Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, Oregon
~11 miles, ~2500 feet elevation gain

Ten o’clock on a Thursday morning, I step out on to the Wahkeena trail. The nearly ever-present wind of the gorge is funneling down the Wahkeena canyon, the roar of the waterfall raging with early season melt off. It’s barely 50 ° outside, but it’s bluebird, sunlight filtering through the newly leafing canopy above: the winter bones of the gorge are starting to flesh out in all the colors of spring.


Taking a deep breath, I ground myself in the moment before setting out upward for the 3.6 mile, nearly 2500’ climb to Devil’s Rest, the beginning part of my loop today. Sometimes hikes are just fun, sometimes they are exercise, sometimes they are therapy. Today is the latter. 

Today…today is about hitting the reset button. Those who know me intimately know I am an oncology nurse, that I work in a high stress, fast-paced inpatient unit dealing with complicated post-op care, chemotherapy and acute medical issues. I have never loved what I do for a career in life so much as I LOVE what I do now; still, some weeks are more difficult than others. The last several weeks have been filled with a tremendous amount of pain, anxiety, sadness, and terror for patients who were either actively dying or in the transition to actively dying, coming to grips with the reality that no more treatment options exist. 

Even knowing how quickly it can occur, it never ceases to stun me how fast the body will decline when the soul decides to let go. When I went into oncology, a large part of it was because it is an honor and a privilege to care for those dying. But right now, right now my body is holding on to all that sadness, heavy and positively worn with it. 

Which means I need to go out into the world. Breathe it all out. Cry. Let it go.

Oncology nurses know there will always be weeks like this; sometimes the inside of us simply breaks for the people we care for.  People tell me and other onc RNs all the time, “I don’t know how you do what you do. I couldn’t do it.” Sometimes I wonder if they feel like we leave our hearts at home, like we possess a talent for disconnecting from the issues we deal with daily. I would say the opposite- many of the nurses I know have personally experienced cancer, either for themselves or family members. We bring everything we are with us to work for our patients. 

Climbing the Wahkeena trail, I focus in on the little details, swinging internally between the emotional and physical worlds-  the feeling of my legs, lungs and heart working in concert to drive me upward, and the mental process of sorting through the last few weeks. My cup is empty. I listen to the wind, pull cool air into me. Breathe. Try to let it go.

The  beauty of the Wahkeena canyon is impossible to fully capture

In 2009, my closest friend lost a four year battle with brain cancer. To say Grace’s diagnosis and journey were the furthest from karma you can get is an understatement. And make no mistake, cancer is a journey. It is a road with no end. Once the door opens and you step through, what most people never fathom until it happens is that you don’t ever get to go back. Walking through the door, through the diagnosis, the rest of your life forward is forever redefined. No explanation exists for the feeling of losing someone like Grace- there’s family, and then there’s family. Losing the latter is akin to wiping part of your existence, part of your history, part of your self, from the world. A word, a moment, a notification- suddenly they are simply gone. When she lost her fight, when the news came, I remember hanging up the phone, my body shock-still, screaming into the pillow as an unexpected grief bloomed from somewhere deep within me. Even anticipated, the grief shook me in a way I never could have foreseen. 

Today, these are my memories. The trail is brilliant, clothed in all the colors leprechauns favor. Trilliums line the path, clusters of tiny shooting stars. Guiding me upward.

Trillium, signs of spring in the gorge

When I entered nursing school, oncology was in the back of my head – my first rotation was simultaneously uplifting and absolute hell, and I spent much of it processing grief I hadn’t even known still existed. But that first rotation sealed the deal- I knew I wanted to be in oncology. And I’m good at it. I love my job, and I am good at it. Most of the time, self- care and internal reflection are enough, but some weeks like the last few hit me hard, leave me hollow. Not just for Grace anymore, but for all my patients who are on a journey impossible to understand unless you have been there. 

Sweat-chilled and shivering from both the climb and emotions, I settle onto the plateau near Devil’s Rest and continue the hike at a more moderate pace. The air here is clean in a different way, drier. This high up I feel airy, looking out through gaps in the trees on to the sheer brilliance of space that is the Columbia River Gorge. Sunlight dapples the forest, layering the world in various shades of light and color. I am alone, nothing but silence, the wind and the small sound of my feet echoing against old forest floor. This is my church, the place I go to grieve, to celebrate, to connect, to recharge.

dappled forest on the approach to Devil's Rest

The need and ability to be present with the patients we serve is the privilege, the honor, of the job. It’s the ability to finally control someone’s pain after a two day pain crisis that has left their body wracked and physically clenched; to help calm, ease the pain and soothe the passing of someone who comes into the hospital lucid and horrified, suffocating with air hunger and the knowledge that their death is imminent. It’s the patient lying in bed, smiling at you at the end of your shift, at peace with their journey, who clasps your hand, smiles, and thanks you for helping them get clean and comfortable for the first time in a long while. The patient walking with you in the hallway, looking you directly in the eye asking for the honest answer: “I’m going to die, aren’t I?” It’s the dignity we try to restore to our patients when it feels like all dignity is lost- the functional decline, the inability to control bodily functions, the person who’s swearing and embarrassed and angry that they, a once healthy adult, are reduced to this. It’s about redefining hope- that sometimes hope isn’t survival, but rather the quality of the time remaining, the where, the how and the with who to spend it. 

Miles into the trail, these are my thoughts. I run them over and over again, embrace the emotion because to stuff it down ultimately accomplishes nothing. Today, I need to cry. Today, I need to walk, to run my body to its limit, to exhaust myself through miles of trail and elevation gain, to lose myself in the silence of the woods. 

By the time I hit Angel’s Rest, I have been alone for several hours. Although the worn feeling still exists, it lies muted in the background now, worked out through miles of caloric expenditure and the beauty of the woods. Close to the Historic Highway and with a fabulous view, Angel’s Rest brings with it hoards of touristy hikers decked out in Keds and purses, and my solitude abruptly vanishes. I sit near the trail junction, put on some moleskin, water the now (finally) tired dog at my feet. Having been to Angel’s Rest multiple times before and not currently in need or want of company, I turn back towards Wahkeena, reentering silence and solitude. I haven’t done the Wahkeena-Devil’s Rest-Angel’s Rest loop in years, and it’s a pleasure to rediscover the rolling beauty of this trail through all the life zones the Gorge can offer.

the airiness and enormity of Angel's Rest

Six hours after I started, I arrive at the trailhead. Weary. Calm. I feel blessed to live where I live, where I can drive 30 minutes from the comfort of my home and empty my soul into the huge expanse of the wilderness that exists in my Portland backyard. For me, this is necessary, an absolute in my life.

1 comment:

Mary said...

about a week before he died, my friend told my husband, his close friend of many years, "there is so much more I want to tell you, but it's too late." His grace and courage were incredible. I can't even imagine.