After My Father Died, I Found Him Again on Kilimanjaro
Dad and I had always planned to climb Africa’s tallest peak together, but cancer took away our chance. I knew he wouldn’t want it to take mine, too.
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I flick water on my face. Maybe this will be the splash to finally jolt me from this nightmare. I try again, miss my cheeks, and drench my sweatshirt instead. As I reach for paper towels, I catch my swollen eyes in the hospital bathroom mirror. They carry a message I’ve worked tirelessly to ignore: This is the end.
For six months, I’ve been training to hike Kilimanjaro—preparing for the lactic acid, alfresco bathroom breaks, altitude sickness, and a week without showers. That all feels like a cakewalk compared to this. I’ve spent the past two weeks camped out in a creaky hospital chair as my dad, the inspiration for my upcoming adventure, slips away.
The stress pit in my stomach has become a black hole. I look back in the mirror for a mental pep talk, but my sweatshirt’s tattered letters—KILIMANJARO—send me spiraling again.
The vintage pullover belonged to my dad, who acquired it on his Kilimanjaro trek in 1978, back when he was a daring world traveler, not the shell of his former self lying intubated, and losing hope on a hospital bed. As he always reminded me, he’d “climbed Kili before it was cool.”
Dad spent a lifetime emboldening me to do the same. Three months from now, I’m supposed to fly to Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro International Airport, where I’ll follow my father’s footsteps up to the 19,341-foot summit of Africa’s tallest peak, known in the country’s national Swahili language as Uhuru, the word for “freedom.”
That was the plan.
Now, two weeks into his hospital stay, he’s tired of life on a breathing machine. He’s grown impatient; he craves home. His agitation this particular morning is making that clear. I’ve tried everything in my power to keep him from pulling at his breathing tubes. I played Beatles jams. We binged the Dodo’s dog-rescue videos. Now it’s time to leaf through the Tanzania travel photo book I’d designed for him the previous Christmas.
The oversize book, wrapped with a close-up cheetah snap from our first family safari in Tanzania, recapped his many jaunts throughout the country: our shared wildlife memories, his 25th wedding-anniversary celebration with my mom, and, of course, his initial trek to Kili’s summit.
“Dad, look, it’s Kili!” I squeal upon spotting the pages dedicated to the snowcapped stratovolcano. I thought these photos would remind him of our upcoming trip, of all that he had to fight for. His face goes blank; he dodges my gaze. Then I spot it: a lone tear skating down his cheek.
He knows it. Now I know it. It’s time to say goodbye.
That July morning in 2018 was the last time my dad was truly my dad. He took his final breath less than a week later.
When he died, at age 69, on July 27, my world crashed down. The only scrap of solace I could find was knowing Dad had loved well and lived wildly—climbing mountains, traveling, seeking adventure, and staying true to himself.
He left earth with no regrets. It was time I did the same.