The earthquake in Nepal this week has resonated deeply with me and I have not been able to get the thought of all the mountaineers up on Everest out of my mind, nor their families.
On January 1st, 1980 at 7pm, my mother heard on the radio that a climber had died on the Matterhorn. She telephoned the police in Zermatt to ask if it was my brother Jonathan Conville, it was. He had been on the North Face with a fellow climber who had witnessed the accident so there was no doubt he had fallen but what she was waiting for was confirmation that he was alive somewhere despite knowing that he had in fact died. Though the mountain rescue searched for him, they did not find him. They felt sure he had fallen down a deep crevasse on the edge of the mountain and was not alive. So the waiting began because it was not definitive news.
Waiting for news, waiting for a glimmer of hope, waiting for him to turn up and tell us he managed to walk out after all, and then eventually waiting for his body to be found. That particular wait was 34 years but that is another story altogether.
The events unfolding on Everest are part of a ghastly larger national disaster for Nepal. But broken down, each person affected has an individual story of desperation, anxiety, panic, disbelief and emerging grief. For those family members and friends who sit and wait for news, the situation is equally difficult because as a sister who sat and waited for news, I can say that it feels just as awful to be the one who waits. Some might not agree with that, how can being at home, in a warm house, with food and comforts ever compare to what the climbers or the people of Nepal are going through? All I can say is until you have experienced it, and I sincerely hope you never will, it is hard to comprehend the sheer terror of that wait. Sometimes doing something (anything in fact) is better than waiting. In the absence of anything to do other than sit by the phone, monitor social media and watch the news, one’s emotions run riot.
The sheer tension of the wait is an agony. It feels as though one’s life is on a knife edge.
The road forks, if the story goes this way, then all will be good, redeemed even, but if it goes the other way, then life will be utterly changed (even though we don’t know what that actually means at this point). It strikes me that this is true for every person who gets sick, has an accident, who finds a lump, who loses their memory and many more life changing things that can happen to any of us. They go to the doctor, have some tests and then wait for the results. They face the fork in the road as well, and the sheer terror of what the doctor might say and what that means induces the same sort of fear because these are life and death issues too.
The tension I talk about is contained in our physical body. It rampages through us like a tsunami. We can feel it in our guts, in our bones and it crawls over our skin like ants. It also makes us hyper vigilant. That is caused by the adrenaline running through our bodies liberally. Imagine being on a dark road at night, you hear something behind you, it’s scary. We all know what that burst of adrenaline feels like. It puts us in fight or flight mode. When you are waiting to hear news, you stay stuck in that scared feeling and it makes functioning very difficult, tiring and fraught.
With the hindsight of 36 years, I can say that one’s imagination is the worst enemy. In the absence of hard facts, human beings tend to make up a story to fill the space. Perhaps it is our defence against knowing or understanding the worst case scenario. We do it all the time in everyday life, but in the case of a disaster of this proportion, the stories we make up provide us with a glimmer of hope, a life-line, and against all odds and there will be some stories of miraculous events, people who survive through their own actions or pure luck. We no doubt remember such stories from 9/11 of people who survived despite the epic nature of that disaster. Hope is such a strong feeling and it can keep us going when everything looks bleak.
I think my dis-ease and disquiet this weekend has been recalling how our family reacted and dealt with my brother’s fall and also empathising with how the families of those trapped and alive on Everest may be feeling, as well as understanding how those who are now grieving for their sons and daughters, brothers and sisters or friends are suffering. I don’t want anybody to have to go through it, but there is no way around that, I so wish there was.
In finishing, all I can really say is that I am waiting with all of you for the safe return of those on Everest, and even though in reality I know that is not possible, I hold hope for each climber, each family and all their friends.
My heart aches for those waiting over all of Nepal and the wider world.
Photo courtesy of Lee Roylland via Unsplash