I am standing at the top of Baksei Chamkrong temple in the Angkor Archaeological Park, one of the holiest places in Cambodia, peering down a long, steep flight of crumbling rock steps. Behind me are a solitary reclining Buddha and the scorching sun. Some 40 feet below are my husband, Frank, and the safety of the dusty ground. Our rented bikes are locked beside a banyan tree. The crowds at iconic Angkor Wat temple, about a half mile away, are hidden by dense jungle. In this vast 99,000-acre complex dappled with waterways, temple ruins, tourists and monkeys, Frank and I are alone.
“You have to climb down backward,” he calls up to me. “Like climbing down a ladder.”
I try, but I am terrified.
As my foot dangles behind me, reaching blindly into thin air, a familiar sense of dread sweeps through me: I am hanging on by a thread; there is nothing holding me to this earth but my own vigilance. I’m going to die young, just like my mom.
These thoughts—private fears, held close to the vest for a long time—must be banished, or I will be paralyzed. So I turn back around, peer down the dizzying rocks, drop onto my butt and inch down one step. Very slowly.
“You can’t come all the way down that way,” Frank calls.
As I begin my slow descent, I try to imagine my mother, in pristine white slacks and tidy sneakers, scooching down steps caked with clay-colored dust and bird droppings. It never would have happened. But I am a different kind of woman, and anyway, my mother has been gone for 20 years. She died of lung cancer at 53, the same age I am now. I cannot follow in her footsteps. Instead, I’ve followed in my 23-year-old daughter’s—to Cambodia, where I teeter atop the temple before shamelessly, painfully sliding down the thousand-year-old steps on my butt.
It’s not surprising that I climbed too high that day at Angkor Wat. I’ve always been afraid of heights, but even more afraid of missing out on the best parts of life and then dying too soon. My mom was a frustrated, often sad person. A homemaker when her kids were young, she later took jobs for which she was far too smart, and told me she’d never learned how to be happy. She postponed her adventures to after she and my dad retired, then died before she could have them. All my life I’ve made choices that I hoped would take me in the opposite direction. I’ve built a publishing and teaching career. I write novels, travel and push myself to take risks (like climbing up those crumbling temple steps) because to avoid risk is to avoid living. While I’ve missed my mom for decades, I’ve also spent those years trying to build a life more adventurous and connected to the world than hers.
When Melissa, the older of my two children, graduated from college and announced she was going to teach English at a private elementary school in Cambodia for a year, I was thrilled to have raised such a fearless, spirited daughter. But with her on the other side of the world and my son away for his first year of college, I was haunted by the memory of my lonely mother in her last days, wishing she had lived more, done more, been happier. I hate to admit it, but I soon became jealous of my daughter’s life: teaching in a developing nation, learning a new language and culture, raising money to fight child trafficking, spending her lunch hours playing with children at a local orphanage, running a half-marathon to help land mine victims and partying in Thailand on New Year’s Eve.
Reading her blog from the safety of my suburban Dutch Colonial, I suddenly realized Melissa was having the life-changing see-the-world-while-saving-it adventure that I’d always dreamed of. I’d come close to visiting war-torn El Salvador back in 1989 but reluctantly canceled the trip when I discovered I was pregnant at age 29. Since then, I’d built a meaningful life but never forgot my longing to live overseas and help people in developing countries.