By Wakanyi Hoffman
My daughter recently summited to the top of Mount Kenya, the third highest peak on the African continent.
She did this with swollen, frozen hands that could no longer fit inside her woolen mittens after 3 nights of camping in the bush, each day hiking upwards towards the peak. A school trip unlike any other.
Image courtesy of Luisa Espovito Melvin
On summit day, she crouched hands and feet down, crawling on unseen icy rocks in the darkness for an ascent that begun at 2.00 am.
“I nearly fell off the mountain mom!” She exclaimed casually, as she babbled nonstop about the experience, as if the thought of the near-fatality should be assuaged by the fact that she didn’t actually fall.
Or that I should rest content in the assurance that thankfully her teacher who was crawling up behind her managed to foresee the missed calculation that my daughter made when she turned her head-lamped forehead skywards instead of below her nose. She had tripped on an unseen rock, falling to the side, into the arms of Ms. L.
She had then picked herself up and proceeded upwards to the peak on Point Lenana where she sat poised atop a rock, with her face turned towards the morning sun, having conquered many of the world’s mountain climbers’ wildest dreams, at the age of twelve.
‘How far down would you have fallen?” I asked in a feigned monotone that matched her casual one.
“I would’ve fallen to the side, all the way down to the top of another huge rock,” she replied, then changed the topic to describe the vibrant gold, black, red and purple hues of the magnificent sunrise that painted the morning above the cradle of humanity, reflecting tenderly onto the frozen glacier lakes below.
She knew that she had pulled and snapped a mother’s heart-string, for a vision of the near-missed mighty fall of my Afro-curly haired girl with gluten-intolerant-rashed mixed-race coloured cheekbones would recur all night in my dreams.
I would picture Ms. L collecting mittens fallen from too-fat fingers, frost-bitten now, clasped onto a rock in the shape of a professional mountain climber.
Face down. No, face on top of the fat fingers. She would’ve definitely cushioned her face with her hands. Eyes shut, lips pursed into a smile. A theme song still sounding in her faint but never-giving-up warrior heart.
I would awaken myself from this nightmare to see my baby girl resting beside me, all accumulated 30 kg preteen mass of the once teenie weenie 2.7 kg of the baby born labeled ‘small-for-dates’ on one spring morning in Nairobi.
“Are you sure she’s not a preemie?” I had asked the doctor in the after-birth.
“She’s small but not premature,” He had said to me, a small light in his dark pupils peering into a brand new space in my heart, hypnotizing my mother senses into a blissfully numb, all-accepting oxytocined mother-brain.
‘I am a mother now,’ I would try to convince myself when what I truly felt was as though the real mama waited outside that birthing room door. I would picture her wide-eyed and all-knowing, plump-faced, soft motherly smile, cuddly cushy love handled arms, big milky leaky boobs, fat fingers best suited for firmly grasping a slimy, wiggly, tiny, little baby inside a slippery, soapy, baby bathtub.
But I had the manual. The ‘What to expect when you’re expecting’ and ‘Dr. Spock’ and my mother.
“She’s so tiny!” Mom exclaimed upon seeing her newest granddaughter, middle-named Wanjiru for ‘the one born in the dark’ after her, with dark navy eyes that would fade into dark brown pupils.
“The doctor said she’s not premature,” I explained, jovial, but not too excited, mature, middle-tone, with the ‘I know what I am saying because I am now the wide-eyed, all-knowing, newborn baby manual-reading expert’ look on my face.
Mom had been sitting outside the birthing room since she received a text at 5 am saying her baby girl was at the hospital in labour. She had not slept for 3 nights since I broke the news that I would have to be induced for the ‘too-small-for-dates’ overdue but not preemie baby girl whose pink colour-cordinated nursery had been prepared since the initial baby announcement. Even the woolite baby delicates soap powder came packaged in a baby pink-coloured box.
I didn’t ask her to come into the birthing room because it was now time for me to ‘do my big girl thing’, the grown-up baby girl of hers, ready to birth my very own fully formed baby girl.
I had initially prepared to go with my baby girl up that mountain until I asked for her opinion, to which she diplomatically replied, “No, mama, this is meant to be a bonding trip for me and my friends.” It was her turn to do a ‘big girl thing’.
But ain’t no mountain high enough, if you lead, I will follow…
Marvin Gaye’s no. 1 hit and The Gilmore Girls‘ TV show’s theme song begun their harmonic remix inside my head.
Looking at her still-too-tiny fingernails, still-too-soft hands, brown eyes, big recently-trimmed curls sitting atop a head short of me, I struggled to contain the adrenalined fear forming inside my head. My wide-eyed, older, wiser, mature mom-face betrayed by the conflicting, self-doubting, mom-guilt that has remained perpetually trapped inside my throat since she emerged out of me in under 3 hours of the lamaze-breathing, intense-focused, ballerina-postured baby bump sitting atop a not-firm-enough blue exercise ball, doula-hired, husband birth partnering, also masquerading as the paparazzi of the manual-led natural birth event that was captured in under 40 minutes, before the battery power on the video camera died. Just in time for the baby’s first dramatic cry. To later be used as the official birth video of future lamaze classes.
I didn’t go up that mountain with her, but I did move into her bedroom where I lay awake inhaling her lavender-scented pillow case for the 3 nights that my now overgrown preteen but not yet adult big girl had embarked on a mountain climbing expedition 3,500 meters, 16,000 feet above sea level.
I cried when I saw her face emerge from behind the crowded mixture of fellow anxious moms, dads and 12-year-old mountain climbing returnees like herself.
“Describe the experience in one word,” I dared her.
“Fu-rd?” She said, a contemplative eyebrow raised towards the blue, afternoon sky.
“Fun plus hard equals furd,” she explained, stepping out of the car back home, happy to get her face licked by Thomas the ‘butler’ dog who was barking madly all over her.
Then she turned around for a hug and broke into tears.
“Did you cry going up?” I asked her.
“Not until I got to the top,” she revealed, as I wiped the pool of salty wetness collecting down on her collar-bone, towards the back of her neck, where she still smells like a fresh new baby.
As I held her at night and sat watching her evenly-timed breathing, legs sprawled wildly as she always did as an infant, it dawned on me that motherhood has so far been a furd journey towards the miraged mountain peak.
It is filled with near-falls, fat fingers, cold fingers, all clutching and crawling up towards the top, to the place where every now and then the cradle of humanity can be viewed in clarified hues of a rarely seen sunrise.