The view before me took away what little breath I had left, and I felt a joy I had never experienced before.
How could I have grown up here and never known how beautiful it was? How had I never seen these trees? Why did I not know how much joy there was to be found around the corner? And how could be enjoying this burning pain in my legs, and the fire in my lungs?
I looked over to the cemetery across the valley, and waved. He would have loved that I was here. That we were doing this. Me, our Mum, and my son, his nephew, all out for a walk together.
And he would have been delighted that he was the reason.
My brother Richard had died the previous October. Reeling from the shock of his death, my mother and I clung to one another, building bridges and creating new depths to our relationship over endless tears and tea.
One day, I decided we needed to do something different. She loved walking in the hills. I didn’t. But there was a local walk route that she had taken all 3 of my brothers and my son on. I had never cared before. Now, I didn’t want to be the only one who hadn’t.
She used to tell me that I long ago lost the ability to shock her. I would smile to myself and think “If you knew all the things I don’t tell you, I probably still can”. But I definitely shocked her when I asked her “Will you take me for that walk?”.
She was delighted, and on the following Sunday, she packed a flask of coffee, some water and snacks into her backpack, and we set off.
For the first 20 minutes, I was certain we were walking at a 90 degree angle. My legs screamed their fury at being asked to work so hard. I’m sure my muscles were busy forming a union, objecting to this sudden and unreasonable change of demands.
But then we turned the corner, the view before me took away what little breath I had left, and I was in heaven.
By the time we got to the top of the mountain I had only ever reached by car before, I had fallen in love. The view was so much sweeter than it had ever been. My muscles were still very making their presence felt, but I was enjoying the sensation of feeling them work. And I felt a joy I had never experienced before.
Within weeks, I was fully kitted out to be a hiker. Mum bought me my first walking boots with joy, and we walked regularly together. It became the foundation for a deeper, stronger, more connected relationship with her, as we cleared old issues, healed old wounds and got to really know one another as we walked together in the Welsh hills and beyond.
Those paths I walked on in the hills became the start of my path to recovery. As time went on, I started to join walking groups that walked early on Saturday mornings. Or I would walk with Mum on Sundays. I would gladly stay sober on the night before a walk, so I could get up early, drive safely and enjoy the often challenging walks I enjoyed.
I started to develop a new level of appreciation and care for my body. Although I was still drinking and smoking, I started to enjoy other ways to keep my body fit and well. Swimming, going to the gym and exercise classes, cycling… I tried them all. And then one day, after taking time off work due to an asthma attack that left me feeling unwell for a few days, I went to a yoga class.
I’d tried yoga before and always enjoyed it, but had struggled to find a class I could attend regularly. Now I could, and I threw myself into it. Very early into my yoga practice, I resolved that one day I would be a yoga teacher. And in 2014, I achieved that dream.
But that teacher training didn’t only give me a teaching qualification. It saved my life.
I learned to breathe, and to soothe my anxiety with my breath. Through thousands of words of essay writing and stream of consciousness reflection, I healed old wounds and made peace with a troubled past. I discovered the joys of relaxation that didn’t need me to be numb. And I learned that it was ok to face my pain and fears, I didn’t need to try to hide from them.
By the time I completed my training, I was 6 months sober, and equipped with a range of coping and healing strategies that would help me stay sober.
And I still walked. Yoga had been the final piece in my recovery puzzle, but I still needed the hills and cliff paths. Going for a walk was my refuge, my reboot, my retreat, my recovery.
Mum and I continued to walk often together. During lockdown, we both walked miles and miles around our hilly valley. We delighted in the fact that living in a valley meant that we could walk for miles without ever going beyond the allowed lockdown borders.
But she was showing obvious signs of slowing down. And when we learned at the end of 2021 that she had her second, and final bout of cancer, I started grieving not only the end of her life, but also the loss of that joy that she and I found together in our walking boots.
There were times when I wondered if I would be able to enjoy walking again without her. She was so central to my whole relationship with walking, that I couldn’t imagine enjoying it when she was gone.
Two days after her death, on her birthday, I put the theory to the test when I went for a walk in her memory. I may have watered the ground with many tears as I walked, but I was so glad I was walking.
I still love to walk. And every time I do, I have both her and my brother with me in my heart.
That first walk set me on the path not only to a love of walking, but to the healing and recovery that allowed me to get and stay happily sober. I am forever grateful to my Mum for sharing her love of walking with me, and for leaving me with a way to keep her memory so alive without her.