My First Hard Look at Life and DeatH
The first time I saw a dead body I was 11 years old and my grandfather had died. He was lying on a couch in the den of my grandparent's house. The severity of death hit me immediately. He was so still. There was no one there, no one inside. Just a body. It wasn't long before he visited me in my dreams. A friendly ghost coming to check in, looking the same as always. I don't believe in heaven or hell, but I did feel his presence in my sleep. It's been over 13 years since my grandpa died. Besides witnessing a terrible car accident, death has been only a lingering thought in the back of my head. Then, this spring, a flurry of unfortunate events forced me to yank open the blinds and take a real and honest look at just how fragile life can be. It started two weeks ago when my friend, Linda, and I were climbing outside Red Rock Canyon on a multipitch called Frogland. In the middle of the third pitch we heard the leader of the group below us scream and rip gear, followed by silence. We heard his partner call up his name tentatively. When the climber was unresponsive, I downclimbed to the anchor where Linda could just barely see the outline of a man hanging upside down. For about 5 minutes we weren't sure what we would find when we rapped down to help. After passing a stream of blood longer than my body, we got to the ledge where he'd been lowered. Thankfully, he'd regained consciousness. Within a few hours he was at a hospital where he was diagnosed with a few skull fractures and severe concussion. That night, I sat in bed unsure how to feel. Was I sad, angry, scared? I could only discern that I felt very small and very raw.
Less than two weeks after the accident on Frogland, I was hopping in a van for an overnight kayaking trip when I got a text from Alex that said Ueli Steck had died on Everest. He'd been out alone because his partner had frostbite. My tears and feelings came quickly. For a moment, I simply stood there and let the grief rage through me. Why did it hurt so much? I had met Ueli only briefly the summer before. For a week or so we'd all hung out, climbing at the crag or eating dinner at the house with his wife, Nicole. But it was time to leave, so I quickly shoved the news down into my chest and grabbed my life jacket.
A few hours into our kayaking trip I noticed what I thought was a bottle floating in the river just ahead of me. A boat with park service rangers was bobbing nearby, but they seemed distracted. As I reached to recover the bottle I saw it was actually a bundle of twine that was attached to the river floor. I peered into the clear, green water, only to realize I was staring down at a very white, very water-logged dead body. My heart jumped to my chest. “Holy shit,” I said aloud. The rangers looked over and called out that we should move along. “Is that a dead body?” I asked. “Yes it is,” he called back.
We learned later that it was likely a suicide. The kayakers just ahead of us on the river had seen the body and called it in, but there hadn't been time to remove it yet.
What was going on?? Was the universe trying to tell me something? Death had been shoved in my face and I was cowering in front of it, terrified of its finality and heartbroken by its consequences.
When I first started dating Alex, people would ask me about death. They wanted to know how I felt about his profession and the risk involved in soloing. But I wasn't wondering if he would die, I was wondering if we even liked each other. Instead of deep contemplations on risk and consequence I felt an intense curiosity to learn more about relationships in his world. I was drawn to partnerships that mimicked our own situation, half professional climber, half athletic dabbler. Ones that demonstrated qualities I cared about: independence and closeness, balance and community, love and commitment. I had so many questions. How often will we see each other? When I pursue my own interests will we inevitably be pulled apart? Can you raise a family? I saw myself in Becca and Tommy Caldwell. In Nicole and Ueli Steck. They were examples of a possible future yet to come. And then Ueli died. And I was forced to remember that people I love are living life dangerously close to the edge.
Now, I suddenly feel the need to establish a new stance on death, not just because of Alex, but because I'm clearly growing up.
It's funny how even writing this, I feel like it's inappropriate and morbid. I'm somehow breaking an unwritten code that death should be discussed quietly and privately. But I hate the unspoken. For my whole life I've said what I feel when I feel it. I don't hold grudges or hang on to past offenses, instead I (sometimes awkwardly) bring up issues moments after they occur. I want death to be no different. No longer taboo, no longer off-limits.
Because no matter how much we like to avoid thinking about it, death is as much a part of living as life itself. In modern society, dying is something to be feared. Something to run away from at all costs. And while I would fight for my life to the very end, I also want to know that if I die, the people around me will look back on our time together fondly, not tinged with tragedy and devastation, but thankful for the time we had together. I would never want my death to take the joy of living from someone else.
It's natural and healthy to grieve, but maybe it's also okay when the time is up. Not because we won't miss the shit out of people we love, but because death is coming for us all. Out of respect, we should live life fully while we're here, thankful that our loved ones did the same.
I'm trying to see it that way, anyway. The more I reflect on my experiences this month, the more apparent it is that I have a lot of anxiety about losing people in my life. And as a climber, I'm beginning to see just how closely to the line we all play. But, I want to open myself up to other ways of thinking about our mortality. I want to be honest with myself about the realities of life and death - they are both unavoidable, both natural, and both reasons to celebrate our brief time on this planet.