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Conjuring Mom

The note on my pack: 'Walking for Mom, Sara Gilsdorf 1940-1997, brain aneurysm survivor, Boston- Lee, N.H.'
The note on my pack: 'Walking for Mom, Sara Gilsdorf 1940-1997, brain aneurysm survivor, Boston- Lee, N.H.' (Ethan Gilsdorf for the Boston Globe)
Email|Print| Text size + By Ethan Gilsdorf
Globe Correspondent / January 13, 2008

SOMERVILLE - Two weeks later, and my baby toes are still mashed. Three blood blisters lurk under three toenails. My right ankle aches. Walking 75 miles in three days a week before Christmas will do that to you.

What was I thinking? Was I thinking at all?

The idea was simple. My mom, Sara Lynn Gilsdorf, died 10 years ago, on Dec. 19, from complications resulting from a brain aneurysm. I wanted to commemorate the anniversary in a concrete way. I wanted my tribute to have a physical form. I decided to walk from Boston, where my mother was a patient in 1978, to Lee, N.H., my family's hometown and the location of her grave.

Simple. I mapped out the most northerly route possible on secondary roads. I noted benchmarks to reach every hour to make sure I'd arrive at the designated hotel before nightfall. I did not want to feel this was a race, but I did believe I could comfortably do three or four miles an hour if I pushed it.

When I told my family and friends, some responded, "What a lovely way to remember your mom." Others were less supportive. Some worried about my safety. Walking in December? After a huge snowstorm? Would I get hit by a snowplow? One friend said, "Sounds like you are lost."

Perhaps I was. Or was I just a naive, 41-year-old moron with a mommy complex?

When the aneurysm ruptured in my mother's brain, she was 38 and a Harvard grad student. Right-brain damage caused crippling left-side paralysis, massive changes in behavior and personality, and dangerous bouts of epilepsy. Her life was upended, and so was mine. A part of me wanted to be a monk on a pilgrimage, enduring hardship for some higher cause. So I decided that during this walking meditation I would try to raise money for the Boston-based Brain Aneurysm Foundation, which helps families and survivors cope.

One thing was certain: I was ill-prepared. Yes, I had hiked and mountain-biked long distances. But I hadn't trained for what turned out to be a trio of 25- to 27-mile marathons. Plus, I had never clomped for eight or nine hours in boots in below-freezing temperatures on asphalt and crusty snow carrying a 30-pound backpack.

Day one began well enough. Rising at 5:30 a.m. on Dec. 17, I slipped on my many layers and my blaze-orange vest, slung my backpack over my shoulder, and headed out into the darkness. At Mass. General Hospital, the place where it all began - and ended - for my mother, I punched a hole in the snow and dropped in a votive candle. I had wanted to light three candles: one here; one outside my mother's old apartment in Cambridge, where she was found unconscious after the aneurysm burst; and the third at her gravesite, which at that moment seemed impossibly far away.

Three candles. Three children. A three-day trek. Almost three decades since 1978. I liked the tripartite symmetry. I marched into the cold, my handmade amulet - two photos of my mother, "before" and "after," sandwiched together - dangling around my neck.

The dark world had brightened. I trudged over the blustery Longfellow Bridge, across the length of Cambridge, into Somerville and Medford, and along Route 28 through the Middlesex Fells. Getting out of the city was dangerous. I fell twice. I had not expected blocked sidewalks, busy strip malls, and road shoulders blackened with ice.

Farther north, I found my stride. I passed modern homes, historic Colonials, and farms becoming subdivisions. I felt joyful, my breath puffing into the sky-blue air. I felt important and alive. Snow lay everywhere, like blank pages upon which I wrote my thoughts.

By the end of the day, I had arrived in Andover, just as dusk almost erased me. Rising for day two wasn't as horrible as I had feared. Recharged by dinner, a bath, sleep, and breakfast, I walked through Boxford, Groveland, and along the Merrimack River almost as far as Amesbury. I crossed iron bridges and warmed myself in convenience stores. Horses looked at me quizzically.

I was a walking curiosity. Cars honked. Some people pulled over to read what I had safety-pinned to my backpack: "Walking for Mom, Sara Gilsdorf 1940-1997, brain aneurysm survivor, Boston-Lee, N.H." "What is up with Mom?" a newspaper deliverywoman asked. She handed me a few bucks. One man invited me home for cocoa and cookies and gave me $20. How could I refuse? Police officers asked how many miles I had to go. A fire chief wished me well. But I'm certain some passersby thought I was a crazy zealot, message strapped to his back, tramping into winter like a fool.

The morning of day three, I crossed into New Hampshire and by midday walked through towns that had been a part of my childhood: Exeter, Brentwood, Newfields, Epping. But putting one leg in front of the other was now a chore. My toes throbbed. The cold turned my water bottle into a slushie. I hit the wall. Restarting after stopping was more painful than simply pushing forward. I hobbled, crippled, exhausted. Inexplicably, I whispered, "Mom . . . Mom." Was I hallucinating? I began to cry. I bucked up, sang a song, and, tapping some hidden reserve of energy, soldiered on.

At 5 p.m. I arrived at my mother's grave. New snow fell as my sister and brother joined me. The walk was over.

These last two weeks I have wondered whether Mom approved of my odyssey. I'll never know. But some wise person was watching over me, if not my mother then a kindred spirit. Back home on Dec. 20, I checked the Advent calendar a friend had given me before I left. Each drawer contained a chocolate and a Chinese fortune. The message for Dec. 17 read: "Take some time and really listen to your own inner wisdom." Dec. 18: "Minor aches today are likely to pay off handsomely tomorrow." Dec. 19: "Today is the day you let it go."

Why had I walked from Boston to Lee? Because my mom could not. Again, why? Not to travel, but to be moved. I had no clear answers. Perhaps the walk had taught me a way to conjure her, to finally speak to her. "Mom?" I called at her gravesite. I lighted the candle, and left the amulet behind.

Two weeks later, soaking my legs and feet in the bathtub and eating chocolate, I thought I heard her reply, "No need to suffer anymore. Thanks for carrying me. Now, let it go."

Donations to benefit the Boston- based Brain Aneurysm Foundation are still being accepted at active.com/donate/gilsdorf. For more information, call 617-269- 3870 or visit bafound.org. Gilsdorf, a writer in Somerville, can be reached at ethan@ethangilsdorf.com.

If You Go

The note on my pack: 'Walking for Mom, Sara Gilsdorf, 1940-1997, brain aneurysm survivor, Boston- Lee, N.H.'
Ethan Gilsdorf

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