Tomorrow, the day after this posting, marks the first anniversary of my beloved husband’s death. I can hardly believe it is true. One year.
It feels like yesterday. It feels like a lifetime ago.
So much has changed since he died. I have done many things, in spite of my crushing grief. I have visited my home neighbourhood in Indiana, and sat with pigs and donkeys on an animal sanctuary in Spain. I have travelled to Whitby in Yorkshire and to Ireland and to Snowdonia in Wales. I have spent days and weeks in meditation, study, and reflection with my sangha teachers and friends. I have helped form a grief support group with a widowed friend in Sheffield. I have written for this blog.
And some days, I have not been able to pull myself up from the grief. I have stayed on the sofa with the curtains closed. I have slept for hours throughout the day and into the night. I have had periods of insomnia where I could not sleep more than an hour or two at a time.
Such has been the landscape of my grief. Activity and exhaustion. Periods of joy and hope followed by deep sadness. Despair and loneliness and friendship and gratitude and love.
A few months ago, I decided to mark this anniversary by doing something big, to honour my husband, and to raise money for a fund at the Buddhist Centre that was set up in his name. Stan believed strongly that the teachings of Buddhism, the Dharma, should be accessible to everyone. It always bothered him that our retreats were too expensive for working class folks to attend them. We have beautiful retreat centres, in the UK, and our retreats are a time of study, reflection, meditation, building friendship, and renewal. They help us reconnect with what is important and to learn more of what the Buddha taught. He wanted to set up a fund to help people who couldn’t afford it attend these retreats. When he died, the Buddhist Centre used the donations people made in his memory to set up this fund, and they named it the Stan Kukalowicz Bursary fund.
So I decided to hike to the top of a mountain, and get sponsors for my hike, to replenish this fund. Initially, I planned to do this on my own. It never occurred to me to ask people to commit to do it with me. But when I mentioned it to my study group, several of them offered to join me on the hike. We set up a donation page and publicised our walk.
Mount Snowdon, in Snowdonia, is the highest peak in England and Wales. At 3560 feet, it is subject to unpredictable weather, winds, and torrential rains, and its peak is most often hidden in mist and cloud. There are six paths to the summit, and I chose the second easiest one, the Snowdon Ranger Path.
In the weeks leading up to this hike, I found myself wondering what on earth I was thinking when I committed to such a feat. This peak may not seem high, in American terms, but the ascent was steep, and the conditions could be tough, and I had not disciplined myself to training regularly for it, beyond a few day hikes in the moors and regularly using the stairs to my fourth floor office at work. How was I going to do this, I wondered, if the sadness of the anniversary overtook me? Why did I not make space for myself to feel the sadness, and sit with it? What possessed me to plan such a physically strenuous event? After I had advertised my plans to everyone I knew, and with donations trickling, and then pouring in, I could not exactly cancel it, either.
I spent days obsessively checking and trying to predict the weather. Initial forecasts showed a breezy but dry day with good visibility. My friends and I were hopeful that the weather would be kind to us.
We began our journey at 10 a.m. Two hours in, and half way up the trail, the weather took a turn. Clouds began to form at the top of the peak, and winds swirled around us. We struggled to climb the switchback rocky trail as the winds gusted up to 40 miles per hour. Wiser people might have turned back. But we had committed to get to the summit, and we wanted to take a photo, when we got there.
Along the way, a seagull hovered near us. He followed us as we walked. In our brief moments of rest, he’d perch upon a rock near our stops.
On a journey that would normally take a couple of hours, we were still climbing the mountain, at four. We put one foot in front of the other and braced ourselves against the biting winds. My sangha friends, and one of their partners, much fitter and quite a bit younger than me, lovingly acted as my ‘sherpas’ on the trail. They retrieved my water from the pack, when I needed it, and urged me on with love and encouragement when I wanted to quit.
After four and a half hours, we made it to the summit. We huddled together in the mist and wind and had our photo shoot, snapped by my friend's partner, who had the courage to remove his gloves to take the picture for us. The seagull stood on a step near us, walking sideways to anchor himself.
We made it to the top. We raised over £700 for the Stan Kukalowicz Bursary Fund. We overcame the most adverse conditions to complete our harrowing journey. I couldn’t have done it without my friends.
This hike to the top of Mount Snowdon was a sort of mirror of my grief journey, this year. I have kept moving, with one foot in front of the other, when I wanted to quit. I have had times when I could not see what was in front of me and I have had to keep my head down and press on. I have climbed through the most difficult conditions, and I have had the support and loving kindness of friends to help me through it.
I have made it through my first year. I have made it to the top.