05/09/2012 02:26 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Montezuma Castle & A Mom's Magical Gifts

After paying our admission to Montezuma Castle National Monument, Mom said "I don't know how far or fast I'll go, so you go ahead." I was both peeved at her lack of enthusiasm for seeing the historic marvel and secretly relieved at being able to wander.

I left her at the visitor's center and followed a path below looming cliffs lined with silvery and sage-colored scrub brush. Huge, graceful hawks glided in circles across a brilliant blue sky, crying out a welcome. The texture of the rock wall resembled a flaky biscuit, with layers and layers of sediment in shades of creamy white topped with delicious-looking pinks.

Carved into this cliff-face is the "Castle," a Cubist-like citadel in the Arizona desert. Its five stories of intersecting vertical and horizontal mauve rectangles comprise an ancient condominium complex built by the Sinagua people from 1000-1400 A.D. It is unknown why the Sinagua abandoned what had been their home for centuries; theories include warfare and drought.
Returning to meet Mom at the exit, she looked unfamiliarly frail and with a jolt, I mentally switched gears. My awe at the chalky landscape that had been home to generations evaporated, replaced with the practical business of seeing my elder to the Phoenix airport.

When I asked Mom if she needed to go to the bathroom, she looked at me with a puzzled expression, hesitated, and said in a decidedly undecided manner "I don't know..." I gently suggested she try and said I would meet her in the car.

Walking across the parking lot, my awe and wonder returned. I felt a sudden acute awareness of the cycle of life, of having become the parent in our exchange. After a lifetime as a role model in self-sufficiency, her uncharacteristic uncertainty provoked pangs of tenderness that were unexpected and a little disorienting.

I pulled around and waited in the idling car. She emerged from the building, and flung open the door with gusto, proudly proclaiming, "I went!" as she settled into her seat.

An hour later, as we clipped along the highway amid heavy traffic, signs told us we were in the Phoenix environs, but failed to signal the direction of our destination.

"Why are there no signs for the airport? Where are the signs for the airport?"
we kept asking each other, in increasingly anxious voices. The chant of "Lions and Tigers and Bears, oh MY!" from the Wizard of Oz began to ring in my head. Now, this was terra firma for my mother and me. We shared an unparalleled ability to whip each other up into a frenzy, each one's agitation an emotional "gitty up" to the other's.

"There it is," we screamed in unison, as we simultaneously spotted the unheralded exit. Soon enough, we were reveling in the glory of having thwarted yet another one of life's conspiracies to bring us down.
I had made the journey to Arizona with my mother to celebrate her 77th birthday and my decision to leave a longstanding position in public relations. She had suggested the destination, saying Sedona was a surreal landscape with transformative powers. The idea of being replenished in the desert seemed fitting.

Her openness and curiosity about otherworldly affairs had informed my own, just as it had at times embarrassed me. Growing up, she organized séances that entranced the neighborhood kids. Later, she shared stories about mystical insights and awakenings. The desire to believe in magic that she had instilled in me presented one of many internal conflicts as I pursued a capitalist career. An interest in the ethereal was at odds with a "show me the money" philosophy.

Mom had cozied right up to Sedona's claim to be the residence of invisible, electromagnetic, swirling sources of energy known as vortexes. An entire cottage industry here is borne on the backs of vortexes; publications and guides extol the properties of each one, with the energy of some cited as being more masculine, others, more feminine.

My corporate-trained mind scoffed at "evidence" of this phenomenon -- the contorted and twisted branches of the juniper trees adjacent to each vortex site, attributed to all that wild, whirling energy. At the same time, something in my very core wanted to believe that a week of sitting on Sedona's vortexes would imbue me with a mystical vision of my new purpose in life, now that I was minus the career that had defined me for so long.

At the beginning of our trip, Mom and I had made an early morning jaunt to Airport Mesa. Cairns marked the path to the purported vortex. Reaching the top of a short trail, the light was magical and from the heights we admired Thunder Mountain and other rock formations with names as colorful as their sunrise hues: Coffeepot, Sphinx, the Sail and Submarine Rock. We found a flat, dusty area with a panoramic vista; someone had laid out a circular design with stones, and we agreed this was as likely a location as any for a vortex.


With a fluid grace that belied her years and crippling rheumatoid arthritis, she sank to the ground, stretched her arms above her head, spread her legs wide and began to shake and howl. The utter absurdity of the situation brought me to my knees in laughter, and together we convulsed with silliness.

Two weeks after our trip, Mom was diagnosed with a second occurrence of lung cancer. That was more than four years ago. Her doctors marvel at her tenacity and courage. Based on our history, it is not those qualities in her that I consider to be extraordinary. Rather, it is the degree to which she has been able to relax, let go and allow others to take care of her.

Just as the sparse landscape of the Sinagua is a monument to survival skills and, ultimately, surrender, my mother's legacy will include rising to challenges and bowing to the inevitable. Those are magical gifts.