In my late teens and twenties I was a backpacker. I love the High Sierra’s and began to really feel at peace and at home with not just the outdoors, but also the person I was becoming. Those adventures were really among the first, I recall, at pushing the limits of my own physical boundaries.
One summer, high and far toward the eastern Sierra Mountains, I found myself sitting quietly on a rock with my blistered feet cooling off in a chill mountain lake called Devils Punchbowl. The tiny, secluded lake was so named because it was bordered by towering, craggy escarpments on three sides, and gave the impression of an other-worldly, albeit beautiful and wondrous place. Devil’s Punchbowl meadow and lake sat at ‘tree-line,’ about ten thousand feet MSL, with the surrounding razor-back ridges peaking at about twelve thousand feet. Sitting on my ancient, weathered rock at the lakes brim and gazing at the highest peak of Devil’s Punchbowl, an unnamed and intimidating slice of Terra-firma, I felt an overwhelming urge to climb it.
Leaving my backpacking gear at our base camp, armed with little more than shorts, t-shirt, my trusty orange nylon day pack carrying a canteen of mountain water, a camera and some pocketed trail-mix, I started my climb with several friends who tired quickly from the effects of the thin, cold mountain air. I continued undaunted by my solitude and unconcerned, perhaps even youthfully ignorant of my own safety, and continued to climb ever higher toward the sharp rocky teeth that chipped and bit at my bare shins and un-gloved hands.
For me, the harder I climbed, skipped and leapt over the boulders that seemed to purposefully block my assent, the faster I went, the better I felt, and the happier I was. I felt light and strong and set a careless and unrealistic pace.
Suddenly, everything changed. I was no longer ascending on my quest for the peak, but was instead sliding backward, and to the right of my original chosen path. I was sliding faster and clawed for safe purchase, finding none. I spun my hips and flipped around in an attempt to gain traction and to get some kind of visual clue as to where I was headed. The rocky surface I slid down was wind-warn smooth and covered with a soft layer of newly eroded granules of sand, which only served to accelerate my decent. To my momentary horror, all I could see was sky and the surface of the tiny meadow more than a thousand feet far beneath me. The soles of my shoes were suddenly free of traction, followed by my entire body…and I knew at that moment that I was free-falling….
I recently had a similar feeling. In the moments after being diagnosed with cancer, the sense of free falling with nothing beneath me felt strangely familiar. I’ve felt it before to a degree, in different chapters of my life, but never quite as definitive as in those first moments of shock and fright. “Cancer. Shit. That’s it then…that’s how I die. OK. What about Eileen, family, friends…”
When I was falling off the mountain, a similar pattern of thought automatically ran though my conscious mind. “Falling, shit, that’s it then..that’s how I die. OK….what about……” The thought didn’t last long. Not more that a fleeting second I’m sure. By nature I'm a problem solver, and almost immediately I began to calculate my position and options.
It’s these thoughts, I believe, that are at the heart of who we are as individuals, as people and as a species. In the tiniest fraction of time that followed, I had to swallow hard, and overcome my mounting fear and emotional paralysis. I had to look down the mountain! I had to raise my head, bend my neck and look toward where I was falling. I had to. I had no other option but to look down at the approaching rocks and try to wiggle my body around to a position where I had my feet under me, my knees bent, and my hands at the ready in anticipation of whatever impact was coming. I had to be ready to land, to roll, or sit, or fall backward or do whatever it took to be in the best position to recover as fast as possible. There was no one there to catch me. I had arrived in that predicament on my own and would suffer whatever consequences befell me.
After my waking up from the initial Colonoscopy the Doctor who did the procedure greeted me with a gentle handshake and, without letting go of my hand said, “You have cancer, and a very large tumor. We are scheduling you for surgery as soon as possible. I'm sorry.” I felt a bit sucker-punched, but will admit I had a feeling something was wrong. Still, in the seconds that followed, I felt that old and familiar sensation of sudden helplessness. I’m the kind of guy who can fix almost anything, but on the rare occasion I cannot, the feeling of helplessness is intensified. I mentally grabbed a hold of my spinning mind, the way you might slap your hand down on the table on top of a spinning coin, and rapidly tried to get my “feet” under me.
After trying to cope with the mountain of facts being spewed at me in the guise of re-assurance, the medical staff ushered me into a private room to share with Eileen the truth of my current ‘slip off the mountain.’ Even now, as I write this, I cannot keep the tears from welling up as I contemplate how much I did not want to give her the difficult news. I wasn’t worried for myself, and had not really had time to fully process the whole situation, but we had only just been together a few years, and had finally found a sense of completion and happiness in the lives and love of each other. I was and had been, in effect running up the mountain again, happy and strong, racing toward a life together we both had only dreamed of…
So…obviously, I didn’t die on the mountain that day many years ago. I did fall ten to fifteen feet, but landed safely on a flat ledge and walked away with just a few cuts, bruises and a nasty scare. In fact, I continued and just an hour later, reached the top of that devilishly crooked climb. I sat on the top rock, in the cold air, and took in the reward of a full 360 degree panorama of two states, and hundreds of square miles of angry and beautiful terrain. I put my Agfa 35mm camera, which survived the fall, on a rock in front of me, set the clock timer, and took a picture of myself. Upon my return to base camp, I chose to remain fairly quiet about my experience, only to say that I had made it all the way.
As it turns out, cancer hasn’t killed me either. I did have to spin around in my own head space a little, and landed squarely at the feet of a crew of amazing scientists, doctors and professionals who paved the way for the recovery and treatment of me and others like me. Like falling off a mountain, ten thousand feet up, being told I was sick scared the shit out of me. I don’t like that feeling, who would, but in those initial moments we all must muster our courage, lift up our heads and look at where we are headed. I had to do it, so did Eileen and so have we all in one regard or another. It’s difficult… and scary, and to place our trust and our future in the hands of strangers who must repair what we cannot repair ourselves is no easy task. It’s important, perhaps it’s even the most important thing…to be sure that those who we offer our trust and our personage to, are studied and qualified professionals who train in science, evidence and reason. To hang about in midair, with no clear view of where we will land is as unpleasant as unpleasant gets, but it is all part of a greater process. Life happens. We slip, we fall, we get sick and we make mistakes. We try, for the most part, to NOT put ourselves at risk or foolish peril, but sometimes, like it or not, things just happen. Sometimes we don’t land well. Sometimes we do not survive, but when we do it’s important to asses, to re-evaluate our choices and to make a greater effort to positively affect the lives of those around us.
As I write this, I have just a week or so left of Chemo pills to take. It’s been an 8-9 month journey of treatment, surgery and recovery, including 6 months of Chemo infusions and meds. I never ever want to do it again. I don’t know if I could. I have some nasty side effects from all these meds to contend with, which have impacted my life with some force. I will live with the damages done by the Chemo either for the rest of my life or until they wear off, whichever comes first, and am making my peace with that.
I have only written one or two other times about this chapter of my life, and to be honest…I’m damn sick of thinking about it. I think that, unless of course I change my mind, this is the last time I will blog about it in this forum. I want you all to know that I could never have faced what I have been though every day, without you and your encouragement. I am climbing back up the mountain!