Days of Grief

It’s 8:45am in Minnesota and I am about to go to my third memorial service in as many days. The venue keeps changing, the people keep changing, but the medium is the same.

Last Thursday, Andrew Swanson and John Mislow were killed on Denali. The week before, rescuers found Jonny Copp and Wade Johnson’s bodies at the base of an avalanche in China. Micah Dash is still missing.

I have spent twelve years in this community watching death glance at my sides through the loss of friends. Each time it has happened, at some point I have picked up the phone and called my family. These are phone calls I never want to make. Maybe they make the loss more real, or maybe, by telling those outside of this community, it opens me up to the inevitable questioning of why I keep doing what I do.

But my sister called me last Thursday to tell me about Andrew. It makes sense, he was her husband’s best friend. He was the one my niece and nephew called Doctor Andrew, he was Ania’s favorite man aside from her husband.

My sister is not supposed to be telling me about her friends dying in the mountains. Nor is she supposed to be asking me questions like these:

“What would it feel like to be the one who fell? She asked me two days ago. Before I could respond, she added, “Or who was pulled off?”

I have always thought I could protect my family by making safe choices and coming home. I have always thought that I live two separate lives, one in the climbing community, and one in the real world. Last week these lives crossed and now won’t separate. No one is supposed to die young, but we all take risks with that pronouncement. On a personal level, Andrew was the safe man for me. We’d tried out dating at one point and my family, all of them, drew checkmarks in their head—here was a stable, brilliant man, perfect, and not a full time climber or guide– the men they had grown used to. Instead, Andrew was a man they could go to sleep knowing would be there for me the next day. And now, he’s gone.

I have been to an untold number of outdoor memorial services for friends who have died in the mountains. I will be going to another for Jonny, Micah, and Wade next month. Today I am going to the First Presbeterian Church in Mankato, Minnesota. I am going to say good-bye to Andrew.

Yesterday, in a long snaking line at the Mankato Mortuary, a line for a group that was expected to be contained in a 4pm-8pm window but went past 10, I wound my way past videos of Andrew’s work in Africa, medals for high school Academic Decathlon (which he insisted was every bit as much of a contact sport as football, without the pads), pictures of his first season rock climbing, ascents in Bolivia, nieces and nephews.

In every photo there are Andrew’s bright open eyes looking easily at the camera. Other shots were rotating on the wall. I watched them for the entire hour procession once inside the main room, spiraling toward his family. Once I was underneath the screen I looked up at an odd angle of Andrew’s foot snapped into a bike pedal. It was larger than life. Larger than his life will ever be again. I thought of this as I walked toward his family.

“You’re the climber,” his sisters said, when I got to them in line. I nodded. “So you must understand all this, then.”

I started crying, again. “Not so much,” I said. I didn’t know what I was supposed to give them. Instead we talked about about the coffee I hooked Andrew on, about his frugal tendencies in climbing gear, about his love for them.

As I walked away I thought about Andrew, John, Jonny, Micah, Wade, Chad, Doug, Bruce, Sue, Karen, Chris, Charlie, Laura, Max… I thought about everyone who is gone, and realized that the only thing I really do know right now is that this all keeps getting closer.