Journeying through "Wild"

Image credit: SNUFKIN

The sun has finally arrived in Cambridge and the feeling of sunlight on my face and the periwinkle blue of the sky reminds me of my nan with every heartbeat. I hear her voice, singing, and it transports me to the years when she would sing to me as I drifted off to sleep. Her love was limitless; it lifted me into the night sky, and made me into a twinkling star. When I think about my nan, I instantly see my mother’s face too: her warm brown eyes, the irresistible sound of her laugh, and the beauty in her smile. The inscription on their grave reads “together forever”. Their loss shook the ground beneath my feet, dismantled everything I thought was true, and put it back together again in an entirely different configuration.

In enters Wild by Cheryl Strayed. When I first encountered the film in December 2014 with my grandfather, we both sobbed the whole way through, feeling a connection with Cheryl from the outset as she suffers the loss of her mother. The instant I returned home, I bought the book on my Kindle and devoured it that night, gulping down the words that soothed and unsettled me at the same time. I view Wild as a travel diary of sorts. Strayed intersperses her gruelling physical experience of walking the Pacific Crest Trail on the West Coast of America, from California through to Oregon, with the visceral childhood, adolescent, and current feelings and memories of her mother.

There is a moment in the memoir that struck me so poignantly that I thought I had imagined it. Strayed recounts her mother’s birthday and she is suddenly filled with rage. But then she comes to the realisation that it is “too late now”, that thought emitting “a series of loud brays that coursed through [her] body so hard [she] couldn’t stand up”. The previous words had incited the same reaction from me, the words provoking images of my mum and nan that ran through my blood like razor-blades.

When I thought she couldn’t be more accurate in her description of grief, she incites me to further ruin with “She would always be the empty bowl that no one could fill. I’d have to fill it myself again and again and again.” This image is what grief is to me: it is the black hole of loss that stares at you from the space that they used to occupy. There is no give and take. It’s all give, giving and giving and giving to keep their memory alive, like riding a power bike endlessly to keep the lights on, unable to move fast enough.  

Just as this passage is a reckoning for Cheryl, it is a reckoning for me, too. She came out of her grief with the understanding that “I didn’t need to reach with my bare hands anymore. To know that seeing the fish beneath the surface of the water was enough. That it was everything.” I was coming to a greater realisation, at 17 going on 18, of what it was to miss two mothers: one that birthed me and one that raised me. The questions that would haunt me for the rest of my life that would never be answered. I thought of all the things I would never get to have with them: grandma, great-grandma, mother of the bride, proud mother and grandmother at graduation. Most importantly, there would no more everyday looking up over a drink and seeing their smiles, the reassurance that moored me to the solid ground. All these realisations inscribed onto my skin reconfigured the truth of the world, inciting me to walk, to laugh, to journey as Cheryl did into the wilderness and into myself. 

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