On June 17, 2014, I was still hospitalized after undergoing lung surgery a week before to remove a tumor and small section of my left upper lobe. The tumor turned out to be benign (no cancer) because the cyber knife radiation in January had worked, after all (yay!), but a duct was accidentally nicked during surgery and was now leaking into a chest tube that should have come out days ago. On this day, a radiologist in Kansas City performed a super rare procedure to seal the super rare complication. I was soon able to eat after no food or water for five days or so. The chest tube was removed, and I went home, a little traumatized but cancer- and leak-free.
June 17, 2021, seven years later to the day, I climbed a mountain in flip flops.
The poetry of doing this post lung surgery is enough, but for me the satisfaction went even deeper because in the words of Leonardo DiCaprio to Kate Winslet in Titanic, “You just seemed like, you know, more of an indoor girl.”
(Full(ish) story follows. Skip to the end for the point.)
How it Happened
We went to Hawaii this month – the first time for all of us (my husband, three boys, and me) – though our travel companions (Michael’s family) had been before. One day, on Oahu, Michael and the boys decided to climb Koko Crater Trail, where old railroad ties create 1,050 stairs straight up (just kidding – it’s not precisely straight up) to the top of Koko Crater. I went along for the ride but hadn’t packed hiking shoes (on purpose, mind you) and couldn’t possibly keep up with one fit, teenager, two guys in their twenties, and the outdoors-fluent guy I married. I don’t like to miss all the fun so I planned to climb 25 railroad ties or so.
I loved climbing as a kid. I couldn’t resist rock piles or great climbing trees back then so I had to experience at least a little of this railway stairs experience for that little girl’s sake. I planned to go as far as I felt like in flips flops, enjoy the view from there, and then wait for my men to come back down and join me where I’d landed.
Go ahead of me, I told them. My intentions ended nowhere near the top so they certainly didn’t need to wait for me.
These are my flip-flopped feet 200 railway stairs in. TWO HUNDRED when I was thinking maybe 25. Do you think I could quit then? I mean, I wasn’t struggling any more than the super fit people I saw ahead of me or coming back down. I pressed on, which was strange because I sorta pride myself on not being competitive. If someone wants to beat me at something, I let them. I have so little desire to over-extend myself that I’m willing to not be the smartest or fastest at basically anything. It’s not an attractive trait, I realize this, but it’s highly non-confrontational and makes life pretty smooth and enjoyable, really, so it works for me.
My men at this point were far ahead and had NO idea I was still moving vertically. They had no reason to believe it because I had told them I had no intention of getting to the top, I had no water, and I was wearing flip flops.
I’m shortening this story to say that some guy named John met me on his way down and had extra water bottles, which he shared with me because A) I looked like I was dying and B) obviously a girl who climbs a mountain in flip flops does not bring water. Everyone I met on this trail used words like “brutal”. They were breathing just as hard as me, sweating just as much, and awestruck by my footwear. When I stopped (very, very often) to catch my breath, I caught it quickly, and my spirits soared because I realized how much I’d been underestimating myself, let alone my precious, magnificent lungs that had cancer removed from them three different times.
My 20-year-old, Andrew, texted me when I had about 100 steps to go. “I’m still climbing,” I told him, and he was flabbergasted. (Not his words – but I’m pretty sure it fits.) I met them at the top shortly after, and we took the pics and took in the view. We caught our breath, braced ourselves for the treacherous descent (I saw people fall ten railway ties or so as I headed up so I knew the climb down would be mentally but not physically that much easier), and we left the mountain to the constant chatter of annoying me whose post-mountain-climbing high was magnified one hundred and fifty percent by the news from my mother that according to Facebook’s memory feature I had climbed this mountain seven years to the DAY after sacrificing part of my lung to fight cancer.
I will make this story even shorter with the punchline (skip to here if you just want the point). I’ve said it before, but I really love when I am super wrong about myself and what I can do. It’s a wonderful, inspiring surprise.