I’ll never forget: at my first literary conference, a presenter said, “Write what haunts you.” I felt like she somehow knew what what I was up against, and, unknowingly, had given it a blessing.
After my big brother David fell from a mountain peak in Colorado eleven years ago, I became consumed with the loss, with his life, and especially with extreme sports and outdoor adventure stuff because it was what consumed him — and what killed him. It haunted me. It haunts me still. It’s what I write about a lot.
Over the weekend, I read about another elite athlete succumbing to his passion in the wild. And, as happens much more often than I would have originally guessed, Brad Gobright (what a name!) died not doing the brutally difficult thing of scaling a rock wall unassisted, but the presumably much easier job of descending from it by rope. He and his partner slipped off the end because they failed to do one small thing: tie a knot. Gobright fell a thousand feet, hopefully dying instantly.
A couple of days later, I watched The Dawn Wall, about a couple other famous climbers — Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson — in Yosemite. (They made it and are alive and well as of this writing, in case you were worried, the way this is going.) I was struck when one of them said of descending, “Down climbing — it’s so unnatural; it’s like running backwards.”
My brother, who took on the challenge of hiking three 14ers in one day, successfully marking the log books at the summits on each one, then — somehow — also fell, just as he was heading back at the end of his course. Each time I sense I am receiving a piece of helpful new information, I treat with the reverence of a clue in a massive legal case yet to be solved.
Gobright’s accident isn’t the first rock star athlete fatality since David’s death by a lot. It isn’t the first (or third or tenth) time it felt like a punch in the stomach. It isn’t first time I wasn’t surprised. The impact was greater than I anticipated though, maybe, in part, because I’d heard something that made me want to ask David about it. I grieved for Gobright, and I grieved some more for David.
After so much time, it is these moments that stun me. Not the death-iversaries or birthdays or major holidays, when we expect to acutely feel that empty seat at the table, but these small incidents that fire up the missing, the aching, the sorrow, in such intensity. And I guess these flashes are going around.
Tonight, my mom texted me out of the blue, Can you talk for a few minutes? After several minutes of telling me about having a toothache and getting in to see the dentist, including so many details that, for a long time, I didn’t know where she was going, she mentioned that she had been introduced to a new diagnostic tool. “They described it like a CAT scan for your mouth,” she told me, before bursting into tears.
“Ohhhhhhhh,” I said, with understanding. “It was a radiological procedure.”
You see, David was also a doctor, a radiologist. We affectionately called him “Dr. Dave.”
“Yes.” I heard how she bravely told the doctor and technician the back story through her tears. “And I said how much he would have loved it. He would have thought it was so cool.”
That’s one of the other things about grief: sometimes what you miss most is that you can’t talk to your person about the great, new thing you saw, or ask questions about aches and medical devices. Or tell him about the crazy gear that Outside is showcasing in their holiday issue or try to find out what it feels like to stand above the clouds. And you have to be able to talk to someone else who understands. Otherwise, you feel crazy with isolation.
Before all we went through, reading about a rock climber’s fall or experiencing a glorified x-ray machine might have been mildly interesting to us. Loving and losing David made them fascinating. But it also made them hard. I’m glad he lit up the world the way he did, and I’m still glad to learn about him. Some days, I wish I was a little less haunted.