A Promise to Keep: My Son's One Year Journey in Honor and Remembrance of His Mother
A Promise to Keep
As I write, a young man named Daniel Perry Mills is in Lincoln, New Hampshire preparing to hike to the summit of the highest peak in the northeastern United States. Mount Washington is part of the Presidential Range of the White Mountains and rises to 6,288 feet. The highest winds ever recorded on the surface of the Earth swept across this peak on April 12, 1934.
On June 25, 2018, Dan will begin the journey across the peaks of mountains with the names, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and more. But this is only one section of a much longer trail my son has taken. He is now at mile 1,800 on the Appalachian Trail that runs 2,190 miles from the U.S. State of Georgia in the south to the State of Maine in the north.
The Appalachian Trail is only a part of the bigger picture of what Dan has been doing for most of the last year. In the fall of 2017, Dan set sail, alone, in his twenty-six-foot sailboat and headed south from our home in Leelanau County, Michigan. Many weeks later, he drifted out into the Gulf of Mexico.
I’ll leave out the details, but his travels took him to the Bahamas on board the forty-eight-foot vessel of a friend, back to Florida, back across the Gulf, and eventually to Springer Mountain, Georgia, the starting point of the Appalachian Trail (AT).
Dan first began the AT in March of 2008. Our family invested a lot of time and effort helping Dan get ready for the AT. We bought all the ingredients to make high-calorie meals which we would send to post offices in towns he would pass through. His mother and I traveled to the AT in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania where we went out on a day hike to one of the sleeping shelters Dan would eventually reach. We each wrote a letter to Dan, placed them in glass jars, and buried them beneath the shelter.
When his mother and I sent him off on that trip, I knew he would not finish. In fact, he was only on the trail for three weeks when I called and told him to head home.
Breast cancer entered our lives in September of 1998 and remained as an unwanted guest until April 1, 2008. That is why Dan had to come home. His mother’s health had begun to decline quickly. He took a bus and made it home in time to spend a few days with his mom. The last thing she said to him was this: “Dan, promise me you will finish the trail.”
The following March he attempted to do just that, but circumstances again brought him home early, although he did reach the shelter where we had buried the notes. This promise he made to his mother has weighed on him constantly for ten years. Sometime in the next twenty to thirty days, Dan will have kept that promise.
But it is not simply a hike. Dan is making connections between his AT experience and his mother’s fight with cancer. There are parallels between the daily plodding on the AT and the daily grind of fighting cancer. He saw his mother rise up and live fully during her battle. He is discovering a way to relate all of this in writing.
When Dan is finished writing about his experiences over the last year, the reader will know much more than simply what it is like to hike the AT. They will understand the impact of a woman’s battle against breast cancer on her son. The reader will know the pain of a boy watching his mother fight for her life, the pride of a young man witnessing his mother becoming a hero, and the despair as he finally loses the woman he adores and worships.
These final 390 miles are the most physically taxing of the entire AT. While other hikers are frantically packing in the miles to get to the end, Dan is slowing down a bit. He wants to savor the White Mountain experience and hammer out how he will relate all of this to anyone who would like to read his story.
Sometime in mid-July, Dan will climb to the summit of Mount Katahdin in Maine as the Promise Keeper, the man who endured hardship to achieve his goal just as his mother fought hard to be there for her family for as long as possible.
I am proud of my sons. They have proven that death does not have to claim the final victory.