More than ever before, these past few months have thrust a few new lessons into my path. How does one gauge the balance of feeling between two poles of emotion: a rush of excitement, then loss, and then both returning again and again? This isn’t an article for dwelling on anything, but my God I’ve had to reconsider a few things recently.
Amidst the uncomfortable moments, days, weeks and months of the hardest break-up I could ever have imagined, death has begun to deal his hand. What are you supposed to feel, when grief layers up on grief?
I found myself alone again. Re-assessing a fresh path, for the first time in my life laying down plans further away than tomorrow. Success can sometimes be a reward for luck, but if you’re prepared to admit that hard work is a catalyst for luck and then that hard work mixed with structure is a recipe for success, then a light begins to shine.
I’ve done a fair bit of hiding this last half a year. From myself. From others. It’s necessary, sometimes. But now, new groundwork laid, I understand that looking ahead to where you want to be and then working backwards is a beautiful way to fill in the missing pieces of your current puzzle.
It’s the same with death – death of any kind; human, relationships, spirit. I was faced with it long ago, but in a very different way; an overturned truck, tens of strangers curled up, banged up, lost, all around me. And what did I have? Scratches. It never seemed fair, but I tried not to feel sorry for myself – in fact I realised that the only thing that can truly put death in shadow is love. I left the self-sympathy behind on a bridge at boarding school, to where I crept time after time, considering flinging myself off. Selfish, it would have been. Life stretched ahead back then, offering hope and possibility, but at the time I would have given almost anything to avoid reality. Now, more than a decade on, life is more real. Thankfully, I now understand the worth of it, too.
In December news filtered through from Central Africa about the death of Hendri Coetzee. He was kayaking on the Lukuga River in the Democratic Republic of Congo and was taken from his boat by a crocodile, estimated at 15 feet long by the guys he was with. He went quickly, they think. I hope so. Outside have just published a wonderful article about the guy, it’s a choking read, but I couldn’t recommend it more for anyone trying to understand the internal nature of breaking boundaries. I had always been intimated by Hendri. Not because that was his style, but because in 2001 when we met, Nile-side in Uganda, I was just finding my feet. He always appeared so confident with a long-stare and apparently complete comfort with his surroundings, on land and in the water. I didn’t know him well enough to comment on his death, but his diaries suggest he was ready to face anything, including his own failures. Perhaps if he’d truly known what was about to happen he wouldn’t have put his kayak in the Lukuga that day. But it’s just as likely that he would have. We know the risks of doing these things, but we don’t truly believe that anything will happen to us – risk isn’t certain, and therefore why stop living for the sake of it?
At the turn of this year I had two Grandparents remaining. Then, six weeks apart, they’re both gone. First was Grandad, my Dad’s Dad, then just ten days ago Mum’s Mum went her way. Whatever space has been hollowed out within me, I can’t compare my loss to my parent’s. I can’t stand their pain, I’d do anything to have them healed; so many uncontrollable tears in our house this year, but there can never be too many. Someone special once told me crying is ‘cleaning the windows of your soul.’ Must be a shiny soul, by now.
‘I wish you’d known her back then,’ sobbed my Mum two days ago, after I read an early draft of Grandma’s (we called her Muv) eulogy full of hilarious memories, the happy kind that should sum up a person’s life.
And then the focus turns to me as I plan adventures into the unknown. My Mum looks at me, stern with eyes twinkling, ‘If you die now it’ll really piss me off,’ she says.
‘If I do, I do,’ I shrug, ‘but I’ll be careful.’ I know if I stayed at home pretending the world didn’t exist it’d piss her off even more, and she knows I do what I do to face down the unknown, the fear, because that’s what holds us back more than anything.
What does death really mean? My death? It doesn’t bother me; the adult me is not the type to have a death wish but I refuse to live in fear of it. If it happens early, it happens, and once it does I won’t know a thing. If I’ve learned anything from these last two months it’s that my death isn’t about me, it’s about everyone left behind, they’re the ones who have to deal with it. With a few trips, journeys and new challenges approaching this year I’ve just made a will, left some instructions, even spent a while preparing a page for my website in the event of my death. It may sound morbid – I won’t lie, it wasn’t fun! – but in true Roz Savage style the simple act of considering your own obituary confirms whether you’re on the right path in life. I’ve still got plenty to do and can still see myself bobbing a grandchild or three on my knee somewhere down the line, but that’ll probably take place between paragliding sessions!
Al Humphreys recently wrote a blog called ‘What would you say if you only had five minutes left?’ There are some fine lessons there, but it reminded me of my early twenties, when I was determined to leave some kind of legacy. What’s the point in living if you leave nothing behind? Maybe that thought drove me to writing; but perhaps creativity has driven me to living? A different set of principles drives me now: I want to live hard (but not too hard). I’ll take every positive opportunity judged on the regret I’ll suffer if it isn’t taken. I never want to be the person that says, ‘I wish…’ And I’m going to try my utmost not to leave any rubbish behind, emotional or non-biodegradable. I’ll make mistakes but face up to them if I’m man enough. The thing is, as you get older you have more hindsight than foresight, so the excuses of youth shrivel up eventually. Remember, staying young and refusing to grow up are very different things, indeed.
So, what do you do when grief layers up on grief? How are you supposed to feel? Simply, I’ve considered my own mortality and here I am, alive. It’s great! There’s nothing that makes the hurt shift faster, all you can do is stay busy and keep it slightly out of mind. It’s lovely to have a focus when there’s plenty of stuff you’d quite like to dismiss, and yes, it’s been a hard few months, but it’s been productive, too. However busy, however ‘in the zone’, I’ve always taken some thinking time – I did say to keep the crap slightly out of mind, not fully, because it needs to be dealt with, and with that only time will bring true peace.
So, how do you sum up a blog about death? Go and live a bit, I think! I’ve just landed in Nepal for three weeks of learning how to paraglide, in preparation for a 1000 miles of flying across the Himalayas. The concept of flying is beyond any excitement I think I’ve felt before. The concept of being up high, with so much space to fall into…well, it terrifies me, pesky vertigo! I daresay some photos and video will find their way online shortly!
Thanks for reading, just over one month to go before Seb Terry and I ride a tandem from Vancouver to Vegas, and four months until I start a 2400-mile descent of the Mississippi River, by Stand Up Paddleboard. 2011 will definitely get better