Today is my mom’s birthday. She would have been 67-years-old. She’s been gone now for almost 11 years, but time is not linear. This is the story of her 50th birthday, and the first time I truly saw my mother. This is the story of a woman finally letting go of everything that ever held her back. This moment lives in my heart forever.
He told us to take off our shoes and go barefoot.
We’re standing at the base of a ragged, pointy, rough looking mountain in the middle of the summer way up in the Australian Outback. Deep country. It’s hot. Sweat is rolling down the sides of my face. I feel strands of hair sticking to my head under my baseball cap.
The mountain trail ahead of us does not look like something you would want to climb barefoot. The jagged rocks covering the path look like dozens of knives dancing together in thick green coils of wild bush.
My mom is standing next to me. She glances down at her feet, swollen from the heat, stuffed in her grey tennis shoes, with little white soggy socks poking out over her ankles.
“This mountain will make you remember who you are,” the guide says in his thick Australian accent.
He reminds me of Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter, in his khaki roughed-up shorts with big baggy pockets hanging heavy on his thighs. His matching shirt is only buttoned half way, and his tanned, blonde hairy chest is staring back at us. His hair is wild, his skin thick and leathery, his eyes determined to show us something he understands.
It’s my mom’s 50th birthday today. We thought it would be fun to take a trip of a lifetime to Australia and find a personal guide to take us out to the outback and show us things most American women don’t ever see. To show us the Aussie country, take us on sacred land, and go on an adventure. Just the two of us.
We’ve been with this guide for three days now. We’ve bathed with Aboriginal people in a lake on their land. We flew in a private helicopter taking in the views from above the mountains. We’ve slept under breathtaking lightning storms and ate kangaroo tail. No doubt this is an adventure of a lifetime, and so far we’ve survived all of it. The two of us California girls, far from the luxuries of home. But this, climbing barefoot up this mountain, seems a bit too much to ask.
My mom looks at him questioningly, but before she can argue with him, he catches her eye and says, “Especially you. You need this. Take off your shoes.”
His demand takes her back for a moment, and tears immediately flood her eyes. Not tears of fear, or anger, or worry like she’s going to cut her foot and fall on this barbed mountain, but tears like she’s just been seen. Like this tan, burly, foreign man who knows nothing about her just saw her, and knows exactly what she needs to break free of everything that has ever kept her back from herself. He sees all her vulnerabilities, all her self-doubt, and he’s calling her out on it.
I feel her. She’s naked. Bare. She can no longer hide. Her eyes continue to well.
Her tears move me. I want to cry too.
Even though she’s turning 50, and I’m only 21, less than half her age, her daughter, the one she has spent a life-time protecting from pain and grief and loss, in this moment there is no distance between us. I feel her completely and I understand her tears. I understand this moment. She is me. I am her.
She reaches down and unties her shoes. She slips her feet out of her white ankle socks, and carefully places them on the boulder next to us. I reach down and do the same.
The guide has already taken off his boots. Three pairs of shoes rest alone at the bottom of mountain.
It’s just us. Two women and a guide on this noiseless mountain.
We follow him, slowly, cautiously up the trail. Baby step by baby step. My mom is in front of me. I am right behind, holding her hand.
She hides her eyes behind her sunglasses. But I can see. Tears. With each step we take more tears fall. Each delicate step is moving her deeper and deeper into herself. This trail is a pathway into her soul, and this stranger of a man has called her forward. Called her towards herself. The knives beneath our feet slice her open.
Memories start flowing. She starts naming each pain, each grief, that has been trapped in her heart.
Losing her mother. Losing the pregnancies. Breast cancer. The mastectomy. She names each one in between breaths. In between tears.
We keep moving up the mountain. The rocks gently burn the soft soles of our feet. The burning is medicine.
She spirals from childhood to her marriage to the loss of her babies. Everything, all the pain is happening at once. She spirals, moving deeper inside. With each movement my mother is unwinding and unraveling something she’s been holding onto for years. Maybe forever.
She suddenly stops, drops her head toward her chest, and her whole body wails. She doesn’t hold anything back. The sounds of her grief echo off the stone mountain. I don’t think she can stop herself. I don’t think she cares. The emotion is taking over. Her body begins to shake like a wild animal that’s been chased and threatened. A wild animal shaking off trauma. A lifetime of trauma being released, being liberated.
The guide looks back at her, takes her in, and continues climbing upward. He knows something we don’t. He’s not afraid of this wild woman on the mountain letting out deep soul wounding. Letting it all out.
The divorce. The half-written thesis. The never-filled desires. Her body. The hysterectomy. The cancer. The cancer. The cancer.
She wails again. It’s coming like waves. Unraveling. Unwinding. Un-wounding. Spiraling through each memory. Her mother. Her father. The loss of her childhood. The loss of her marriage.
The loss of herself.
She doesn’t have to name any of it. I know. I feel it all move through me too. Leaving us here. Setting us free.
She stops again. Her body sinks down to the hot rocks below us. She pulls her knees up to her chest, and wraps her arms around her legs, holding herself. Catching herself. Here. In this moment.
I sit next to her. I wrap my arms around my legs too. Bare feet married to the grey rock beneath. We gaze back down the mountain trail and take in how far we’ve come. We take in each jagged rock we’ve made our way over and through. We gaze out over the valley and absorb the depths of the land beyond us. We feel how there is something much larger than us leading us on this path.
The guide stops several feet above us. He too sits, and quietly gives us space.
We are silent now. No more crying. No more memories. Just stillness. Just a deep inner knowing and understanding of what just happened. The only sound now is the wind, wrapping her arms around both of us. Drying my mother’s tears.
We sit in silence. Breathing. Slowly. Together. Stopped in time.
And then, as fast as it all began, and without speaking, we rise back up. We turn back down, and carefully make our way back to the bottom of the trail. Our shoes quietly await.
The guide says nothing.
We sit to put our shoes back on. Our feet are red with life. No cuts, no bruises, no blood. We say nothing.
There is a quiet knowing between us. We never speak of that mountain again.
I am humbled. I am honored. In that moment I got to witness my mother for real.
She let go.
She let go of her mask. She let go of the woman who she is not. She let go of the burdens, of the broken pieces, of the paralyzing self-doubt. She let go of the martyr. Of the grief. Of the resentment. She let go.
And she let me see her.
Something about the earth, her feet meeting the bare rocks and being touched by their power, woke her up. It gave her permission to scream it out, to shake it out, to release the wild primal woman that was abandoned and left in the shadows of grief. So long ago.
Something about the heat and the pain beneath her feet allowed her to open in ways I never saw again.
In that moment she was free.
And in that moment, her opening released me too. She allowed me to move forward from that place. To heal from that place. She healed both of us. She let go for both of us.
On that mountain, she turned 50. Liberated and unapologetically herself.
Happy Birthday Mom. I love you.