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An oak tree amidst the saguaros

I went to Tucson, planning to spend a week with my mom in the desert, counting, measuring and pondering the saguaros. I ended up spending a week with my mom in a hospital, thinking about an oak. And a grapefruit.

The day after I arrived, her doctor had came into her room, sat down on a stool and started to explain why she hadn’t been feeling quite right. At one point, he took a piece of paper full of her medical information, flipped it over and started drawing a picture.

“Think of a big oak tree,” he said to my mom, several others in the room and, via cell phones held in front of the doctor, my two sisters in Michigan and Nevada. “A big oak tree in the middle of winter, with no leaves.”

This is the liver and the bile ducts, he said, drawing the branches of the tree.

Much of what he said while in the room is a blur. What I remember is the quiet of that moment, just the rhythmic hum of a hospital bed and the scratching of pen on paper. Scratching that seemed amplified as the doctor drew a circle in the middle of the tree and filled it in, making it bigger and darker.

“You’ve got a huge tumor, the size of a grapefruit, sitting in the middle of your liver, right there where all the branches of the tree go into the main duct,” he said. “Right smack there.”

He stopped drawing, looked at my mom, and repeated what by then was obvious: This is bad.

Bile duct cancer, technically known as cholangiocarcinoma. I had never heard of it. When I Googled it later, I found out that February was Cholangiocarcinoma Awareness Month. Seven days into the month, we became quite aware, thank you.

This is the kind of news that makes you think about a lot of things — including some of the stories I’ve written through the years, and the people who have talked to me, trusting me the details of a tough situation involving them or a loved one. I appreciate their strength even more now.

When the doctor left the room, I looked at the message that was on the nurses’ whiteboard — “Daily goals: Today I’d like to …” — and thought of ways to finish that sentence.

Be given a cure for cholangiocarinoma.

Turn back the clock.

Turn it back to last summer when, for my 50th birthday, the entire family gathered in Redwood National and State Parks. At the time, Mom kept saying she didn’t feel quite right. But even when she had to stop and rest repeatedly at the end of one six-mile hike, I didn’t think much of it. I figured that at age 73, the woman who always has worn out the rest of the family out with her energy — the woman who eats healthier than anyone I know, hikes every day, never has smoked and has about a half-a-beer limit — finally was slowing down a little.

In hindsight, while we were in the middle of the redwoods — trees that grow so tall and old partly because they are incredibly resistant to all kinds of threats other than man — my mom almost certainly had a mass growing in her bile ducts.

I’d like to turn the clock back to then. Or at least to a few hours before the doctor was drawing the oak tree, when I was sitting in the office of Darla Sidles, the superintendent of Saguaro National Park, talking about another tree. The park’s namesake, the saguaro cactus.

When you think of the American west, of old-time Hollywood stars riding a horse through the desert, you probably picture the saguaro. The reality is that saguaros only are found in a small part of the west. In Tucson, though, the hills are covered with them, their long roots giving them stability and life, their arms giving them a human-like quality.

“Like planted people, no two alike, individual and idiosyncratic, each saguaro has its own form, its own character, its own personality,” author Edward Abbey once wrote.  “When nobody else is around, I talk to them. On simple subjects, of course.”

That’s why, long before I had any inkling about my mom’s cancer, I made plans to go to Tucson as the second stop on my national parks project. I wanted to learn everything I could about the saguaros. How they are threatened by an invasive grass. How some saguaros have microchips implanted in them to deter thieves. How, unlike the redwoods, they are susceptible to disease. And how, despite all they face, they often live 200 years.

I also wanted to write about another threat to the future of the parks, the question of whether my mother and many other like her — the parents who packed the kids in the station wagon and took them to the national parks — were an endangered species.

After watching the doctor drawing the oak tree, my first impulse was that the project instantly became incredibly meaningless. My second was that it was even more meaningful.

My love of the national parks can be traced to my parents, to trips we made as a family. And I’m far from alone. That’s a theme I’m already hearing over and over while traveling this year. It’s part of what gives the parks their power. Not just their natural beauty or American history. Their personal history.

Mom told me last year that she’s always wanted to go to Denali National Park in Alaska. So when I won this fellowship, we began to make plans to go there this summer. Now I’m not sure where this year will take me, take us. I want to believe that we’ll make it to Camp Denali, that mom will continue her tradition of doing a trip with each grandchild when they turn 12 and, perhaps most of all, that we’ll have many more hikes through the cacti in Tucson.

One thing I know for sure about this year is that it will be impossible to separate a project about the national parks from my mom. It’s not like one is work, the other is personal. The two are as intertwined as the powerful roots of a saguaro.

(photo gallery: Saguaro and Mom)


  • Tracy


    My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family ALWAYS! Beautifully written and thank you for sharing such a personal journey.

  • Marcia Redding-Sanders


    I'm praying that the good Lord will hold you in the palm of His hand throughout this year and always.

  • Nancy Hogshead-Makar


    Beautifully written piece. Peace to you and your family, Mark. Nancy & Scott

  • Norm Blum


    I read your moving column. The nearby Mayo Clinic is considered an expert in this type of cancer. Hopefully treatment is an option.

  • Susan


    I will keep all of you in my thoughts and prayers.

  • Wendy


    Mark, that was beautiful yet difficult to read without getting very teary-eyed.

  • markwoods


    Thanks to everyone for your thoughts and prayers. I feel even more fortunate to be working on this project now, because while I'm not sure where this year will take me, literally or figuratively, I know for certain that all of us -- my mom, her family and friends -- will find solace in the places she loves.

  • april panganiban


    Beautiful! Touching and so very loving....good luck to you and your family!

  • Suzanne Jenkins


    Your column touched my heart. My mom like yours was healthy, strong and full of life and adventure. She was a force of life for us all. I will be praying for you, your mom and family & friends. May you feel God's comfort, strength and know His wisdom as you go through this journey.

  • Kathleen Kaye


    Mark, my thoughts are with you. I am not finding eloquent words or inspiring thoughts tonight, but I know how much you must love your mother and I wish you both strength and luck! This has to be a great shock and a stress as you are not geographically close. You still are so important to you mom and you can help her so much! Take Care!

  • Joy Watson Jarrell


    I'm so moved by your blog. I went through something very similar with my mother. And, like your mom, my mother shared with me the love of travel and learning about life. We spent months in Redwood City, CA and in her summer home in Bass Harbor, ME. These are times that can never be replaced and I'm glad that although my mother is no longer here, the memories never go away. I look forward to following your posts. Enjoy all the time with your mom!

  • Carol Bult


    Mark, Have been thinking of you and your family very often in the past few weeks. Your post speaks so beautifully about the connectedness of things. How wonderful to have a mother who inspired your passion for the natural world.

  • Laurie Cason Walmer


    Mark, I'm saddened by your news, but - as always - inspired by your words. Your journey is a wonderful testament to the love of our national parks that your mom - like mine, like many others - has nurtured. Hoping for the best for you and your family, Laurie

  • Warren


    We are all just walking each other home.

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