“Oooh! For Christ’s sake let me alone!” cried the wounded man, but still he was lifted and laid on the stretcher.
Nicholas Rostov turned away and, as if searching for something, gazed into the distance, at the waters of the Danube, at the sky, and at the sun. How beautiful the sky looked; how blue, how calm, and how deep! How bright and glorious was the setting sun! With what soft glitter the waters of the distant Danube shone. And fairer still were the faraway blue mountains beyond the river, the nunnery, the mysterious gorges, and the pine forests veiled in the mist of their summits… There was peace and happiness… “I should wish for nothing else, nothing, if only I were there,” thought Rostov. “In myself alone and in that sunshine there is so much happiness; but here… groans, suffering, fear, and this uncertainty and hurry… There—they are shouting again, and again are all running back somewhere, and I shall run with them, and it, death, is here above me and around… Another instant and I shall never again see the sun, this water, that gorge!…”
At that instant the sun began to hide behind the clouds, and other stretchers came into view before Rostov. And the fear of death and of the stretchers, and love of the sun and of life, all merged into one feeling of sickening agitation.” – Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, Book II, Chapter VIII
Navigating the terminus of the hollow, melted-out Sphinx Glacier.
The old man, chained, by time, to his wheelchair, looks up at me with eyes wide. Medical paraphernalia exudes from everywhere all over him. On his wrist, there is a coloured band with a name and a number and a barcode – the international accessory of the admitted infirm.
“Are you going to be around here for awhile?” he asks with open palms. Fingers spread, hands pointing up – like a supplicant.
I come to a halt in front of him, keys jangling at my waist, short-wave radio clasped to my belt. In the evenings I work security at the hospital, doing my two-hourly rounds through palliative care. Checking the locks on doors, alarm systems, fire panels. That kind of thing.
“Jack was a logger” according to the life synopsis that the nurses have sticky-taped to the wall next to the door to his room.
He left his native Ontario at age 15 and worked his way across the country on the trans-Canada railroad. A stint in the boiler rooms of the coal-powered ships crossing the Pacific followed; then time in Papua New Guinea hunting “alligators” [sic]. Later, he would “serve as a mercenary” and then, returning to Canada, with the RCMP as a Mountie above the Arctic Circle. Then, he settled down, in the fjords of British Columbia, with his wife and three children. This is the bio of a man who has lived a very full life – an adventurous life. Jack was a “fun hog” in the sense that Chouinard and Tompkins might have used the term.
“Are you going to be around here for awhile?” he asks me again.
I nod, and point to the “Security” embellishment on my uniform. “I’m always around,” I say.
He doesn’t hear me. Jack is mostly deaf and the deafness does not help with the dementia. He beckons me toward him, asking me to repeat myself – and, leaning in, progressively closer, I eventually give up.
I hold up two fingers. Jack can still see. He gets it. Kind of. “You’re here for two hours?”
I nod. Close enough.
“But I need someone to watch out for me,” he says. “Can’t you stay awhile and watch out for me?”
I nod. “I’m here for you Jack,” I say. He doesn’t hear me.
“I need someone to watch out for me,” he repeats.
A nurse at the nursing station, seeing me detained part-way through my patrol, intervenes. “Come on now Jack,” she says, and she approaches, inserts herself into Jack’s surrounding and then smiles at me as if to say, “it’s OK, I’ve got this now. You’re right to go on.”
I look back at the bio sheet on the door again, reading more about Jack’s life. Here, the choice of tense in the wording stands out. Jack “was a logger”; “he enjoyed fishing”; “he took to deep-sea sailing on the West Coast”. Here is a life history written in the past tense – the same tense we employ for the life histories of Norgay, Napoleon, Nietzsche – as though the man were already dead.
A nurse reports that one of the maintenance guys has left the door to the outside workshop open. It’s my job to go and lock it. Access control. I step out a fire escape. The evening is clear and cold in Squamish. No winter rains today. Just the chill as the last of the day’s light disappears behind the Tantalus Range. I look east towards the Garibaldi range. In the distance, the Crosscut Ridge of Mt Isosceles is seen through the valley-gap between Crumpit Woods and the lower flanks of the Chief, silhouetted in the light of a rising moon. In its current state, caked in ice and snow, the Crosscut Ridge is very much in winter condition. Last summer, we’d tried to get in there to climb it, only to be shut down by weather and distance and ability. Late season conditions. Melting glaciers reaching the end of their lifespans.
The saw-toothed Crosscut Ridge, “the obscure object of our desire”, centre-right.
I was preparing for another shot at it in the early spring, hoping to use skis to cut the approach time by traversing the ice floes on Garibaldi Lake. This time before the summer sun had melted everything out and before the glacier became a labyrinth again.
I return inside and patrol through the “Intermediate Secured Unit” – where they put the high-risk patients – and then, with my rounds complete, I step out into the main hallway again. Someone else, Jim, an old miner, is complaining that another resident entered his room and stole all his stuff. He seems upset. Upset people can become aggressive and Jim has a history of aggression. For the most part, I ignore him. I let the nurses know about his problem and tell them to raise me on the radio if they need me.
I walk away. I don’t much want to grow old, I think to myself, although I know that one day I will have to. I don’t want to die either but I know that this is not an option available to me.
In pre-modern Japanese society, the base of Mount Fuji was said to be a site for a practice called ‘ubasute‘ – whereby the elderly and the infirm were left before the mountain’s bosom to die. Similar things have been said of pre-colonial Inuit society where “old Eskimos were set adrift on ice floes” – farewelled into Nature’s arms. The historicity of these past practices is the subject of intense debate. They may indeed just be myths. But the fact that rumours of these other-worldly practices have persisted (even if solely amongst foreigners gossiping about the Other), reminds us that the problem of how Man should spend his last days is a problem we have not yet solved as a species. We are uneasy about and perhaps not yet satisfied with the systems we have designed for dying. How can we be?
I walk on through the corridors, passing by the infirm in their beds – respirators on, holding on, clinging on. Televisions play in all the rooms. Just another half hour of television. Hold on just a little bit longer. I feel very happy for my beloved grandfather (just passed in December) that he did not spend long in permanent care before he died. He escaped that fate – the fate of a man dying while surrounded by others who are also dying. Quick and painlessly, he went.
The next day, the rains return but then it clears for a while around midday. I can see my objective again – the Crosscut Ridge. I imagine myself on top of the highest gendarme – picking my way along its plated back. I am looking across my domain – my mountains – and I am wondering what it will feel like to die. I am wondering what it must have been like for Ari, when he fell from Mount Aspiring. What were those seconds like? Those final seconds of falling, before impact on the Bonar Glacier? Surely, there must have been fear. Anxiety. But still, I have to believe, I must believe that he was at peace with himself – that he’d accepted it, and in accepting it, experienced a sensation of something akin to bliss.
Yes, I think to myself, gazing across at Garibaldi and Phyllis’ Engine and the Sphinx – mountains named for beings past, both real and fictive, with their own life histories attached. Death is a problem.
A host of dark questions gnaw at me. How do I stay alive in these mountains? How do I keep living without growing old? How do I face the inevitable without becoming a nihilist? How much more of this beauty can I enjoy before I am too old to keep seeking it out? And will I be able to find enjoyment, find beauty in other things, when I am too old and too weak and I’ve lost my mobility?
A few days later, I clock on again at the hospital and continue on my rounds through the residential home. Jack, in his wheelchair, is in the hallway again. He looks docile now. The feintest hint of a smile crosses his lips. Like the dying Count Bezukhov, the father of Pierre, the protagonist of War and Peace:
“While the count was being turned over, one of his arms fell back helplessly and he made a fruitless effort to pull it forward. Whether he noticed the look of terror with which Pierre regarded that lifeless arm, or whether some other thought flitted across his dying brain, at any rate he glanced at the refractory arm, at Pierre’s terror-stricken face, and again at the arm, and on his face a feeble, piteous smile appeared, quite out of keeping with his features, that seemed to deride his own helplessness.”
Jack, half-smiling still, is wheeled back into his room by a carer, embracing the infinite jest of it all. And me, the mountaineer just down from my mountains, the summiteer but after the fact, the security guard on my lonely night patrol – I am left, alone, in the hallway. Alone with another pithy quote. Nietzsche. The so-called nihilist, again.
“One should part from life as Odysseus parted from Nausicaa,” Nietzsche wrote. “Blessing it, rather than in love with it.”
I poke my head around the corner and see Jack being helped out of the wheelchair and into his bed. He moves, at a glacial pace – the sound of the crepitus in his bones like the crack and grind of crevasses in the fracture zone. The whole mass is moving downstream to its end. Here, at his terminus, Jack is ready to go. Ready to transition from one world into the next.