I'm sitting in the last row of a Q400 passenger plane. I can see the Cascades through the window. The engine is grinding loudly compared to the large airplane that flew me into Vancouver, BC from Guangzhou. Below me, a trail of gigantic bear paws is printed in islands on the water. I see marinas carved into protected circles in some of them.
The seat next to me is empty. For the last thirty hours, I've been flying with Debbie Yu. When I left her at the Vancouver airport, I put a thick, powdery tikka on her forehead and wrapped a white cloth around her neck. She did the same to me. We hugged goodbye for the first time in nine weeks. I no longer have anyone with me who understands exactly what it feels like to be going home after this experience. Nobody is here with me to have rudimentary Nepalese conversations. She's not here with me to share the stomach pain from leaving so many patients and friends behind. But, Seattle is not too far away. We reminded ourselves often of this fact. I also reminded myself of the blessing in finding another human being who I could connect with so deeply around a shared act of courage. This is special and it will not be lost or forgotten.
I look up to see the flight attendant offering to take a photo for a group of young Canadians while she hands out angel pins for people who are afraid to be going up in the air. I have a dorje hanging around my neck and four Nepalese amulets in my checked baggage below my seat. I don't feel afraid to be flying today.
The powder peaks of Mount Rainier write a history out the window to my left. My favorite place on the earth. Mixing with the memories of this place and my culture are fresh memories of the patients I love, the monasteries, the communal sink in Nepal. All of these come together into my canvas of the present to produce colorful thoughts, inspiring and painful at the same time. I look forward to seeing my children at the airport.
Nine weeks ago, I set out on a journey that required me to do a number of things I was terrified of. After all of it, I didn't die. I didn't get sick and I didn't fail at helping people. Did I do what I set out to do? Did I make a difference? I know there is a difference for me. I am changed, but when I look at my hands folded in my lap, they still look like the same hands. My face looks like the same face reflecting back from the small square window.
The plane floats over Mount Saint Helens and people get out of their seats to take pictures through the window. Though she is scarred, she is so very beautiful. She is recognizable. They discuss which mountain is Mount Adams and which is Mount Rainier, but everyone knows who Saint Helens is. She is a survivor. She reminds me of so many of my patients. Maybe she reminds me of myself. I suppose she is a symbol of the human experience. _______________________________ Tonight, my husband and children have gone to bed. I'm sitting in front of a fire, watching a television show. My three-year old wakes up and calls out for his mama. I go in and he asks me to lay with him. I kiss his hands and wait for him to fall back to sleep.
As I make my way back out to the couch, I think about Auntie and my dal bhat plates. The airline lost my baggage. Will they be able to return the things I was bringing home from Nepal or is it all lost? What about my memories? Will they fade? Will I forget the people that I spent the last two months loving as I reconnect and focus on my family and friends here in Portland again?
As much as I love Nepal and even fantasized about staying and living there, and as much as I want to go back, I know that I belong to these mountains. I am home here, in the Pacific Northwest: temperate rainforest, sweet smelling moss, dark salty seal water. It takes courage for me to invest in what is right before me, in the present moment. It means I have to let go of what has been and what will be. I have to risk losing my memories in order to make new ones.
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