I went in for my annual check-up with the nurse practitioner I’d seen only one other time. As I remembered it, she had been fresh out of school and took more time with me than my doctor could. That first meeting a year before, we’d formed a mutual admiration society of two, and I was looking forward to this second visit. As usual, I had gotten the lab work done prior to my physical, and was not worried about the results. I usually have higher than average cholesterol, but all of my other numbers are quite good.
She looked at the computer screen and frowned, her light brown hair falling in wisps over her eyes, her youthful skin puckered into worry lines on her brow. “Did you know you’re pre-diabetic?” she asked me.
“Impossible,” I said. “Well, not impossible. My family on my father’s side is riddled with it, or was. They all died young. But I have been eating no sugar and very low carbs for twenty years. How can this be?”
She didn’t even look me in the eye as she said, “Lots of carbs in our food that you don’t even know are there.”
Who was she talking to? I read labels. If sugar is in the first four ingredients, I don’t buy that item. “Trust me,” I started, but this young professional just kept talking, eyes focused on her screen instead of the real person sitting in front of her.
“I think you should get a carbohydrate counter app and just start keeping track,” she said.
Obviously, a year on the job had changed her. Now she had become one of the busy ones, too busy for eye contact; too busy for listening; too busy to do anything but notice red flags and give the same old advice to people she probably thought would never take it.
“What are you looking at? My sugar count is not a problem.”
“No,” she said, “You’re right. It’s the Hemoglobin A -1 number that is in the pre-diabetic range, and looking back over your chart the last couple of years, it has been inching up. That’s what we’ve got to pay attention to.”
I started counting relatives in my father’s generation and the one before that who had died from diabetes and its complications: my father, my aunt, grandmother, great aunt, four great uncles, and a few second cousins. I always knew the family history was against me, but I believed living without sugar, bread and any other grains for twenty years would be enough to ward off any danger of my becoming diabetic.
I had put diabetes in the category of diseases that people get when they don’t take care of themselves. Since my mother had no blood relatives that we ever knew, it became a Polish disease, an alcoholic disease, an illness associated with working in factories, eating too much, drinking too much, and not reading books. I divorced myself from this side of the family when my father died. It was easy enough to do, since most of them were dead. This news, though, was waking me up. This could be serious.
“Is there anything besides diet I can do to influence this number?” I asked her.
“Exercise. You could try exercising thirty minutes a day at least three times a week till you sweat. That can help sometimes.”
Sweating? I hate sweating. I went to school before Chapter IX regulations made physical education for girls mandatory. I didn’t even have a gym class till I got to high school, and there, girls played tennis and golf, nothing else. Besides, sweating? Running? Not for me. I was a bookish type, and preferred drama as an extracurricular activity to sports. All three of us sisters stayed away from athletics, except for swimming, which we did non-competitively. At any rate, occasional walks and swimming in the local pool when I had good goggles had served me until now.
But here was a clear indication that something had to change. I did not want the dreaded disease that had cost my grandmother the use of her legs, my father an eye, constant neuropathy, and all kinds of complications with his circulatory system, leading to his death at age 60. Of course, the drinking and prescription drug abuse hadn’t helped, nor his tuberculosis as a younger man.
I had inoculated myself against the familial pattern of physical demise, or at least I thought I had. Stopped drinking at 36; stopped hating people from the past at age 44; divorced the husband who didn’t want to know me after eleven years, and moved to a creative community that embraced me fifteen years ago. Now it appeared I needed to change my behavior again.
I started taking yoga classes twice a week, which helped me to grow mentally and physically stronger. It also challenged me spiritually, opening my mind to patterns of thinking that were constricting me. I started taking a cardio/strength building class once a week at my favorite wellness center in town, and then, after about six months, I got a brand new idea.
I want to climb to the top of Wheeler Peak! This was a new idea for me. I asked my teachers how to train for it. I took their suggestions, hiking two or three times a week, going a little farther each time, taking the trails on the way to Taos Ski Valley to build strength, and to get used to the changes in altitude. Wheeler starts at 10,000 feet and ends at over 13,000 feet. It is the tallest peak in New Mexico. I was heartened by friends who encouraged me, who assured me that I could do it, and one friend in particular who said she’d hike it with me.
Jenni became my ‘hiking sponsor,’ and we hiked on her lunch hour once a week a particularly steep trail close to both of us. I watched myself grow in endurance, breath, and speed. After about three weeks, I set the shortest and steepest trail, Gavilan, as a goal, and made it to the top all by myself. I felt my lungs gasping for oxygen close to the top, and I definitely slowed down, but I made it. Did the same thing with Italianos a week later, and Williams Lake the week before, and kept hiking the trails closer to me, three times a week on average.
Those two solitary experiences gave me a spiritual connection I had not anticipated. The meadows glowing in sunshine, the view of Ski Valley runs, the puffy white clouds against the relentless blue skies, ushered me into the company of hikers past and present. “This is what hiking lovers must love about hiking!” I caught myself saying out loud one day.
Always before this training period, hiking with my husband up the Italianos trail, we would normally stop at the aspen grove, about forty minutes up, bask in the beauty of those tall sisters, and when we were rested, head back down. But this day, hiking just 30 or 40 minutes farther up, I discovered a forest of pines that dwelled in perfect silence, except for an occasional bird song or two. The ground beneath me was soft, rich dirt, pine needles and a few roots, with just enough give to cushion my footfalls. I wanted to lie down and rest, look up at the sky and feel that joy of belonging here in this spot, but there were more steps to take to get to the ridge.
I was not prepared for the sense of accomplishment I felt reaching the end of those two solitary trails. It required changing my idea of myself. I was no longer one of the wimpy passive daughters my father lamented having instead of three basketball playing sons. I was no longer someone that assigned physical achievement to “other people,” the ones who could afford ski lift tickets and equipment and privileges I didn’t feel worthy of. Funny how you settle into a smaller, less capable version of yourself. You just keep saying no to invitations to grow.
Now at 61, I was someone who could set a physical goal and keep it; get used to the feeling of sweat and salt on my face and neck, legs, arms and back. One foot in front of the other, even when my naysaying mind tried to stop me. Oh come on, that’s enough for today. Surely this is far enough. What if you get hurt all the way up here? Who is going to find you? You’re out of cell service. On and on and on those voices kept trying to break my concentration and my commitment to myself, but I trudged on, battling that argument with a new one of my own: I’ve come this far, why would I turn back now?
And then, finally, I was ready. The morning of Labor Day 2017 arrived, and we gathered at the trailhead for Williams Lake and Wheeler Peak. I was carrying three bottles of water instead of two, and lunch in a backpack that was larger than the daypack I had been carrying. At 10,000 feet, I could feel the difference from the very beginning. In those earlier hikes, the altitude hadn’t hit me till halfway up the trail, but here the air was thinner from the get-go.
On we went. The fork in the trial heading right to Williams Lake came sooner than expected. Still, my back was feeling the extra backpack weight, my breathing was a bit labored, and we hadn’t even begun to hike Wheeler in earnest yet. Every so often, I stopped to catch a deeper breath, take down my backpack and gulp some water, a mini-oasis for me. Many people have a Camelbak that gives you a sipper of water without having to take down the pack, but I welcomed the chance to stop, however briefly, and refresh myself.
My friends were chatting, telling stories, sharing bits and pieces of their lives, but I could not say a word. I needed to conserve every bit of breath and effort for moving my legs and feet. When we rested, I told them I was enjoying their conversation, but could not join in. The only time I had been so silent, withdrawn into myself that way, was when I was in labor 34 years earlier. My husband at the time referred to it as “the day Eileen lost her personality.” Giving birth and climbing Wheeler seemed equally taxing and all-consuming.
We encountered rock falls that made me grateful for every balancing pose in yoga over the year, and sun-splashed meadows with a few remaining purple wildflowers. Many times, we’d glance down the mountain to see Williams Lake reducing in size to almost a puddle, and each time I would feel encouraged. Yes, we’re getting there. It’s closer, every step a little closer. I can do this, even though my feet are sore, even though the small of my back feels tender, I can do this.
Just underneath the ridge, maybe twenty minutes from the peak, my companions started to worry about me. “You look grey,” Jenni said. “You are out of calories; you need to eat,” said Deb. When I looked at my watch, I could see that I had eaten breakfast five hours earlier. It would be a good time to eat my lunch. And so I did. The slices of hot Italian sausage, spoonfuls of wheat germ moistened with peanut oil, and sweet mini-pepper, carrot and cucumber slices never tasted so good. Immediately the color came back to my face, and I felt strong again.
And then, before I knew it, we were there, on the summit, straddling forever on either side. The sky was still blue, the wind just a stiff breeze now and again. It wasn’t as cold as I’d heard it often is at the top. It took me a minute to realize where I was, and what I had done. I have to admit my mind was awfully sketchy up there. Looking at my watch, and trying to subtract hours, I just couldn’t do the math.
I asked the four of us to circle around and say a prayer. When it was my turn, I wept in gratitude. Thank you for helping me to feel strong enough for something as wonderful as this. I signed my name in the book and put it back in the iron canister just underneath the Wheeler Peak sign. Thirty minutes or so we spent sitting on rocks up at the top and chatting with other hikers, and then we started down.
My knees complained often, especially traversing the treacherous rock falls, and it was then that i wished I had two trekking poles instead of one, but the happy news was the farther down we went, the more oxygen my lungs absorbed. At the very bottom, close to the car, I wondered if, after folding myself up into the passenger seat, my body would remember how to do anything normal again, like stand up straight, for instance. That night I took a hot shower, lay down for a nap, and woke 90 minutes later to eat dinner. My husband would have to wait for the stories until the next morning.
I don’t know if my numbers will reflect the changes in my life, but the rewards are vastly greater than what originally motivated me to take this challenge on. And to think, if medical advice had not warned me to change, I would never have known this moment.