My mom turned 70 this year. It was a landmark birthday and she had an equally monumental request for her celebration.
She isn’t a fancy woman, my mom. She has never needed jewelry, a beautiful car or expensive clothes. I once bought her a classic Chanel bag that she keeps neatly in its box years later. Not a scratch on it. “Too nice to use,” she says. She is a person who has never expected more than she could earn for herself. I respect that about my mom; I always have. Instead of life’s tangibles that mean nothing in the long run, she seeks experiences. Moments, memories, feats not expected of her. My mom wants an accomplishment where she can proudly say, “Look, I did it!”
At 69, Mom told her 5 children that she wanted to climb to the top of Mt. Fuji on her 70th birthday. I can’t speak for my brother and sisters, but I know them well enough to guess we all fielded the same pregnant pause. What I find funniest about that pause? It had more to do with us than with her. There was NO doubt in my mind that she could make it.
We, on the other hand, would have to dig deep.
Did we have to train or was sheer will enough? Who had time for this? Not only are there 10 nieces and nephews between my siblings, but they have normal jobs they would have to take leave from—while my work is wildly unpredictable. How could we logistically make her dream come true? All I knew was, if this is what she wanted, we were going to make it happen. If a 70-year-old woman wants to climb a mountain, we were going to be right there with her.
God help us.
By some miracle, we all made arrangements with our spouses, our work, for our children and our animals, and planned to meet in Japan in July.
I had finished two movies earlier in the year. During that time, I was also building my activewear company, Qeep Up. Every second of my days was devoted to work as I was launching my company in a few months. Just before I left for Japan, I had a conference call with my team to arrange for deadlines while I was without cell service on my climb. In the hustle of startup building, I’d forgotten to mention it before. Maybe I was looking at it as my mom’s dream that I quickly had to make happen for her—and then I’d just as quickly get back to work.
I didn’t understand that anything we decide to do for another can greatly benefit us if we are open.
On that call, I finally did tell them and there was a collective gasp. “Why didn’t you tell us? That’s huge!” they said.
My brand director chimed in, “Maggie… I’m reading Phil Knight’s biography and right before he launched Nike, he climbed Mt. Fuji!”
I was of course a little stunned. Ok, a lot stunned. I thought it was an incredibly cool coincidence, but I left my own worth at the door, which is pretty standard for me. Phil Knight? Wow. But that’s Phil Knight. He climbed Mt. Fuji and so will I… That’s where the similarities begin and end.
My mom’s birthday falls during Mt. Fuji’s rainy season. If you have never done a 2-day climb where you ascend to over 12,500 ft in the freezing cold and pouring rain, I highly don’t recommend it. Apparently, you can’t choose to have someone’s birthday at a drier and more pleasant time of year, even if you want to.
The climb was harder than I’d anticipated. By A LOT. Physically it was demanding, but the conditions made it abject misery. There was no way around the soaking wet clothing, the freezing water pooling in your shoes, or the inability to see just feet in front of you.
I’m all about hard work, but I need to see my goal. Literally, I need to see it.
When you are one foot in front of the other on a journey into clouds and sheet rain, you just want to cry. Faint. Die. Cry. And then cry some more. We were all at the breaking point when we finally reached the top. But we did it. Wide-eyed and without words, we stared at one other the way a wild animal does after an encounter that was more scary than pleasing. My mom was justifiably weak and we all did what we could to get her strength back up.
There, in the thickest of clouds, we knew we had made it but had no real proof besides the ache of our bodies. Sometimes you do all the work, but you have to wait until the clouds clear to know it was worth it.
In the middle of the night, I stepped over my mom and siblings who were passed out like sardines, cursing under my breath at the trek I had to make outside in the cold for the bathroom. Eyes stinging, I exited the door of our mountain hut, and there it was…
The moment you never think is coming.
The clouds cleared and peeking through was the fire of the sun. The proof had come and I could do nothing but stand there in awe. It’s funny how all the pain slips away when a dream has been realized. It must be how athletes feel after seizing the gold.
I ran back in and not-so-gently shook my mom awake. “You have to get up and see this!” I whispered.
Even with her altitude sickness and her weakened state, my mom got up and followed me outside. Seeing her face in the silence of that morning, the golden light reaching us before anyone on the ground, I knew why it all worked out and why we did this together. It was her dream and because she saw it so clearly, she made everyone around her believe, too.
I suppose that is how a good dream works: It becomes a realized vision of the future.
As the sun came up that morning, I walked to the edge of the summit thinking about my own dreams and how this experience would shape them. I opened my backpack and pulled out an item that went against the advice of every climber I know—a heavy “non-essential.”
I knew if I summited Mt. Fuji, I would plant my own flag among the steep rock and skyline, my proof that the clouds had cleared and I was heading into a vision of my future. I wondered if Phil Knight knew he was going to shape a generation in his moment on the mountain.
Is that something anyone ever truly knows, or do we all just follow our hearts?
I know where my heart had led me, and I repeated a promise to myself: I would be a part of a nation changing how we protect this gift we call home.
I planted my flag. For me, for you, and for our collective mother.
Thank you, Mom. Happy Birthday!