This year I became an ambassador for the Adventure Mamas Initiative (AMI), and turned forty. This was also the year following my husband Matt’s kidney cancer diagnosis. His kidney was removed in the fall of 2016. The tumor was nine cm. Eight weeks after his diagnosis we found out the cancer had not yet spread beyond his kidney and we would have more time together.
On my application to become an ambassador for AMI I was asked what I wanted to do with my year. We had actually already planned our year as a family and called it “Our Year of Living Big”. Here was my side of the list:
1 – Travel with my family while Matt set up a global biodiversity network (The plan: Costa Rica and Europe)
2 – Spend my 40th birthday by myself doing exactly what I wanted to do (I wanted to have a day to record some songs I had written over the years.)
3 – Run our local 50k race – the McDonald Forest 50k (I try to do this every year as a annual fitness goal.)
4 – Plan an adventure weekend with my local Adventure Mama friends, running 50 miles around the Three Sisters Wilderness
5 – Plan a family mountain bike weekend in my favorite town Oakridge, Ore., inviting all of my favorite people to join us and ride all weekend and play music
First stop on Matt’s global biodiversity network tour was Costa Rica, where he has spent the last decade researching hummingbirds and pollination networks in tropical forest ecosystems. We went to Costa Rica shortly after Christmas break.
We made it three weeks into our five months of planned travel when, during Matt’s field research, he accidentally hit a wasp nest with his machete and was chased off a 12-foot cliff by the wasp swarm. He broke his neck, back, arm, skull, ribs and had 27 stitches in his head. End of travel.
My birthday was three weeks later. I went away for 24 hours because my husband is tough and my friends agreed to step in if he needed help. Leaving my post was not easy (lots of guilt), but after three solid weeks of hospitals, and being the only fully able-bodied adult in the house, it was time to take stock of myself and see if I was ok. I spent a quiet morning drinking coffee, writing, and then went for a run and sat in the sunshine looking at the ocean.
In those quiet moments a new realization came to me. I couldn’t keep putting my life on hold for my family. It was time for me to make sure I was growing up too. I had been 5 millimeters away from becoming a widow or the wife of a quadriplegic (Matt’s second potentially life ending event in under two years). It was time to try and be ready for that kind of responsibility. I then went back to my friends beach house and recorded three songs.
I went home and started getting myself ready for the Mac 50, which may seem like a very irresponsible thing to do under those circumstances. Leaving home was hard every day (guilt every day). There was no end to the other things I should have been doing. I was the only driver in the house. There were lots of doctor appointments, paperwork and housework. But I tried to take an hour every day to go run, do a self check and make sure I could keep meeting life’s demands.
I would try to complete the McDonald Forest 50k race because I said I would. For me, growing up meant meeting the commitments I had made to myself. I would still try to train for the 50k even if it seemed like the silliest thing in the world at the time. I made it to the start line 10 weeks after Matt’s accident. It was my slowest time ever, but I won. And you know what? It felt good to win, not because I was fast, but because I kept on moving forward with my own commitments even though it was hard.
My amazing group of Adventure Mama friends agreed to run around the Three Sisters Wilderness with me on Sept. 22-23. We called it the Mom’s Run Wild Weekend. I invited anyone I thought might want to come. We started planning in the spring. Plans shifted and changed, but in the end 10 hard core mamas joined together to carry out our adventure.
Three mamas made base camp at the halfway point of the run and climbed a 9,000+ ft volcano (Broken Top). Seven moms joined for one 25-mile section or the other, and three of us did the whole 55 miles.
Day one was cloudy and misty, and we didn’t see a single volcano. But it was still beautiful in its own mysterious way.
Day two was as clear and sunny as any I had ever seen. I ran past all three volcanoes, just a bit amazed we had pulled off the whole crazy adventure, despite my fellow Canadian adventurer arriving at the wrong Lava Campground on Friday night and having to track down base camp with no cell service, or the freezing temperatures combined with a campfire ban.
We just kept on moving forward like we meant to and we completed our adventure weekend and it was pretty freaking amazing.
The next weekend was the Oakridge Family Weekend. One weekend of families riding together in Oakridge, Oregon’s mountain bike mecca. Again, lots of things did not go as planned, but in the end, many families came together from Oregon, and as far away as New Brunswick, Canada. We rode bikes for two days, and gathered at Local 180 Brewer’s Union pub where I played a music show with two of my favorite bandmates.
So, then what happened?
Well, Matt continued to get better. His broken bones healed and his head injury eased up by mid-July. He continues to build his biodiversity network, linking scientists all over the world to work on the biggest issues facing biodiversity today. He was mountain biking and backpacking with us five months after his accident. This fall, he ran a 25k trail running race and raised over $4,000 for kidney cancer.
I got a job. A grown-up job that includes everything I love, creating a program to help teach kids about the forest. That old degree I haven’t used for 13 years is now being put back to use. I have never felt more ready to step away a bit from my house. I know our family can handle it just fine.
I also decided to help coach the new NICA middle/high school mountain bike team. I am using my racing experience (which at times has seemed like possibly the most useless and frivolous skill) to help a new generation of riders fall in love with my favorite sport. I got to watch my thirteen-year-old daughter find “her people” (her words) and discover her own amazing strength and bravery. Our team became Oregon’s first state champions.
I am growing up. I have three kids. I have been through some stuff. I have learned what I love to do in life, how to make a commitment to the important things, how to let go of some details while hanging on to the important ones. I am far from done growing up. In fact, I think if I do this life thing properly, I will never finish growing up. I will just continue to grow.
I have discovered that my favorite people on earth are continuously growing up too. And they are helping me and others do the same.
I had a thought the other day. As I have experienced new levels of happiness, it seems I have gained the equal capacity to experience the same levels of sadness. As my adventures increase my courage, I have discovered whole new layers of fear. It appears my life is like a circle, and when I experience a new layer of happiness, sadness, courage, fear or another emotion, my emotional capacity circle expands. And that expansion is my growth. The circle and the growth probably equates somehow to my compassion and ability to relate to others. If someone gets sick now, I know what that looks like. I know how hard it is to take care of a person who is unwell and still try and care for your family and yourself.
I now know how amazing it feels to have your whole community rise up and help you meet those challenges. I know what it is like to run 50 miles around the wilderness with 10 amazing women. I know how good it feels to get through all of this and have some of your best friends from all over North America join together for a weekend of pure life celebration. It feels like living big. I want to keep doing this and keep growing up. Life still scares the hell out of me, perhaps now more than ever.
So Adventure Mamas: please, if you do one thing, keep growing up. Watch how your kids do it and follow their lead. Thank you for the inspiration to do my year of living big. It has truly been one hell of an adventure.
2 thoughts on “My Year of Living Big and Growing Up”
Your story and words are beautiful, inspirational and so timely. Thank you for sharing Karen ♥️
I love it – A “Grown Up Job,” I hear you… That is one thing that I am glad to have committed to in my late 20’s, and even after Baby find pride my work. Lovely Read