Rock Climbing Collisions

I keep getting asked, “when are you writing your Moab blog?” I know, I’ve been dragging my feet.

There is just no good way to put that week into words. Think of your favorite day, and try assigning words to the things you felt, knowing the reader will never be able to fully feel what you experienced. I would almost feel a distancing of myself from the experience when rereading the words I tied together, focusing on my awkward writing, and failure to select words to properly illustrate the beauty of that week.

None the less, at a minimum, I suppose I owe a summary.

As I eluded – “cancer camp” (we can call it that, you can’t) was amazing! I’ve said several times (including to people while out there) that there probably isn’t a thing I could have changed to make the week better.

I hopped on a train from Amtrak to Grand Junction, spending the majority of the ride next to an older man, a traveling musician. When people asked where he was from, his response was always, “everywhere and nowhere.” We didn’t spend a lot of time in deep conversation, but we became companions, as occasional sightseeing spots were shared and we watched over each others possessions when we occasionally left our seats. We casually sent each other off with well wishes, him not sure what my week had in store. Me not minding I didn’t know his either.

I stayed the night in a hotel in Grand Junction and wandered the town the next morning. I stumbled across a church and attended service, whose theme for the week was, “We no longer have to live at the mercy of past disoriented ideas and narratives,” followed by a verse, ” Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).

I confessed I had never met anyone that I was meeting to my shuttle driver between the hotel and the airport. I shared with him the purpose of this trip, and he revealed that he too was a cancer survivor, and many other illnesses under his belt. His parting words to me as he unloaded my suitcase from the van, “keep on the fight, and God bless.”

Honestly, I don’t remember much of the first night. “Glazed over faces” was one reference to the campers that night. By the end of night one, all 20 of us were united under one roof – nine ‘campers’, three climbing guides, two program representatives, two chefs, a camp mom and dad, a journalist, and a photographer. We all were given nicknames – and I’m still adjusting to seeing these foreign normal names show up on my feed – except ‘Coconuts’, who finally jumped on the social media bandwagon solely for the reason of staying in touch with us all.

We spent the next four days climbing, consoling, confiding, and celebrating. “Casual” conversation topics kicked off when Coconuts realized that poop schedules would be the least personal of the things we would share with each other during the week. Micro families formed around roommates, vanmates, and regions we originated from (I was the loner in this category, the only one not from a coast). We each told our stories as we felt comfortable, showing our scars, giggling over life after cancer, and learning about the journeys we had all taken and what still lies ahead. We were from all stages in life – I was the second youngest, with other singles, spouses and moms. I think I will always remember the conversation on the back patio the last day – it seems like everything was left on the table. So honest. So brave.

Climbing was much more fun than I predicted. I’m very jealous of everyone who was able to return to places… not flat. This is the description of the third google search result for ‘rock climbing Nebraska’:

“Welcome to Nebraska’s page at RC.com. Nebraska has been blessed with flatness. Unfortunately there is not much natural rock to conquer, but we do have some indoor gyms. If you are on your way through the state or watching our exciting football team, then check out some of those indoor gyms to keep you in shape. Keep climbing high!”

The second day of climbing, I had my a-ha moment, the one where I could feel myself falling for the adrenaline of pushing myself further than I thought. I could trust my feet to support my body only by gripping onto ledges only about 1/3 inch wide, and didn’t mind the tips of my fingers burning from clinging to any minor crevice. On day three of climbing, I wanted it all; I climbed until we had to leave. The last day we did a multi-pitch climb, finishing at approx. 350ft from the base, and finishing with a 180ft free rappel. I was later told by one of the guides, “you were really scared. We hadn’t seen anything like that from you all week!”

So many lessons were learned for each person, whether it was to trust other people to catch you when you fall, or in my case, to trust myself to be in control. We all agreed that the mixture of conversation and climbing was a complimentary combination of vulnerability and power. The journalist, Peanut, shared that she had emailed home a few days in and asked her mom, “what have I been doing with my life the last 27 years?”

So what does it all mean? What am I taking away from this?

I rode back with one of the campers to Denver to meet Blake. Though all the tears from saying good bye to everyone at the cabin and then the airport was over, I couldn’t help but think about all the other people I’ve said ‘good bye’ to recently. The good news is that most of them have been choices, either on my end or theirs.

In the last four months, I’ve said good bye to three of my closest constants at work, all of which had been there the entire duration of my job. My supervisors last day at work was my last day at camp, which I am happy worked the way we did. Neither of us are criers or ones to get too emotional, but it was really tough the last two weeks.

I said good bye to my grandma. She had been suffering from Alzheimer’s for almost 10 years. It was time, but I was still caught off guard by how hard it was.

Friends moving out of town, getting married, having kids. All different ways I’m saying good bye, not necessarily to them, but to the way of life I had with them.

I’ve recently been thinking of life as a timeline of intense bright flashes from other people colliding with us (Jupiter’s love for astronomy must be rubbing off on me), which is measured by the strength of impact, not necessarily of longevity. Eventually the flashes dim out and are replaced by another series of impacts and flashes. It doesn’t matter when or why people leave our lives, it doesn’t affect how long their glow stays with us. I will never forget these parting words from my executive director – appreciate every day you get to spend with people around you. You never know when that will change.

A blog recently surfaced and gained a lot of attention in the cancer community, regarding “dying with dignity.” While everyone else is scanning for celebrity gossip and sports updates, these are the things that fill my newsfeeds. The article details a young female who will use medical resources to end her life Nov. 1. She is using these months as an awareness drive to bring to light her struggles to gain ownership of her remaining time on Earth. She explains, “I’ve discussed with many experts how I would die from it, and it’s a terrible, terrible way to die. Being able to choose to go with dignity is less terrifying.”

I couldn’t help but think back to a conversation we had the last night at camp. One of the girls, who was diagnosed with the exact same cancer and staging I was, had recurred in her lungs. For those of you new to my situation, that’s basically the end of the line. As she painfully shared, “I wanted to have a career by now, I can’t die while I’m at this job…” She finally put so bluntly her and my worst fears, “I don’t want to drown in my own fluids, and the doctors said that’s what’s going to happen.”

Of everyone in the group, she’s been one of the few to not stay connected. Has her bright flash already dimmed? Did she say her final, “good bye” to us, moving on to her next collision? That was almost three weeks ago, and I’ve already met so many new people… the cycle continues. Never forgotten, but already dimmed.

When I got home from Utah, I unpacked a bookmark I forgot I found on a train. I jotted a quick note, explaining I had found it in my seat in Lincoln, and addressed it to the person whose address was on a sticker on the back of the cloth. Last Thursday, I opened a letter than man wrote me back. He explained that he lost this bookmark, after his book disappeared from his seat when he left to grab a snack. The bookmark belonged to his late father. He, his brother, and his son were traveling across the country together. He concluded, “Never expected such kindness from a total stranger, of course, reaffirming our faith in America and our many unknown neighbors.”

It’s the strength of the collision that determines the brightness of the flash.

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Author: Clarissa A.

The older I get, the less I know.

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