Last summer, Dean and Linda Brewster were planning a hike — the long steep climb from the Heavenly Valley gondolas in South Lake Tahoe up the mountain to the lookout and restaurant at the top. They’d done the tough hike six times before and Linda wanted to try something new, but it was Dean’s favorite hike.
“The first time we did the hike, I stopped about three-fourths of the way up and said I would just wait for him to come back down,” said Linda. “He encouraged me the rest of the way up the mountain, telling me I would have bragging rights once I made it to the top. He was right.”
In September, Linda, 62, made the hike for the seventh time with a group of family and friends. Dean was with her, but not the way they had planned. He’d died of lymphoma in August — a disease he’d been diagnosed with 18 months earlier.
“He was very fit and hiked every day — he didn’t have any symptoms other than the lumps under his arms. I told him he was the healthiest sick person I knew,” said Linda. “The doctors said he would probably live to about 80 with treatments every few years, and die of something other than lymphoma.”
But May of 2011 brought some changes and the day after he and Linda did a six-mile hike, Dean went into the hospital for chemotherapy and didn’t come out. A reaction to the treatment took his life on Aug. 21 as his family watched helplessly.
After 42 years of marriage, Linda was devastated. They’d retired together in August of 2006 and enjoyed only five years of retirement before Dean’s death. A month later, Linda and 20 others — her two adult sons, Chad and Justin; their wives; granddaughters Kaitlin and Dylan; her twin brother; other family members and friends — took Dean’s ashes on the hike he hadn’t been able to do.
“It was wonderful having everyone together,” said Linda. They didn’t scatter Dean’s ashes, but brought them back down to be interred at a memorial park.
This year, Linda decided to do the hike in rememberance of Dean again. Before she’d gotten the word out, her daughter-in-law Theresa said, “Chad and I were thinking we would like to do that hike again.”
On Sept. 30, Linda and 20 others made the 2 1/2 hour trek up the mountain. Three of her five grandchildren joined the group: Tyler, 5, Toby, 8, and Tiffany, 9.
“It’s a hard hike and Tyler had never done anything like it before,” said Linda. “Theresa said, ‘Let’s just get to that pole (part of the gondola structure) and then we can stop.’ Then she encouraged him to go to the next pole — all the way up the mountain. Tyler was the first one to arrive at the top, wearing huge smiles the whole way.”
Tyler and his father, Chad, were the only two out of the group that hiked back down, doing it “for Papa.” Linda who’d wrecked her knee earlier in the month rode the gondola.
“I can’t go to the gravesite,” said Linda. “I spent the month of August in bed because everything happened in August — Dean’s birthday, my birthday, our anniversary, our retirement and his death. But this year, the hike was a turning point for me. I felt Dean was with me and that he wanted me to be happy. I feel alive and encouraged about living again. Up there, that’s where I’m the happiest.
“People look down from the gondolas and wave. They cheer you on,” said Brewster. “I think it’s somewhat like having a baby — once you get to the top, it’s so rewarding that you forget how hard it was getting there and you want to do it again.”
The encouragement from family and friends, the encouragement of taking action to honor the memory of a loved one, and the encouragement of being on top of the mountain and feeling alive is part of the healing, said Brewster.
The group plans to make the hike an annual tradition. “I want my grandchildren to know and remember their grandpa this way,” said Brewster. “He would have loved it.”
Contact Wendy Schultz at 530 344-5069 or [email protected] Follow @wschultzMtDemo on Twitter.