In one of those stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night. And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content that you have known me. You will always be my friend… I shall not leave you. – Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Mell has been a presence in my life for… well… ever, really. In 1953, before I was even a twinkle in my dad’s eye, Mell’s husband, Pete Schoening, and my dad were comrades on the 1953 American Expedition to K2, the second highest mountain in the world. In fact, Mell’s husband saved Dad’s life and the lives of four other men on that climb with his belay – known as The Belay amongst those familiar with mountaineering history. If it wasn’t for Mell’s husband I wouldn’t have been born.
Pete was an amazing man with a passion for life and adventure. And Mell, although maybe less well-known, was no less amazing than her husband.
My first memory of Mell is of a visit my family made to the Schoening domicile on Lake Washington when I was maybe seven or eight. I remember clearly Mell’s laugh – an exuberant, infectious, no-holds-barred royal gem of a laugh – the kind of laugh that never failed to make those within earshot start grinning. The Schoening children were there that day – ranging in age from a little older than me to a little younger – and a livelier, more energetic group of playmates I have never known. I remember swimming in the lake with them, gathering around a campfire later and roasting things over the coals, and I remember being in a dark room with the Schoening youngsters and being introduced to the joys of a strobe light for the first time.
Although neither my dad nor Pete had been at all religious men, they had both managed to marry themselves to women who were Christian Scientists. Actually, now that I think about this, Christian Science wives were perfect for those two outdoorsmen. There wasn’t a whole lot of dogma and “religiosity” in Mell’s or Mom’s denomination – no belief in eternal damnation, no belief in an anthropomorphic god who zaps his children to hell periodically, no fear, no guilt, no rigid strictures, or a literal interpretation of The Bible. In short, their wives’ religion made absolutely no demands on Dad or Pete to live any differently than they were already living, and Mom and Mell’s positive view that things always turn out alright in the end was probably a huge support to men who occasionally launched themselves out onto epic adventures in the highest mountains in the world.
In 2005 I published my first book of stories and essays, Blessings: Adventures of a Madcap Christian Scientist. I started writing Blessings in April and I’ve never had a book pour out of me so easily and effortlessly. By Mother’s Day I had a rough draft ready to give to my mom for a Mother’s Day gift. And, because I’d made mention of The Belay and what I called “The Children of the Belay” (the descendants of those who had been roped up to Pete’s belay on K2) in my book, I also sent a copy to Mell – I wanted to get her approval before I published Blessings in a more public way.
A few days later Mell called me up. She told me that my book had really touched her and she wanted to share it with the rest of her family. Mell was my first book fan. By the time our conversation ended I was feeling all galvanized and inspired by her enthusiasm and encouragement – and ready to get Blessings published.
Over the next few months as I prepared my book for publication Mell’s unfailing support was crucial to me. She had the uncanny knack of always calling just as I was getting discouraged – right after some weird computer glitch stalled me out, or the printer stopped working, or I couldn’t figure out how to re-work the formatting. And her words of encouragement always set me back on track with a renewed energy. She helped me feel that what I was doing was important. She helped give me a feeling of mission.
A year or two after Blessings was published, Pete passed on. At the reception to his memorial service, several of his children began talking with me about bringing together the COBs (Children of the Belay) for a kind of reunion. The reunion took place the following August and it was a blast! The Schoening family put it all together for us, and even printed out t-shirts for everyone to commemorate the event. Mell played a huge part in all of that.
After Blessings I published several more books, and every time one came out in print I’d send a copy to Mell – my first fan. And every time she received one of my books Mell would call me, or email me, to thank me and offer her words of encouragement and inspiration.
Mell passed on a couple weeks ago.
Publishing my books is not going to feel the same for me now. I think it’s going to feel like it did the first time I climbed a mountain without Dad. It’s going to feel like there’s something – someone – missing from the whole experience.
I know Mell lives on in our memories of her, in our love for her, and her love for us – and I believe who she is has moved on to whole new adventures. I know her laugh is blessing others right now, as it has blest me.
But I miss her just the same.
And I really wish I could share this post with her.
Children of the Belay, 2006