in through the window. Today, I’ll meet the group of students I’m guiding through the Andes, and you’ll meet the TSA, again. We will fly to the Sacred Valley to prepare. I’ve done this trek 3 times already, but with a summit at 15,700 feet, it’s never a small thing.
Your presence makes it that much more special; your weight not a burden, but a glorious reminder to pay attention.
Sacred Valley, Peru
Tonight while I was packing my duffel for the trek tomorrow, I took out the keys to my apartment back in Portland, Maine. They felt ludicrous in my hand. We are about to enter a place, my friend, where such things don’t exist; where the mountains roar as they shoot up to meet the sky and your breathing comes fast and shallow and the strange stars at night are enough to open you.
I want for Rose to remember, through you and me and this journey, how strong she is. I want her to feel just a tiny bit of the love she poured into you every day returned. I want to empower these young people to feel capable, worthy; to look outside themselves at the world, and wish to make it better.
So many people go through life asleep to the beauty around them. All I ask from you, dear Deon, is to keep me awake every step.
First Camp: 12,303 ft.
You and I are down by the river right now, watching the mist evaporate off the Andes into blue sky behind them. This is my place: the water. On it, in it, near it; it is where I feel connected to the wiser parts of myself. It can hold me, ruin me, give me life and just as easily take it away. It runs, so my restless soul doesn’t have to.
Your stone was collected from Pease Brook, the stream that runs behind Rose’s family farmhouse. This stream here is fed by the Chicon Glacier. Pumahuanca pacha, it’s called in Quechua. It runs down the Lares trek, through the small communities of Andean people who still live in thatch-roofed huts constructed before the Incas. From here, I chose a smaller stone. It will travel next to you, up and down these mountain passes, until it gets to Rose.
Second Camp: 13,123 ft.
i found god in myself
& I loved her
i loved her fiercely.
Third (and final) Camp, near Cuncani Village
Don’t be fooled by how I’m acting. Of course hiking to 15,700 feet is hard, Deon. Especially when it’s hailing and you’ve had to put four kids on horses because most of your group is some degree of altitude sick. But when you’re a guide, you don’t get to think about that. You’re cold because you gave away your last pair of gloves. You can’t breathe because you’re coaxing students up a mountain. You’re hungry because you gave a kid your last snack. You just have to pretend you’re not.
Maybe this is why I didn’t realize what I was doing until we reached the summit and I pulled out your stone. Without warning, my eyes started to well up with tears. I turned my head away so no one would see.
Inspired by you, the kids summited with their own rocks. Each one symbolized something (or someone) powerful that would help them push through their barriers, and something that no longer served them, which they vowed to leave behind on the mountain. Our Peruvian guide made an offering with their stones to Pachamama (Mother Earth).
I put your stone right in the middle, and stood for a long moment. I wasn’t thinking about the hike down, or the fact we’d get to camp in the cold dark with 16 miles in our tired feet. I wasn’t thinking at all. I was feeling you with me, hearing your laugh. Randy Travis played in my head. I wondered what I was doing on October 22nd, 2008, the day your vehicle was blown apart; you, a volunteer, sitting in another’s seat. I wondered at all the tiny choices that get us to where we are. I wondered who got to live.
And I stood, grateful for the rain.
You are so loved.