'Climb You Shall'

29 December 2013


Life and death.


I sat facing the hospital bed, staring at my grandfather. His head was propped against the pillows, mouth open, eyes closed. He looked gaunt and drawn, a painful expression cast across his face. A tube curled down to his chest and disappeared beneath the hospital gown, matching the tube in his arm.


There was a strange silence about the room. No machines hummed; no heart monitors beeped. I sat, watched and waited. There were few words that needed to be said. The darkness in the room comforted me, my mind empty and numb.


He had been ‘sleepy’ for months. Nobody knew it was cancer, brewing malevolently, waiting to flare up and rip through his body. ‘Primary cancer in the lung. Secondary cancer in the chest, bone and liver.’ It was too late for action; all that could be done was damage control. The morphine eased the pain, but left him sliding towards oblivion. His body, sprawled over the bed, was a battleground and the cancer was winning.


It wasn’t fair, but death never is. He was an inspirational man, someone who I always looked up to. He was the figurehead of the family, metaphorically and literally - the strong, reliable rock on which you could depend, full of wisdom. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had outlived us all. He had a white beard and long, wispy hair which solidified the ‘Gandalf’ persona. The wise wizard who always knew what do to, who always cared.


Just two days earlier, I returned to England after spending three months on a climbing trip in France and Spain. My carefree lifestyle was a stark contrast to life back home, as my grandfather was quickly admitted to hospital. Experience has taught me that I need time to ‘decompress’ after a long trip: to slowly readjust to the busy hum-drum of everyday life again. I had no idea that this time I would be watching my grandfather on a hospital bed, reduced to asking for help every time he wanted a drink. It felt like I was on morphine, too; ‘what is this? What’s happening, can’t we fix him?’


The difference between Spain and England was staggering: sunshine and rain. Play and work. Life and death. It was a slap in the face: back to reality. ‘Look at your grandfather, dying in front of you.’ Strangely, I didn’t feel compelled to walk out of the hospital, drive back to Spain and never return. I wanted to earn some money, to explore other places in the world. A part of me must be growing up, for I now realise you can’t go on climbing trips forever.


I remember the limbo shortly after my return. Soaring birds would catch my attention and I would glance upwards, expecting to see the raptor vultures I had become accustomed to in Spain, wide wings circling on thermals. I smiled grimly, for instead they were seagulls, screaming and wheeling in the wind against a cold grey sky. Some nights I would wake with a start, finding myself not in my little metal van, huddled against the cold, but in the warmth of my own bed. The greatest contrast, of course, was life and death.


Before the morphine dose was doubled, he had stayed true to form. ‘How was your recent trip?’ he enquired. ‘Afterwards? What now?’ Ever caring, knowledgeable, he wanted to hear it all.


I confessed that I did not know exactly what to do next in my life. I have plenty of options, post-university graduation, and would even be bold enough to say I have the world at my feet. But I am unsure which path to take, hesitating before commitment. I hadn’t expected to struggle with the ‘what next.’


I told my grandfather everything, working through my options. He listened, between gasps for breath, to every word. I found myself summarising, ‘I know one thing for sure. I enjoy climbing, playing sport and the outdoors. I’m just not sure what to do next.’ 


The room slipped back into thick silence for a moment, before he spoke. ‘Then climb you shall.’


A week later my grandfather died. I’m glad we managed to speak beforehand, to say goodbye. I know that death happens to the best of us but it’s a strange thing to happen to such a strong man. He will be sorely missed and was incredibly generous. His last piece of advice will stay with me forever - do what you enjoy most in life. The next time I go climbing, I’ll be thinking of him. 


Here’s to you, Michael.

Tom LivingstoneComment