Sir Francis Bacon believed knowledge is power, coining a saying in 1597 that would be quoted by Thomas Jefferson and stretch forward into eternity. My father was certainly a proponent of this line of thinking, encouraging us to work hard in school and sports in order to achieve the ultimate goal: a college education. Although fiercely different in many regards my parents stood united on this front, instilling a culture of reading and learning within my sister and I that led to two bachelor's degrees, two master's and a PhD in toxicology from the esteemed University of Michigan. I'll never forget the look in my parents' eyes each time we walked across that stage or auditorium floor, a mix of pride, happiness and relief—a knowing that their girls had stayed the course, that they'd summitted the mountain, completed the marathon, hit their goals. Their girls were on their own.
We took a family vacation a few times a year, almost exclusively to places within driving distance—sixteen hours give or take. Dad drew the line at Florida—too far, too unpredictable to get through Atlanta. We visited Disney World twice and had the luxury of flying there, a memory I thought I’d always remember but like so many others has long since faded to black.
In the mid-nineties we packed up and drove endlessly north from Detroit. We eventually arrived in a magical place called Tahquamenon Falls, where cedar-stained water gushed over wide rock ledges on the Tahquamenon River. It was the furthest north I had ever been—my first time in the upper peninsula—and I found a peaceful foreignness I hadn’t known was missing.
Somewhere along the way we hop aboard a 1900’s era rail line once operated by Robert Hunter along an old logging site. My father takes the opportunity to dig into a lesson on velocity, spitting out various scenarios and numbers I am encouraged to quickly compute and deliver on. Speed is the time rate at which an object is moving along a path, while velocity is the rate and direction of an object's movement, he recites, sounding like our Encyclopedia on cd-rom. So in order to calculate velocity, we would need to divide the change in position by the change in time. If, for instance, we are traveling five miles in one minute heading west…
Nearly three decades later, I find that mystical northern landscape again, this time in the form of the Minnesotan north shore of Lake Superior. Thirty minutes north of Duluth finds the town of Larsmont, followed by Two Harbors, which eventually lands us in Gooseberry Falls State park, an impeccable nature area with well-maintained paths, burbling brooks, an impressive gift shop and the opportunity to easily hike to upper and lower views of the falls.
It had rained so much that spring that the falls were gushing—the water levels much higher than normal. The rush of the water, the earth-toned colors, the elderly folks and families admiring the view took me back to that family trip, to the beginnings of things rather than ends, which is where my mind naturally leads me these days for reasons both known and not.
I don’t recall bringing a wheelchair on the trip, which means she might not yet have been diagnosed with MS, which guarantees we would have only gone places she could walk to. My mother walking distances longer than a few blocks is not an easily retrievable memory—in fact, the only instance I can clearly recall happened while hiking the Cinderella Staircase at Camp Narrin with the brownie troop she co-led in 1990. Three hundred stairs carved into the side of a hill along a walking trail, of which sixteen tiny voices shouted out every number until their voices gave out and their legs nearly gave up. I remember Mom looking exhausted, uncertainty washing over her as we ascended the last few stairs to the platform above—and then ultimately, irrefutably, gloriously triumphant as she redirected her gaze past me to the wide expanse of forest below.
I learned back then that triumph is something only you can define; that victory looks different for everyone. My mother completed her Associate's degree at age thirty, enjoyed swimming for leisure and never won a race in her life. She encouraged education and athletic prowess in her girls but never pressured us to envision or achieve anything more than we wanted to be. As life ran its course Mom's steps became smaller, her accomplishments bigger—each movement a new victory over the last, a "screw you" to the disease, a reassurance that she still had power.
In both triumph and failure my mother was my hero: fearless, determined, strong.