Friday, May 6, 2016

REVISIONING STRENGTH. When Life Does Not Go as Planned...

One of the advantages of living through a difficult experience is that it sharpens one's awareness of "bigger life issues", and helps one to hone in on relationships, priorities, and things that we consider of a more important value.  For a while after my accident, I would regularly think to myself, "hey, I've just earned my 'escape the rat-race' free pass", as matters which once seemed a big deal no longer packed the same punch as they had previously.   The other side of that token, I've learned, involves a necessary deep probing into the depths of this life-experience, and discovering that often life does not offer neatly packed reassurances, comfort, or explanations in the midst of our challenges.  The life-stories we write for ourselves seldom include acquiring disability, early death of those we love, pain or suffering of any type....and they certainly avoid admitting any type of defeat.  Whatever the struggle, we rise  This is the stuff heroes are made of.

But what does happen when life doesn't unfold as planned?   When we are hit full-force by overwhelming difficulty or suffering which reminds us that we are not as in control as we once thought we were?   THIS, we tell ourselves, is the stuff reserved for prophets, sages and shamans.  We maintain that we are here to rise.  To embrace victory...

The natural world is thankfully a great humbler, as anyone who has had their vacation plans thwarted can attest.  Yet we hold on to optimism because it keeps us going.  Hope keeps our spirit a-flutter and imbues our life with passion and purpose.  It was this same optimism and hope which drove us to book a trip out West this March with the dual plan to backpack the West Rim of Zion National Park (my first such experience as an amputee), and visit with our good friend Dan, who had been courageously battling an aggressive, terminal brain tumor since the previous May.

Dan and my husband had become friends in the mid 90's, when he worked for the school district of Las Vegas.  Scott found a kindred soul in Dan, as a fellow outdoor / nature junkie who had one of the kindest hearts of anyone I knew.  He was a gifted artist who loved working with troubled kids.  Dan also introduced Scott to the rock climbing community out there, and shared this passion which I grew to embrace as well.  Every few years we would make a trip out for a visit,
and a rag-tag bunch of near-middle age active junkies would meet up at some crag in Red Rock Canyon.   Inevitably, we'd have a awesome energy abounded.

This trip would be different for sure.  We didn't know how different exactly, until Scott received a text from Dan's wife, Judy, the evening before we left for vacation, informing him that Dan had taken a turn for the worst and was now in hospice care.  While waiting to board the plane at Chicago O'Hare, he received a second text from Judy:  "Scott, he's gone..."

We sat in silence, looking at those words and feeling such heavy, heavy loss.  We tried to muster up the ambition to get psyched up for a trip on the West Rim at Zion, but neither of us slept well...and by the time we arrived, the road at the trailhead was closed due to snow.  Reports for an evening on the rim included slogging through snow and mud, below-freezing temps, and a guaranteed-to-be-miserable trek.  Feeling disappointed and down, we opted to camp in the valley and gear down a bit.

Weather for the following day included strong winds and rain, but we made the best of our time there, with a plan to secure a campsite around Red Rock Canyon outside of Vegas.   Driving into the park felt strange, as we realized that the last time we had been there we had taken a fun photo while Dan was healthy and carefree.   Our hearts were heavy, and my husband needed to find some kind of
way to say his final farewell to his good friend.   He got a white helium balloon, climbed atop the Red Rock Canyon entrance sign (the same sign we had posed at the previous year), and let the balloon fly into the sky with his sentiments and shared memories.  

Truthfully, it was a tough trip.  Emotionally, it felt empty and surreal.   We were very grateful to have met up with climbing friends, and to do a little climbing and hiking while in Red Rock Canyon.  The weather finally began to cooperate by the last day of our trip.   Still, the looming shadow of Dan's death was there, and there was no escaping the feeling of loss.

Yet knowing Dan, the ever-embracing adventurer that he was, we pressed on.  We talked about Dan.  We talked about death.  Struggle.  Disability.  Pain.  Loss.  We tossed around gratitude through these experiences, mixed in with a fair amount cursing for the seeming injustice of it all.   We hiked and grumbled, and talked a fair amount about risk.  The risk of climbing, of venturing, of loving, and of letting go.....

And I began to understand strength from a different perspective.

For the years following my accident, I had embraced my inner warrior with a vengeance.  I was going to climb back and take life by the horns.  This was my duty, I felt....having been given a second chance.  

However, life has a way of putting things in perspective, and losing the life you had planned for yourself has an interesting way of tossing you into a humble tailspin.   It's gut wrenching, soul-consuming, heartbreaking and messy.  There is no guidebook for helping to climb your way back and finding your life direction.   As I companion patients and families through these difficulties through my CPE experience at Meriter Hospital, I share these struggles with nearly everyone I meet.     It occurs to me every day that what matters most is not what we achieve, how much money
Climb on, Dan-o!
we make, how physically strong we are, how many letters we have after our names, races we have won, etc.   What matters is the depth of relationships we have with one another, and our willingness to take on this life-adventure....with all of its beauty, messiness and pain..   It also embraces the risk of opening ourselves up to deep, heartbreaking loss.  This is where my heart hurts.   There is nothing more difficult than loss.   There are no helpful platitudes to apply as balm to the soul....our hearts break open and ooze pain, and no emotional bandage can take away that suffering.

Yet.....This IS THE ESSENCE of the life-adventure.   It is risky to love someone so much and to lose them.   The more we open ourselves up to joy, wonder and deep connection, the more we subject ourselves to loss and suffering.  The greater the summit, the greater the risk.   Ask any adventurer though....and they will tell you that the summit and the JOURNEY are ALWAYS worth the risk.

I am thankful for our friend Dan's presence in our lives.  His kind, humble, compassionate heart, youthful vigor, lust for life and amazing friendship will be truly missed.  Our hearts continue to hold Dan's family and his wife, Judy close, as we learn more about this new kind of strength required in the adventure which lies ahead.   The strength of letting go, and climbing on....

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