Life, Death, and What We Worry About
”Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”—Dr. Seuss
I wish it were as easy as Dr. Seuss put it. But grieving is hard, and crying usually comes with it, at least with me.
In the eight years I’ve known my husband, Randy, I’ve seen him cry only three times. I’ve cried at least three hundred times in those same eight years. Randy has a way of coping or dealing or grieving that he saves the tears for the big ones. Once over the guilt and separation with his ex-fiance; once when our beloved dog Max died; and once earlier last spring, when he called me from New Mexico, where he had just help move his ailing father into a nursing home.
Theo’s Grandpa Gary, my father in law, had entered the advanced stages of progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP), an uncommon neurological disease that basically destroys the brain. It’s a cruel and unfair disease, as most life ending diseases are, stripping away functions and actions that we all take for granted early in our lives. It’s sorrowing to watch someone go downhill so fast. In the little time I spent with Gary, however, he never lost his optimism that it would get better. PSP couldn’t strip that away.
Often, when someone reaches this stage of life, there can be a rapid downsizing and compression of all worldly possessions. Possessions that tell stories, that remind us of what happened, that we file away as important. Things that some people will categorize as just “things” but to them they are memories, they are dates, they are grief, they are happiness, they are life. Randy had the immense job of pairing down all these things in his dad’s life to a few suitcases. I guess that’s what children are there for. He spent many nights awake until 1 a.m. going through his dad’s files—or, as he put it, “my dad’s entire life.” Randy’s parents’ wedding photos. Baby pictures of Randy and his sisters. Divorce papers for Randy’s parents. Divorce papers for Randy’s stepmom. College grades. Birthday cards. Mortgage statements. Sales receipt for his favorite car. Papers on PSP disease. Smiles, grief, hope.
They say you should throw out your mortgage bills and save your love notes. But it’s hard to lead a life like this. We all get caught up in all the unimportant dramas of modern life: money, career, and the trap of being busy, too busy.
I’ve been a worrier my whole life. In my teens I worried if any of my girlfriends actually liked me. I worried that I would never have a boyfriend. I found climbing and that distracted me from those worries because I felt I’d found purpose. But then the worries came back, and changed.
In my twenties I started to worry about body image, about whether I could win a competition, redpoint a route, or get a raise from a sponsor.
In my thirties I worried about whether anyone would love me again after my divorce. I worried what people thought of me after my divorce. I worried about the continual breakdown of my body, and my career. I worried if I’d ever be able to have a family. When I got pregnant, I could no longer list or pinpoint my worries because I worried about literally everything. I worried about the lives of characters on my favorite television shows. I worried about flu shots. I worried about whether I was eating the right foods while pregnant. Even something like climbing up and down a staircase while pregnant caused me, a professional climber who has free climbed El Cap multiple times, to worry.
I worried about the polar bears, climate change, what kind of world I was bringing my baby into.
I thought I’d exhausted the list of things a person could ever worry about, but when my son, Theo, arrived, I was surprised to find even more: colds, fevers, circumcision, milestones, eye contact, head control, and so on.
I worried about death every day that I was held captive in Kyrgyzstan—my own death, but more so, the people around me. The deaths of those who I didn’t know and witnessed.
It never ends.
I was there when my grandfather died and when my ex-husband’s grandmother died. I was scared and young; 25 and 23, respectively. It was a surreal experience, watching the life slowly leave their bodies as they lay in bed, breathing their last breaths. I wondered if they were scared. Our families crowded around, hugging, holding, consoling them, but mostly consoling each other and waiting for the inevitable end.
Randy didn’t get to be there when his father passed. The phone rang on our way up to climb in Tahoe. The EMT asked Randy if his father had a DNR and explained what had happened. Gary passed suddenly and unexpectedly on May 28th, three short weeks after our last visit with him.
When Grandpa Gary died, we flew back to New Mexico to spread his ashes in his favorite place on earth, rural Northern New Mexico. There was a gathering of family, friends and colleagues afterwards. People regaled stories of a hard working man who loved his family and his surroundings more than anything. Who tried hard at life. Who was always the optimist.
I’ve never been good in uncomfortable situations—and in some ways, a loved one’s death is the most uncomfortable situation. Grief is scary, probably because it makes you so vulnerable.
There’s only one way through worry, through grief, and that’s to return to a feeling of true, profound gratitude. I wasn’t brave enough to speak at my father in law’s memorial. I probably knew him the least well out of anyone that night. But he had a profound impact on my life in the past two years, and that was with Theo. Despite being ailing in health, he flew out to see Theo three times starting when Theo was five weeks old. Those first two times Theo will never remember. But the visits this past year left a mark.
Before Theo could say much else, he could say “Grandpa Gary.” He remembered that he had a walker, pointing to every walker we saw and saying Grandpa Gary. He remembered his glasses, books they read, always referencing Grandpa Gary. We were blessed to have a couple weeks with Gary this spring in New Mexico before he passed. Each one leaving Theo with so many smiles, memories and “things.” I’ve now saved a few of those things from their trips. Gary’s favorite matchstick car, a counter that he gave Theo, a card. Yes, they are just “things” to most people, but to Theo they remind him of Grandpa Gary, and that makes me smile.
Dr. Suess is right: don’t be sad that it’s over, but be thankful, smile, because it happened.
I don’t climb as hard as I did before becoming a mom. My climbing days are fewer than before as I’m trying to soak up my time with Theo in these early years. I know this is time I can never get back or rewind with him. But I still climb, and I think that on those days that I do get out and get up a moderate trad route in Yosemite, I feel so much more appreciation and gratitude to have climbing in my life than ever before.
When I think about all those worries about whether having a kid would take away my climbing career, I realize now how thankful I am that I could even conceive—because I’ve seen so many friends and heard from so many readers who can’t.
Whether we achieve our goals, or not. Whether we have families, or not. Whether our first marriage works out, or not. We’re all going to pass at some point. It’s the ultimate equalizer, in a way. Grandpa Gary gave Randy, me and Theo so many things in his life: guidance, meals, company, and the love of his grandson. And in his death, he gave us one final gift: the opportunity to remember to be thankful for life. To not worry about what will come, but to smile about all that has happened. And be thankful that there’s a lot more left.