Sunday, September 7, 2008
Facing the Dark Side
Photos: Top: Jeff Banks giving a Kiss to Mark Ryle, a fun day out on the South Face of the Aguille du Midi, rock climbing sunny granite. Middle: Mark Ryle on the crux pitch, as Jeff Banks and I heckle from below. Bottom: Three Amigos Mark Ryle, Me, and Jeff Banks, at the top of the route after a day full of laughs, hand jams, and back in town for dinner!
I went down to visit my friend Mark Monday, it's weekly ritual. An hour and a half drive to Rumilly. Usually I have a small bag of his laundry, some home made treats, soup, cakes, salad, and a handful of letters. It's usually either heaving with rain as I descend the auto route, or its one million degrees. I park at the old church, and walk into the sterile building, pushing the elevator button to arrive at the first floor. Passing each room marked with a name I find my way to Mark's. He's sitting in a chair eating his lunch or dinner, or on his bed reading a book. His face lights up as he sees me. He's likely been waiting, wondering who will visit today. He smothers me with a huge kiss and I feel needed and loved. He sighs "Ahhh great, now I can take my helmet off." I"m ready for him to take his helmet off now, the first time it was a little traumatic. As he lifts the white plastic helmet off his head he unveils his injury. The right side of his head sags into a depression the size of a large grapefruit due to the fact that he is missing nearly a third of his scull bone.
"Do you have any news about when you will have the plate put in?"
"Yeah, the 1st of October, I can't wait!! I hate this helmet, it's like having to wear a wooly cap in the middle of summer, while walking on the treadmill doing physio."
"What is the surgery like?"
"It's not supposed to be too bad. They will take me back to Geneva which is good, because that's where I was right after the accident so the doctors know my story there."
"Yeah, I remember Geneva."
I remember the whole thing, rockfall on a relatively normal day out in the mountains. Climbing a day route off on the Blatiere, just to the left of the Aguille du Midi. A dozen or so climbers on the face and Mark got hit....I sit there and face Mark, we chat, he's hopeful, he's positive, he's just taking it as it comes. I can't help but wonder if he's in denial, if he's putting on a brave face for me. I can't help but change places with him, or put Maxime, my boyfriend there, it could have just as easily been someone else.
But I am amazed, as we dance through topics ranging from literature, to physio therapy, to Chamonix gossip how "Mark" he is. I can't believe how well he is doing.
We talk about the parts he doesn't remember, the coma, the two brain surgeries, coming out of the coma, not knowing he had a head injury, being restrained to the bed, initially not being able to move his left side, and all the progress until here.
Once we have exhausted all the topics of conversation, he's eaten the tomato soup I brought him, and the fennel (wierd, but he loves fennel), we pretend like we're having a dinner party together, Mark is getting tired, visiting hours are coming to an end , and I have an hour and a half to drive back to Chamonix.
We say our goodbyes, give traditional French cheek kisses, patented Mark hugs and I go back for just a few more, before I leave, not really wanting to leave. Knowing how close it all was to not having any of this.
The drive home is hard, it leaves me to my head for an hour and a half. I process his progress. I process his deficiencies, due to the head injury. I process his bad luck. I process my chance, my luck. And I wonder.....why we take the risk? I have to answer to family, friends, loved ones, and I want to have good answers.
I go through his past two months, a week in a coma, two brain surgeries and all the progress since. And I am amazed. Mark is lucky, he is strong, he is brave, and I can't help but wonder if I would be so composed.
It's the dark side of what we do, I think about how fragile life is. I think about loving the people in my life harder, being more forgiving of others and myself. I think about the great days, the glacial sunrises, the shiver bivies with Max or a good friend, I think about the laughs, the little epics, and I think about the risk. I think about car accidents and randomness of life and balance that into the risk I take in the mountains. I think about my Dad who died of a heart attack at 42 on a run, and my Uncle who died in the World Trade Center.
I know the dark side of climbing is always there. I know we only face it on occasion otherwise, if we processed it every day, we would be too scared to go climbing. But I know the dark side of life is there too. If we processed it every day we would never get out of bed.
So I take moments and events like this to value life, experience and people more, and to be honest with myself about why I climb. And by the time I get home, with the panorama of mountains laid before me, the Aguilles, the ridges, the rock, the snow, the ice...I am excited to share another adventure with someone I love, to tie into a rope and trust my fragile life and theirs to the partnership of sharing a rope. Because that's why Mark is so special to me, because we shared dozens of days like that in the mountauns, and we know friendships that lies deep in the elements of sharing each other's fragile lives.
And that's why we climb, and that's what I'll tell those who ask me!