The Joy of Diving

fishThis year marks the beginning of my 64th turn around the sun and I plan to celebrate by jumping in the ocean. I could achieve this goal in the shivery brine of Vancouver ‘s coast, but this time I will pamper myself and let the warm salt water of Indonesia take me under. If you have never been diving, you are missing one of life’s greatest pleasures. Take the plunge and go for a dive.jacks

Diving is a marvelous sport for people of all ages, but as importantly, it is a magnanimous sport, forgiving the older generation their physical infirmities. Diving does not care if you are old or young, fat or thin, have good knees or bad, it accepts you as you are. When you are properly trained and therefore confident, being underwater levels the competitive playing field into one where individuals of differing genders, physical abilities and ages can participate together. The ocean, in its cradle of buoyancy, takes all comers.

Some of my most vibrant memories come from experiences underwater. I can close my eyes and recall a curious sea lion, the size of a camper van, hovering beside me, visualize the flying manta rays dressed in the formal black and white of a man in a tuxedo, the garish sea slugs and the ubiquitous reef fish, scattered on the coral like bright confetti.nudi

I can remember the awesome sight of a hundred muscular hammerheads, sleek like Corvettes, hovering overhead. These memories are accessible behind my closed eyes and I activate them whenever I need a peaceful moment or the relaxation that hastens sleep. My memories from the ocean are meditations, doorways to a profound world, one where I experience a strange admixture of feelings – harmony, wonder, insignificance and reverence.signalg

When I am too old to get to the high places that I love, when the thin air and rough terrain of the mountains extract too high a price, I will still be able to go to the warm salt ocean and throw myself in. It is there that in spite of my age, the ocean will lift me up and I will feel reborn.smile

Photos taken by my old and new diving friends. Thanks to:

Dr. Ian Marsh, Susan Dair, Dr. Peter Miscik

 

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An Absent Child

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For the first time in 25 years, my daughter was not home for the holidays. For me, her absence is a phantom limb, a muscle memory of a part now gone, the burden I carry and recognize as a mother’s longing for an absent child. When your daughter lives overseas, she might as well be live on the moon.

 

My far away child exists in a perpendicular universe, one I can intersect and visit on my iPhone or computer. It is a two-dimensional place where I can hear her voice but not her heartbeat, one where I see her face but not her soul.

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In my parent’s generation, the current tools of technology were yet to be invented. Then, a child was let loose on the world, tenuously connected to home by an occasional letter or telephone call. At a similar age to my daughter, I recall my young stepsisters travelling in Europe and the worry my mother endured. She would wait patiently to receive their precious onion thin airmail letters.

s-l225I can see those letters lying flat on the kitchen table and Mom frowning as she ran her fingers over their sentences, searching for the Rosetta stone that would unlock the words and translate them into the reassurance that her girls were healthy and safe. Other times, it would be a brief collect call in the middle of the night. Then, when overseas calls were a king’s ransom and words were gold, conversations became hurried and succinct to save as much money as possible. It was only when the girls returned home that the true stories were told and sometimes not for decades.

When I recall my mother’s trials, I no longer feel the right to complain about the technology available to my daughter and I. I miss my daughter and I miss her all the more because I cannot have her here. I miss her smile, her spark, her laughter, her companionship and her wisdom.IMG_2652

Separation from our children is a small death and if a loss of a child in time and space can be this painful, how much more devastating would a total loss be? It is then that I remind myself that unlike so many other parents, my daughter is not gone forever. I can talk to her, see her face on the computer, visit her and have her visit me. It is with these thoughts that I realize being apart is a trivial thing. Separation is something that I will endure because I am not afraid to fly

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Remembrance Day in Movember

 

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This is about Doug. He was my step dad and I first met him when I was 8 yrs. old. It was not a good meeting. He was a stranger, and worse, he was apparently my new father. After my biological father’s death, my mother, a widow at twenty-four, did what she needed to do to survive.IMG_2846

She entrusted my care to her parents, returned to university, got a teaching degree, joined the Air Force and met Doug. They married, had a son, and, along with Doug’s two daughters from a previous marriage, came to collect me to complete their family. Surrounded by strangers, I was to leave with them and move far away from my known world.

It was the 1950s and Doug was a big man, handsome in the fashion of the Mad Men character, Don Draper. He was an air force pilot and fit the role. Used to military responsibility and discipline, he was assertive, comfortable taking and giving orders and used to being obeyed. As his child, Doug never needed to threaten me with physical punishment. He would glare at me and I would fear for my life. In later years, this same glare constricted my dating options to of only the bravest and most confident high school boys.

I feared Doug, but mostly I was resentful and angry. He marriage to my mother was the reason that I no longer lived with my adored grandparents and worse yet, why I was a cog in the wheel of this family of strangers. I was consumed with the grievances of yesterday and as a result, Doug and I never spoke much until my twenties, when the whole world changed. No milestone marked the event, I simply grew up.

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War stories animated Doug. A Royal Canadian Air Force pilot in WW2, he flew over Mt Everestimages (The Hurmp) from Dum Dum, India to Kunming,China to deliver supplies to Chiang Kai-shek’s Imperial Army. He loved recounting his adventures in Europe, Burma, India, Russia and the Egyptian desert. I marvelled at his knowledge and insight into cultures I scarcely knew. He showed me the wonders of the world and made me want to experience them for myself.  IMG_1846

When I would ask why we had not previously talked about such things, he would simply point out that I had been an angry child and he was waiting for me to grow up.

Happy stories led to the sad ones, his mother institutionalized with mental illness, his father’s abandonment of the children, Doug removing his siblings from an orphanage and leaving school far too soon to support them, a wartime marriage that ended with his first wife’s descent into schizophrenia and institutionalization, Doug alone with 2 small daughters while he visited his wife and mother in the same mental hospital. Through stories we bonded and Doug became my dad. In my 20’s he was the rock that anchored me and when life would fall apart, it would be Doug who would stomp into the room and say, “What in the hell is going on and how can I help”? My stepdad never criticized, nor did he hide his pride, but his advice was always tempered with a lesson. When I was in medical school and proud of an 80% test result, he would congratulate me then urge me to study some more. No one, he chided, wanted a doctor who only knew 80% of the job.

As a young adult, I loved Doug and even more, I respected him for being no one other than himself. When he developed prostate cancer I could hardly bear his suffering. The surgeries, the hormones that made him teary, the pain where metastases gnawed his vertebrae, these he never discussed, he simply endured.

Years after he died I organized Do It for Dad in his memory. I wanted others with prostate cancer to have the support Doug lacked and to demonstrate that one man alone need not bear this disease. On Father’s Day, when I jogged the course of Do It for Dad with Doug’s granddaughter, I thought of him every step of the way and thanked him for his patience during my long adolescence and his support of me when I was old enough to be worthy of his wisdom. He gave me much to be thankful for and he is the man I think about, with love and respect, on Father’s Day, Remembrance Day and in Movember.

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Do I Know You?

Recently, I attended a celebration of life for a friend who died unexpectedly. Such a ceremony provides a positive sense of closure for those who mourn. It also marks an axis in life where we, the living, move forward recognizing that we have left a part of us behind. During the ceremony, individuals shared what was meaningful in their relationship with the deceased and ushered out the departed in the spirit of friendship and love.

 

After the ceremony a friend commented, “ Why do we extol the virtues of our friends or hear their story only after they die? Why are we not more curious when they are alive”? I had to think long and hard about that statement. What did I not know about those that I love? What had I never bothered to ask? Why had I not taken the opportunity?

 

My closest friend, confidante and connection on this planet is my husband, yet do I know him as well as I could? We have been married and worked side by side for over 3 decades, we have raised 2 adult children and shared many adventures but did he feel known to me in our relationship, did he feel supported and understood?

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That prompted questions, ones that I had never asked him, and it began with a favorite color. If my husband had a favorite, I certainly did not know. Imagine my shock at discovering it was aquamarine. Such a small thing, but overlooked. Benign questions led to ones that were more introspective. Questions like:

  • If you could invite 8 people, living or dead, over for dinner, whom would you pick?
  • What activity have you never done that you would love to try?
  • If you could have a superpower, what would you choose?
  • If you could change your job, what would you do?

 

Superficial questions lead to deeper ones, ones that plumb the inner experiential world that defines us, ones we may not verbalize unless asked.

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Such questions as:

  • What is one thing about you that I do not know?
  • What are your deepest shame and your biggest regret?
  • If you could change one thing about me what would it be? About yourself?
  • If you could give your children 1 gift in this life, what would you choose?
  • What sentence would you want written on your tombstone?
  • What do you think your friends will say about you when they attend your funeral?
  • In an ideal world, how would your life look 5 years from now?
  • What are the 3 life experiences that gave you the greatest joy? The greatest sadness?
  • What do you dream about most often?

 

It turns out; I do know my husband very well. That does not mean that I have not learned a great deal and grown closer to him in the sharing. Who knew he likes aquamarine? We continue the exercise, asking question then answering them for each other and in the sharing we are feel closer and better understood. If I truly love and respect another, I need be curious about them.

planet_earth_catman78_water_outer_space_sky_hd-wallpaper-1211968The greatest gift life has to offer is to share the planet with another who knows who you are and to someday leave the world as one who has been seen.

 

 

Photos from Tumblr

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Milestones

Last week my son graduated from UBC. In Chan Theatre of Performing Arts, I took my seat, one wave in an ocean of parents, and prepared to witness another right of passage in the life of my child. I was proud to be there, relieved that the education was complete, grateful my son had a job and hopeful that possibly, perhaps, the Sanders Bank would lose a customer.

What I hadn’t expected as I sat quietly waiting for the proceedings to start was the tsunami of memories, events long passed stored like a packet of lost love letters, ones that now reopened behind my eyes. I saw my first anxious day at medical school, the day when I worried that the Dean would approach me, quietly whisper about a misunderstanding, inform me I wasn’t supposed to be there at all and could I quietly leave? This never happened and instead the first day was the signpost for the rest of my life, the day I embarked on a new career, met my future husband and everything in my world changed for the better.

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I recalled my own graduation 31 years ago, where I sat with fellow students, previous strangers now transformed into colleagues and lifetime friends, some that I still value beyond words. Through my son’s graduation ceremony, I felt the excitement of my own, one that had meant so much more to me because I crossed the stage with my husband.

I visualized my son’s first university graduation at UBCO 4 years earlier. There, his father and I listened to his thesis defense on the use of cobalt as a catalyst for hydrocarbon polymerization. Halfway through the presentation, I whispered in my husband’s ear, asking if he understood a word of it all and to my relief, he did not. FullSizeRenderIt was then that we shared a favorite memory from our son’s childhood, recalling that this same confident young man who now stood before us was once a little boy, one whose favorite toy was the egg beater and somehow, over time, that, had led to this.When my tall son walked across the stage and received his degree under UBC’s motto, TUUM EST (Its Up to You), I was flooded with the memories of his birth FullSizeRenderand childhood, the bright, inquisitive and loving child who is no more, the one who has been replaced by something so much better, my son the man. It is this man I will congratulate outside the auditorium, the one who stands before me now, the man I love and respect, the one I welcome to the future.

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Home Alone 2

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This is, sadly, the sequel to my previous blog Home Alone.

After surfacing physically unscathed from an attempted home invasion, I found my troubles far from over. I was still alone and therefore an opportunity, a target for mischief.police_tape_ss_img_3

Several days after the aborted assault my rescuing policeman returned to visit, this time alone. He came early on a Saturday and I welcomed him because I trusted him; respected authority and this policeman fit the criteria. I objectified this man; seeing him as a policeman and nothing beyond the duties of his role. That was my first mistake.

The policeman had good news. They had caught my perpetrators, older brothers of kids in my class. He reassured me of my safety, and casually asked me if I would continue to live alone. I told him I had secured a roommate, but she had commitments that would take time to settle.” So you will be on your own a while?”, he commented, “I will look out for you”. I could not believe how grateful those 5 words made me feel. I thanked him and invited him to drop by for coffee any time he was in the area. At the time, at my age, in my circumstance, this did not feel dangerous.

He dropped by.

After the second visit, at odd hours, I lied. I told him I would be out of town so he could not drop by anymore. His presence no longer felt safe or official, the way he looked at me, the way he breathed, and the way his pupils would dilate felt sexual, invasive and threatening. I realized his visits were no longer police business. If I had been fearful the night of my home invasion, I was now unmoored. I did not know how to protect myself. Should I call the police? Who would I phone and what would I say? Would anyone believe me, or worse, would I be punished?

Weeks went by and he left me alone. One night I left a party at 2 am and noticed that I was being followed. I realized it was a police car and expected to be stopped. I wasn’t. I got home, dove through my front door and locked it. I knew who followed me. Minutes passed and an officious knock on the door forced me to look. It was the policeman.

I did not know how to ignore him. I answered the door leaving the screen door closed. “I’d like to come in for coffee”, he said and his face told me coffee was not on the radar. I told him he should leave or I would call the police, closed the door, got my same kitchen knife, sat on the couch and waited for my second home invasion.

Nothing happened.

A week later I went night skiing. On my way home, a different police officer stopped me. The constable told me that he suspected that I had drugs in the car. I did not. He made me get out and proceeded to rip my car apart. My back seat was stripped from its moorings and thrown in a snow bank and then he left. At nine o’clock at night I was left trying to get my back seat into place, sobbing, furious, afraid and totally alone, I later assumed this episode was the payback for my threat to report.

My roommate moved in and I knew that changed everything. The herd now protected me. When I was driving I was sure that I would be stopped but that never occurred either. Within the year I was glad to leave the community altogether.

What have I learned from this lesson? I have been forced to acknowledge that women alone are prey and I no longer choose to be alone. I am suspicious of individuals in positions of authority, as I know what the abuse of power looks like and worse, how it feels. I realize that there are good people and bad ones and some who behave badly when the situation arises. I do not resent the lesson, as it taught me no one deserves my trust for free.

The embedded links are just a few stories that are similar to mine.

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Home Alone

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My husband has left me – for 2 weeks, a blink of an eye in planetary time, too infinitesimal to mention, but for me it is time enough for the pilot light of memory to spark a bonfire of irrational fear, one that burns hot, especially at night.

I am not a fearful person, but I fear being alone. I did not have such a phobia as a child or an adolescent. In my twenties I was taught to be fearful, through the kind of experience many women share. I learned that in a world where there are predators who view women as prey, a woman alone is a fish in a barrel, a target so irresistible it cannot be overlooked.

As a young teacher, I lived in a rented house and loved the freedom of a country place all my own. Before bed, I sat at the kitchen table marking report cards when a disembodied hand knocked on the window directly in front of me and beckoned me to come out. I went to the door but no one was there. A few minutes later it happened again. Angry, I opened the patio door and said, “ What do you want? “530742e3699aed9e34c0fc4a031226e8

A voice from the dark replied, “You know what we want”. More angry than afraid, I relocked the door, drew the curtains and phoned the police.

The dispatch asked me if anyone had broken into my home and I replied, “No”. The police told me they were in the area and to call back if anyone attempted to enter. I was horrified. Pumped with the adrenaline of rage, fear and disbelief, I took a knife from the kitchen, determined I would use it and sat by the phone. Nothing happened. Outside I heard wood splinter again and again, then silence prevailed. Just as I dared to hope the ordeal was over, a slap of winter air filled the room and I looked around the corner to see a leg coming through my half open bedroom window.

I called the police. Within seconds two officers arrived and I was escorted outside. The peculiar noises I previously heard came from the removal of my storm windows. Every one lay neatly on the lawn like eggs in a carton, sequentially removed in search of a window that was not painted shut. A shattered window well led to muddy footprints through the basement and up the stairs where they were rebuffed at the locked door that separated the basement from the kitchen. Someone had been in my home, just feet away from me, frustrated by a door.

The policeman asked me, “Why do you live alone?” a rhetorical question that fanned my fury. Was my victim status open for debate? Before this night, I had thought I had the right to choose.

Although I was unharmed and 36 years have passed, the experience has left a scar. I resent the sleep I lose and the anger I feel when I am alone and vulnerable in my own home for no other reason than my gender, yet I have been taught that a woman alone can become prey. It is a brand on my subconscious, one that flares and burns hot when I am alone, one that I will always carry.

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Emirates 24/7, 19 April, 2015.

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We Never Get to Say Goodbye

 

A person devoid of hope and conscious of being so has ceased to belong to the future.                                                                                           Camus          

Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.                                           Seneca

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I have been away. My mother’s next-door neighbour phones. At Mom’s apartment the paper has not been picked up for two days. No one answers the neighbour’s knock and Mom’s home phone goes repeatedly to voice mail. Do you think you could come? The neighbour is worried.

My relationship with my Mom (Who had lived with my family for 12 years before recently wanting more independence, a place of her own.) is an anchor, forged in the trinity of love, respect and friendship, but lurking beneath that solid surface is a living, expanding, cancerous fear. I am all too aware of the dangerous precipices that rim her abyss; the secret acts she holds away from the light. These are the faces of depression and addiction, the ones that own her, the companions she abandons us all for, and visits with increasing frequency.

We have weathered crises before and there have been other calls with many interventions, other false alarms, and other times when I have successfully thrown her a rope to climb out of the void. But somehow today I have a premonition. In many ways, this is the call I have been waiting for most of my life.

Recently, I dream that my mother, small and alone, is an astronaut walking tumblr_n5rogxOI5O1qlq9poo8_1280in space. Her frayed tether to the space station strains then severs. Against the blackness she is alone spinning, spinning away in silence. Other times I dream of walking her quiet hallway, turning the lock of her door and calling her name. In a spectral silence I receive nothing back save the echo of my voice. She and I discuss these dreams and she reassures me these are only dreams, not a part I will ever play in her drama. For me, I tell her, the hardest part of the dreams is that we never get to say goodbye.

In a state of altered reality I respond to the neighbour’s call. I get into the car already aware that I move toward a different future, toward another destiny, different from the one I had planned, the one where my mother sees her grandchildren leave childhood, graduate from school, university, marry, and have children of their own. They love her, depend on her, expect her to be there to share these moments.

I am in a trance, the motions automatic in the hypnotic drive across town, but the mind is a swirling tornado erasing all sense and action save the solid stone of anger and betrayal that choke the throat and the fear, the omniscient fear that thickens every moment and compresses time in to a colossal weight,  impossible for a daughter to bear. Suddenly, when it is all too much, effervescent optimism rises to the surface of the mental quagmire. Perhaps I am wrong? Perhaps this is simply a false alarm and I am buoyed on the wings of hope once more. I take a deep breath and drive on.

I arrive at the apartment I know so well and walk the quiet hallway.Routines and habits comfort me, so I do what I always do, I pick up the papers and the mail for my mother before I engage the lock, open the door. I call my mother’s name into the silence and receive nothing more than the echo of my voice. I now know that one step over the doorsill is the difference between premonition and reality and I feel my heart break, break into a thousand shards,  shards that will bleed this day and forever. For me, the hardest part of this new reality is that my mother and I never get to say goodbye.

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Can Shopping Make You Crazy?

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Christmas is coming soon and that reminds me of Boxing Day. Boxing Day in turn, reminds me of shopping bargains, which brings me to Black Friday and that makes me depressed. The local news carried live footage of Black Friday in the US and watching it, I was simultaneously mesmerized and horrified. Hordes of presumably sane individuals were wrestling, shoving and even pulling hair to get a full nelson on a flat screen TV. As I peeked between my fingers trying to look away, yet transfixed by the carnage, some of the shoppers were identified as Canadian. For me, that was the lowest point of all.

Black Friday happens every year and every year I cannot believe my eyes. What complex set of psychological conditions turn a department store into a gladiatorial arena and middle class people into combatants? Social scientists like Ravi Dahr at Yale University have studied the phenomena of Black Friday and the consumer behaviors it precipitates. Such events are carefully orchestrated to pry open the shopper’s wallet and induce them to spend money. The stores open early so that customers are sleep deprived, excited or irritable and vulnerable. Opening bell bargains are irresistible and set the stage for a decrease in customer discernment and resistance once inside. The first purchase is usually the most deliberate and thoughtful but once executed, “shopping angst” is overcome and the internal accounting that leads one to evaluate the pros and cons of the next purchase weakens. As a result, customers start to shop less discriminately and at accelerated speed. Worrisome as it is, crowd mentality can fundamentally change people and allows them to behave irrationally. When an individual behaves badly, this provides an excuse for their neighbor to do the same, or worse. . If all of these conditions occur at the same time, as they do on Black Friday or Boxing Day, social scientists have shown that shoppers can behave aggressively, irrationally and even become deranged. Apparently, these responses are more common than we appreciate and, given the right circumstances, any of us could exhibit similar behaviors.

If this is what a North American consumer is capable of, what if the desired object was not a luxury item, a toaster or electronics but a necessity, say, clean drinking water? Will there be legions of armed Californians, their water supply gone, massing at the border demanding entry into Canada to quench their thirst? After all, when a population 10 times your own needs something to survive, eventually they will take it, and, if the situation was reversed, would we be any different?

I realize that these are hypothetical questions but they do require sober analysis. I have never shopped Boxing Day and knowing what I know now, I am unlikely to start. If these bad behaviors are ingrained in our genetic makeup, as academics suggest, I will stay home and not risk finding out that beneath my civilized veneer, a moron is lurking.

 

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The Brothers

On the way to Everest I met two remarkable brothers. We were all part of an international group of climbers destined for the big Himalayan mountains and trekkers whose goal was to make it to Everest Base Camp. The trek itself is not to be underestimated. It is no small matter to get to Base Camp and most who tackle it train beforehand to withstand the physical burden of an upward climb in thin air.

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The eldest brother, in his early 60s, was at an age compatible with Everest trekking, if you are fit. If you are overweight, out of shape and usually frequent five star hotels, it might be fair to ask whether your destination was Everett, WA and somehow you got on the wrong plane. Younger brother, at 57, had been a mountaineer in his 30s but since had a stressful and busy career managing a company. As life is prone to do, it had left him with a CPAP machine for sleep apnea, a significant waist circumference and an arthritic back. Never before outside the USA, younger brother was travelling on his first passport, and so, the first logical place to go must be Everest. For them, seeing Everest was a trip of a lifetime and a chance to bond following the death of their mother, but at our first meeting, I had my doubts whether they would ever reach their goal.

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As is often the case, looks deceive and it is the heart and will that counts, qualities the brothers had in spades. Each day we would set off as a group and every day the group would decompose into a fast group, a slow group and the brothers. Every day the brothers arrived late, exhausted but euphoric, surprising themselves and us with their physical accomplishment. Higher and higher we went and when it seemed impossible they could go on, they showed up. Their enjoyment and wonder at the surrounding vistas was infectious and younger brother’s first view of Everest encapsulated the combined joy of a child at Disneyland on his birthday. I was moved by the realization that for him, the trek was as much spiritual journey as it was a physical one.

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Somehow, the brothers made it to Everest basecamp. For one, the nights required supplemental oxygen and after two days at the foot of the highest mountain in the world, they decided to return by helicopter, as making it to this point, they had given everything that they had to give. What had been a warm up for some had been a peak experience for them and it was time to go home. I was sad to see them go. What they had given of themselves to get there, and what they had given us in inspiration, was everything that they had and in doing so, had gained my admiration.

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Climbing in the Himalaya was exhausting and it will be a while before I return, but not so for the brothers. They recently emailed to say that they will to do it all again in 2015!