I got a letter in the mail a few weeks back (I’ve gotten a little behind on my blog posts – sometimes work gets in the way) from a friend. Denise ‘Ladybug’ Hill was off on another trek, an 800+ journey.
“Second only to the love of my family, I am most content when I am alone in the wilderness,” the note began. “In 2004, at 48 years of age, I took my first hiking steps on the famed 2,174 Appalachian Trail to fulfill two promises I made to my sister, Cheryl Rose Walden. I promised Cheryl, during her final stage of a ten year battle with breast cancer that her memory would last forever. I fulfilled that promise by planting hundreds of packets of forget-me-not seeds in 25 states and 3 countries during my treks. I also promised my sister that I would renew my faith and become closer to understanding God.”
A Little History
I think I first met Denise when she was training for her first trek, walking the Appalachian Trail in 2004. She wore a heavy backpack as she walked distances in training. I knew back then she called her journey ‘Walking for Walden’ and she was raising money for Hospice of Cincinnati in memory of her sister, but that was the extent of my knowledge.
Since then I’ve heard her stories…like when she was working to complete the Pacific Crest Trail in 2009 and found herself surrounded by a swarm of rattlesnakes. Her cell phone didn’t work in many places…but it did there.
“I had spoken to Bruce (her husband) earlier that morning and a ladybug crawled into my lap. When I mentioned my ladybug friend, he said, ‘That means you’re going to have good luck today.’ Little did he know, I would be SO lucky,” she told me. (which by the way is, you guessed it, why her nickname is now ‘Ladybug.’)
There are not that many people I know who get rescued from a den of deadly snakes in an emergency helicopter. But I know one.
Denise and I and another friend spent a weekend last fall hiking through Ohio’s scenic Hocking Hills State Park. That Saturday, Denise and I spent the day together walking more than 8 miles. When you spend so many hours alone with someone you get to know her pretty well. At one point she stopped and wanted me to continue. She wanted me to experience the peaceful solitude of walking amidst natural wonders, of being in my own thoughts and just appreciating what I don’t always take the time to see. This, she told me, is what it is like for her every time she is on one of her treks – and she has done a lot of them.
This Time Was Different
So this time, when Denise took to the trails with hopes of raising money and awareness for Hospice, I had a deeper understanding of why she left. This time I felt the desire to read her story that she has posted online.
Cheryl Rose Counts Walden whose spirit is Denise’s rock was a loving mother, daughter and sister to four younger siblings. Her ferocious fight against a disease the ultimately won the battle was testament to the strength of her inner core. Denise described her sister as ‘living a simple, yet full life, graced with peaceful and loving energy.’
As Denise raced to the hospital one last time memories of their childhood together kept her going. ‘Mental images of me with my sister, Cheryl, playing, laughing , scheming, cooking, crying, singing, dancing, and praying were reeling at fast forward speed in my head and as vividly as those actual moments in time. Tepid tears flowed freely down my face as I tightly gripped the steering wheel with both hands replaying the images of my youth,” Denise wrote.
Five years after her sister’s death Denise kept her sister close by sharing memories, raising money for breast cancer awareness, burning a candle in prayer every Christmas, and visiting Cheryl’s gravesite in a beautiful Tennessee setting overlooking the Great Smoky Mountains. Hiking became Denise’s choice for honoring her sister.
After trekking close to 4,400 miles on the 2,650 mile Pacific Crest Trail on a hike dedicated to Hospice of Cincinnati in her sister’s memory, this is Ladybug’s emotional finish.
I just heard from my friend. Her 800 mile hike that was originally taking her from Mexico to the ends of Utah had to be diverted, and she is completing her remaining 675 miles in our region. I’ll more than likely be joining her along some of that journey.
If you’d like to read more about Ladybug’s former hiking adventures: please visit www.walkingforwalden.com
If you would like to support Ladybug and her Hikes for Hospice
please send your donation to:
Hospice of Cincinnati, Inc.
C/O Bethesda Foundation, Inc.
P.O. Box 633597
Cincinnati, OH 45263-3597
From the words of a dying man, Kyle Nienaber learned about never giving up. From the undaunting spirit of a people crowded into one room shanties – makeshift homes without running water, sanitation or electricity – the 18 year old learned about hope and appreciation.
These are the lessons that can’t be taught in any textbook or school classroom. They are the life affirming consequences that occur when people reach out to one another with their hearts, their hands and their souls.
It’s a beautiful thing to see such education at an early age. Kids and teenagers are not just performing acts of kindness, but really understanding the bigger meaning. They’re learning about caring and respect and responsibility. They’re becoming a generation of people with compassion and deep rooted interest in making their world a better place.
Hospice of Cincinnati strikes me as a difficult place for a young person to choose to volunteer. But it’s become a sort of family tradition for the Nienaber’s, first with Kyle’s mom and sister and then Kyle filling his sister’s role after she graduated.
“It’s something that you can look back on and say you helped someone in their last moments on earth and it puts perspective on life,” he told me.
Especially when that perspective comes from someone with a finite time to experience life’s pleasures.
A huge sports fan, John was given six month to live when he moved into Hospice. It was Kyle’s job to bring him breakfast on weekends, which usually meant having to save the food and bring it back later – when John would finally wake up. The reason? Well, if the game happened to go long John would stay up until the last out was made or the last second ticked from the clock.
“He was always very happy and thankful to have had another night to enjoy his life and the sports he loved to watch,” Kyle said. “He very much enjoyed talking with someone about the games and I was lucky enough to be that someone on many mornings.”
But John shared so much more. His thoughts taught Kyle not just about sports but about living.
From his friend, Kyle wrote in an essay, “I learned that a person’s attitude about life can help extend it. John believed that staying with something until the very end was the best way to appreciate it. Sometimes things don’t end the way you expect. ‘That’s why they play the game,’ he used to say. Most important he used to tell me to never give up.”
In 2008, through Hospice Kyle traveled to South Africa where he helped its sister organization, built shanties and delivered supplies to AIDS patients. “I was one of those unappreciative Americans until I stood in that shanty town village and realized how lucky I am,” Kyle wrote about that journey.
And there, in the impoverished town in Mamelodi where hundreds of children and adults live on each acre, Kyle observed an incredible kindness and thankfulness. “The unbelievable spirit of these people makes me believe that hope is in their future and they can make progress on the very difficult issues they face as a nation.
“They taught me that compassion and caring for others knows no bounds in terms of nations, cultures and socioeconomic status.”
At home Kyle takes what he’s learned to heart, volunteering around Cincinnati. He was secretary of Beechwood High School’s Honor Society where he maintained a 4.27 GPA. And he was honored three times – with the Hospice of Cincinnati Terrific Teen Service Award, as a finalist for the Simon Lazarus Jr. Human Relations Award by American Jewish Committee, and as a YMCA Character Award recipient. He will be attending Notre Dame University this coming school year and chose it because of its focus on service.
And, as for those lessons?
“I’ve used John’s advice on many occasions since he died last year. I always try to keep a positive attitude about everything. Most recently I was inspired during a tennis match. After losing the first set, I remembered John’s words and stayed focused until the end and was able to win the match in three sets…I wish I could have told John all about it.”