Mountain Mamas’ Comfort
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“You’ll never walk alone.”
I never imagined these song lyrics—from a song featured in the musical Carousel—would have such a profound impact on my life or would be such a source of comfort during the most painful time I’ve ever experienced.
In 2010, I planned a spa trip to celebrate my birthday with my three daughters. During the trip, my middle daughter Kiera’s eyes turned yellow with jaundice. Kiera, an otherwise healthy 34-year-old scientist and cancer researcher, received the shocking news she had Stage IV pancreatic cancer. Unfortunately, Kiera’s cancer was too widespread for surgery or clinical trials to be options, and no genetic mutations were found. She bravely endured multiple rounds of chemotherapy, and our family pulled together to support her.
Everyone in our family had different reactions to Kiera’s diagnosis. My youngest daughter, a therapist like me, wanted to talk about it, but my oldest daughter wanted to process it alone. My husband remained optimistic and wouldn’t consider the possibility Kiera would not survive, whereas I acknowledged the gravity of the diagnosis. Kiera was very stoic, never cried or complained and insisted that everyone stay positive around her. She wanted to hear funny stories and didn’t want anyone to bring up cancer. Her boyfriend was a comedian, surrounding her with a constant flow of humor and laughter.
One day, however, Kiera looked out the window from her hospital room and saw an elderly lady with a walker and said, “Now I know what it feels like to be old.” Then she admitted she was dying. I froze; this was territory I never walked before, and I didn’t have words. All I could say was, “You won’t be alone.”
And I meant it. I slept in a chair in Kiera’s hospital room for four months during her treatments just to be there for her.
To help myself cope with the insurmountable grief of watching my daughter go through treatment, I spent time in nature and drew a lot of what I felt, using different colored pens to represent my emotions. I also focused on enjoying the present moments I was having with my daughter. Most importantly, I leaned on my incredible support system, a loving group of women called the Mountain Mamas.
The Mountain Mamas started over two decades ago when a group of more than 20 moms hiked together once a week after we dropped our kids off at school in California’s Westlake Village area. Now, years later, some of the moms have moved away, and others aren’t well enough to walk, and the group has dwindled down to about 10 members. But we still get together every week, for walks, book clubs and a camaraderie that has carried us through life’s most trying circumstances.
When Kiera was feeling up to it, she would join us on our weekly hikes. When she was in the hospital, the Mountain Mamas and their husbands worked together to transform Kiera’s backyard into an oasis for her, complete with plants, a water fountain and a swinging bench. Then when I needed support to face what it meant to lose a child, the Mountain Mamas were there, and they continue to be there for me. During Kiera’s illness, my fellow Mountain Mama and dear friend Dr. Charlotte Fletcher heard the song “You’ll never walk alone,” and told me I would never be alone, that the Mountain Mamas would always be walking beside me, literally and figuratively. And, when I heard the hospital pianist playing that same song the night before Kiera died, I knew then too that with my support system, I was not alone, and that brought me great comfort.
Becoming involved with the Lustgarten Foundation also has brought me so much comfort and hope. I first learned about the Foundation while Kiera was sick. To thank the Mountain Mamas for their support, I planned a group dinner at a restaurant. However, the night of the dinner, Kiera was in the ICU, so I stopped by the restaurant to let my friends know I wouldn’t be joining them. There was a random flyer at the restaurant publicizing the upcoming Lustgarten Foundation Westlake Village Pancreatic Cancer Research Walk. I took it as a sign to get involved! The entire Mountain Mamas group joined, and we’ve been walking every year in memory of Kiera. Since 2012, we’ve raised more than $150,000 for the Lustgarten Foundation’s pancreatic cancer research program.
It is so important to support the Lustgarten Foundation because 100% of every donation funds research. Kiera tried so hard to stay alive, hoping for a discovery that would save her life. I don’t want anyone else to endure what my family did. I don’t want any parents to bury their child because of this devastating disease. Thanks to organizations like the Lustgarten Foundation, we’re on the verge of very exciting developments, and I believe there will someday be a cure for pancreatic cancer.
In addition to supporting the Lustgarten Foundation, my family honors Kiera’s life in other ways. After her passing in 2012, my husband Russ and I have focused on emulating the kind of life Kiera lived, filled with adventure, physical activity, a love of foods from other cultures and a desire to prioritize health. Kiera’s experience influenced my youngest daughter’s career path, as she works as a therapist counseling terminally ill cancer patients, in memory of her courageous older sister. Kiera’s friends also continue to honor her by hosting an annual fundraising dinner in her memory and donating the money to her high school, where she was class valedictorian.
From my work as a therapist, I know telomeres—found on the ends of chromosomes, like the caps at the ends of shoelaces—can fray and age 6-10 years when people are processing trauma, but this process won’t happen if they have a support network. I am so grateful for the Mountain Mamas for being my support, holding me up during the most difficult period of my life, making sure I have never walked alone.