Happy US Thanksgiving!
As I look forward to this week, where my friends south of the 49th parallel will be celebrating Thanksgiving, I am thankful that last week went as well as it could have and that Marian came through surgery like a trooper, is home now, and is on the road to recovery. After last week’s road metaphor (thanks to all for the kind feedback), I turn this week to the metaphor of a river. Actually a specific river, the Colorado, through a specific place, the Grand Canyon, to make sense and meaning of the experience called “last week.” I wrote at some point each day to reflect, process, and deal with the huge waves of emotion that poured over me regularly.
Nov. 16, 2009
Last spring, Marian and I rafted the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. It was a 226-mile journey through one of my favourite places on earth and it was such a joy to share it with her. As we prepared ourselves for her surgery, I was in search (as I always am) of a guiding metaphor. Very quickly, the memories of the Colorado River surfaced and provided a frame for the feelings that were engulfing us.
Rapids on the Colorado are graded from one to ten based on their difficulty and level of risk. Before most rapids of eight or above, we would stop and scout the rapid from shore. We’d look for big rocks, hydraulic water features, and standing waves with an eye to find the best line to the bottom of the rapid. At the top of every rapid is the “V”–the water pours through the rocks at the top and makes a V shaped trough that you aim to put your raft down the middle of. As you drop down the V, you pull left or right or ride it right down the middle.
The jury is out about how much you can really influence the movement of the boat once you are in the rapid. Usually, the key is in the set-up…if you get the boat to the best place, you’ll get through. As we neared Lava Falls, the largest drop on the river, we read the description in the guidebook, “Enter the V on the mid right and begin to pull hard to the left. Attempt to pull over the large standing waves and avoid the huge pillow rock at the bottom on river right. Don’t worry in twenty seconds it will be over either way–you’ll either be upright or you won’t.”
The description was oddly comforting knowing that the experience (like everything else) would pass and be done shortly. At the top of the rapid, the water pools a bit and seems to slow. I wondered if we would ever get to the rapid and the thundering pulse of my heart competed with the cacophonous roar of the impending drop. Then suddenly, the current caught us and the boat began to slide down into the rapid–there was no turning back then–just trust and pull. Breathe and hold on. Twenty seconds of intense, intense living. My memories of the rapid are a blurring blend of adrenaline and roller coaster–we did manage to go up on the pillow rock but slid harmlessly off and cheered wildly at being upright at the bottom of Lava!
In the days before her surgery, both Marian and I drew on the idea of setting up for the rapid. We did everything we knew to bring her strength up, to set up a great health care team, and to get the house ready for her recovery time. Despite the large waves of emotion that rolled over and through us, we kept working to see the way through the cataract, memorize the line, and then position the boat at the top of the V.
I’m sitting in the waiting room as I type this knowing that Marian is now in the rapid–there is no pulling the boat back up river–she must ride it out. I’m standing on the shore with throw line in hand and trusting that in a few hours, the rapid will be over and we’ll reunite at the bottom of the chasm. This morning as I sat with her, I recognized that the same thundering herd of butterflies from the Grand Canyon had once again taken up residence in my belly and I took solace in recognizing the familiarity of the sensations. We got through the Colorado upright and all right, and I’m tied to that hope today as well.
Standing here on “the shore”, I’ve put my proverbial foot in the shoes of those who love and care about me and have a visceral sense of what it must be like when I head up into the risks of the high altitude environment. I’m filled with empathy of how hard it is to sit and wait and pray that no harm comes to a loved one. I knew it before, but today I am reminded of it on a deep, deep level. In feeling this, I am also committing to doing everything I can to stack the odds in my favour, prepare well, make good decisions, and position my boat in the best possible way on the Everest V wave.
Nov. 17, 2009
Of the hundreds of rapids on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, there are two that are feared the most: Lava Falls and Crystal. Crystal comes relatively early in the trip just past Phantom Ranch. It’s a teeming monster of white water with several boat-eating holes to navigate around. The first time I rowed the Grand, I took one look at Crystal and decided I would walk around it. One of my teammates rowed my boat through and I shot video for the crew. On my second canyon trip, I was rowing well, lead boat, and ready to attempt Crystal. We arrived at scout and the water was low (because of the Glen Canyon dam and fluctuating energy needs, the Colorado River has a tide).
The low water meant that the run on river left that squirted the first massive hole was available. We had someone on the team who’d flipped a boat in Crystal before. He wanted to watch a guided team go through. Then a private group. Then another commercial group. By then, the water had risen and the door to the left run was slammed shut. We re-scouted for the right hand run which required rowing backward across the V wave to spin and miss the first hole. I wasn’t at all psyched for the run and hated (at that point) to enter rapids backwards. With heavy heart, I pushed off into the river with Liz riding on my front pontoon like a rodeo rider on a bucking bronco.
I set my boat up and began to pull hard across the V. The enormous rush of current grabbed the boat and we shot off like a rocket. I pulled and pulled but not hard enough. We got dragged down the V and didn’t have enough momentum to break the large standing V wave. In an instant, we cascaded right down into the maw of that first hole. The force of the water threw the stern into the air and the boat catapulted over itself throwing both Liz and I into the mercy of the river. After a thrashing in the hole, I surfaced and caught a lung-full of air and realized the boat was out of reach to grab. I was forced to swim the kilometer long rapid without the extra floatation of the raft.
Liz surfaced nearby and grabbed my PFD. We were instantly swept into the next gigantic hole and thrown violently to the river’s bottom. Fortunately we weren’t imprisoned by the hole’s hydraulics and soon were careening towards the third hole. That one flushed us through and now only the “bone-yard”, a rocky outcrop in the middle of the current threatened us. With most of us strength zapped by the extremely cold water, we feebly swam towards river right and managed to avoid being strained through the rocks. I finally got to shore and couldn’t see Liz. I jumped up to see if I could spot her–she was around a rock outcrop puking out the river water. I climbed over to her and we rejoiced in being alive after a huge Crystal Swim.
The rest of the team came down with one other raft flipping. We righted the boats. The rest of the day is rather a blur of frothing whitewater, spent adrenaline, and holding on and getting through. You see, below Crystal are “The Jewels.” Oft underestimated, oft misunderstood–this collection of gems…Sapphire, Ruby, and the like are demanding in their own right. A collection of seven eights and nines they catch the unwary boater who has failed to look downriver from Crystal.
The third time I rowed Crystal I followed Kristen Zbornik down the left hand run and had a perfect run–after which was major celebration. This past April, I sat behind Sharon and barked commands as she piloted the boat down the left hand run. Marian and Chama were ready to highside and we kissed the cliff on the river left but we got through it. Marian could see the relief than flowed from every pore in my body when we were all safely through Crystal. I relaxed for the first time on the trip.
Today, I feel like Marian and I are in the Jewels. We got through yesterday’s Crystal (the surgery) in good form, with a great line, and with the boat upright and everyone on board. It was tough but the relief at the bottom of the rapid was easily palpable. Today, with adrenaline spent, the day looms a bit tougher. She has more pain and more nausea. I have more pain seeing her in pain. We’re watching for any sign of complications. We’re still riding the current and trying to position the boat in the best spot for all the rapids that are coming our way and we recognize we’re only a third of the way down the river.
Fortunately, we had river beta. We knew the jewels would come after Crystal and had prepared for them. We keep our oars in the water and trust that we’re just where we need to be.
Nov. 18, 2009
After the jewels, the river grants a small respite. A few days filled with more slack water, beautiful sights, and rapids that are more fun than terrifying. Coming into the hospital this morning, it feels like we’ve left the jewels and are looking forward to going downriver at a less intense pace. I’ve relaxed today some and can sense movement towards healing.
We know there could still be a Lava Falls (infection) but we hope to avoid running another huge rapid on this trip. We’ll keep heading downriver prepared for whatever the current takes us towards.
Nov. 19, 2009
We are definitely past the jewels. The intensity of the week has eased and we enjoy the trip home. We settle into our healing base camp (home) and start strategizing on leaving the river for the mountain eighteen weeks from now. If recovery continues to go well, we’re hoping Marian will still be able to trek to Mount Everest in April of 2010.
Nov. 20, 2009
As we transitioned from the hospital to home, I was reminded of the excitement of arriving at Everest Base Camp. It usually takes between ten and fourteen days to trek to base camp and there is great excitement in finally arriving there. A few days of settling in, puja blessing and then the hard work of climbing the mountain can begin.
I was filled with a similar excitement when we reached home yesterday. Finally, we were where we wanted to be. Looking ahead, I see the long road of recovery stretching before us and I know will climb this figurative mountain in the same way we climb any other, step by step. We’ve found a few recovery training programs that progress from short 3 minute walks forward to full physical capacity over six to eight weeks and each day, we’ll make out way through the plan. We’ll be extremely mindful of rest, nutrition, and taking it all very slowly.
Looking back at the week, I can see that I was really prepared for the Crystal day but not so much for the jewels. The river has taught me once again of the value of beta and scouting and keeping an eye on both the current rapid and what lies ahead around the bend. I’ve appreciated the river metaphors for its guidance and ability to assist me in making sense of all the emotional currents of the week.
Nov. 22, 2009
We’re happily ensconced in our base camp. The last few days have almost felt like vacation. When Marian is sitting still, she’s doing so well, it’s easy to forget that she just arrived at base camp. We’ve been having fun playing hokey from life, catching up on a few seasons of Grey’s Anatomy, receiving visitors, and contemplating life six weeks down river. I am so proud of Marian and the tremendous courage she displayed this week. I will draw upon those memories when I need a dose of the same.
I am grateful to Marian’s doctors, nurses, and hospital staff for providing excellent care. Thanks for all my doc and nurse friends who provided advice and hints for getting through the experience. I am also appreciative for the acts of kindness we received this week from a dietary aide providing me with a meal at the hospital to friends dropping off meals and supplies, to friends checking in and listening at the end of long days, and to family and friends coming over so I could still get out to a few hockey games. Each kindness struck a note of joy in my heart and I appreciate how deeply moved I was by each of them.
Please continue to keep us both in your thoughts and prayers. Please also add my mom and dad to that list. My dad has been having a pretty rough go of it lately and I’m wanting to infuse them both with lots of love and healing energy.
Take good care,