I don’t have a bucket list. It seemed like a stupid thing to have when I was sick, like a pointless fantasy. So while the well-world went about inventorying all their possibilities, I thought more about the small things I would love to do when I was well. More baking for my family. Swimming in the ocean. Making memories of connection and authenticity; creating those little moments, that pieced together would someday provide comfort for the people I love. Like a soft woven wrap to draw around themselves when I am gone. Like I do with the memories of my mother.
But like all the things I never realised about the ‘well-world’, being in remission has me thinking about this bucket list phenomenon. I suspect the list I am developing is a ‘fuck-it list’ (pardon the crude word, but it rhymes and expresses my feelings in a satisfying manner!) I am seeing opportunities that I never would have taken on previously and thinking ‘…ah, fuck it. Why not?’ Things that never would have been on my radar before I got sick, because, let’s face it; who in their right mind would want to rock climb inside a mountain?
The thing is, if I can go through all those years of sickness, I can do most things. And yesterday I figured if I could put this fat body in front of a camera, I could put it on a caving expedition too.
Let me preface with the fact that the last time I climbed anything was a tree when I was a teenager. I’m not agile, I’m not yet fit. And I am carrying a lot of weight, even for my 182cm frame. I’m 110kg. So when we arrived at the Legendary Blackwater Rafting Co. in Waitomo (I was with our friend Tatijana from Macedonia, and CC from China) the plan was to glide on black inner tubes through the cave rivers, under the glow worms. It was a real disappointment to discover that the rains had flooded out all but one expedition: the most challenging of the three expeditions, the extreme 5 hour Odyssey caving adventure through the heart of the mountain. Humouring the girls (both teeny creatures), I agreed to see if I passed the ‘fit test’, where you have to physically force yourself through a tiny low tunnel constructed in the ticket office. It bends around a corner and the theory is, that if you can fit through there, you can fit through the cave crevasses on the trip. Inside the fit tunnel, I had a little hyperventilation moment. Two young tourists I didn’t know giggled at my predicament. I said no to joining Tatijana and CC on the trip.
We went for lunch at the nearby Huhu cafe. It was delicious. I enjoyed a glass of wine with my lunch, and as I sipped, our waitress (who summers as a cave guide) wanted to know why I wasn’t joining my companions on the climb. I explained the fit test squeeze and she said her partner who is bigger than me could get through the mountain, so I could too. And besides, the tightest bit is only ten minutes long (puh! says my hindsight!). Was it her? Was it the wine? Was it the encouragement of my tiny and enthusiastic companions? We went back to base, I spoke with the cave instructors, and I signed up.
Even when they attached my harness and ropes to me, I didn’t really think about why we needed them. Even when they put the helmet on my head, and passed me some men’s size tens, I didn’t really think about what was ahead. I suspect my brain had ceased all extra function, I was already into the first challenge of my trip, and I was all denial. It’s nothing I thought, it’s been done before, it will come to an end… it’s fine. Thoughts ominously reminiscent of going into labour.
About five minutes into the cave, I had to bend double to fit under a rocky outcrop. “I hope there aren’t too many of these” I thought, clueless. At that point, my feet were still on flat ground and I had balance in my favour. For the next two hours, I would be squeezing my generous self through the narrowest spaces, balancing all my weight on one toe, or holding myself up with my weakling abs and two fingernails. It was a kind of torture. The girls ahead forged on, laughing and chatting with the instructor who was guiding them. My instructor, Tim, calmly pointed out footholds he liked to use. Inside my head, there was a litany of swear words for Tim and his favourite footholds. I wrestled my long, large self, up, over and under the bumps and edges of limestone, willing myself onward. Sometimes, my legs were so weak I had to lift them by pulling on the fabric of my overalls. Sometimes Tim would push my foot into a hold, and once, he planted his hands on my bum and pushed me upward. I was so horrified I lost my grip and slithered back down the slippery rocks; he broke my fall.
“I’mfhotyu!” (I’ve got you!) he tried to say, but his voice was muffled by the arse in his face. It was not my finest moment on (in) the planet.
The two hours of ‘squeeze’ replay in my memory as a kaleidoscope of close up views of rock. The feeling of rocks pushing against my back and diaphragm, the pain of resting all of my weight on my knees or hands, the scrape and panic, the trap and terror. But just like labour, I kept going, thinking that the only way ‘out’ is to keep going onward. I tried to focus on my breathing, on the circle of light from my helmet. I looked intently at each section of rock in front of my nose, refusing to let myself lose it.
“Attach your clippers now” said Tim. His voice even and controlled. I looked down. Beneath me, maybe four or five storeys down the crevasse, was a roaring river. Between me and the end of the trip was more rock, more rope, more dizzying heights. There were intermittent slippery little metal staples to hold or stand on, and every couple of meters, we had to unclip and clip our safety harnesses from one section of rope to the next. Sometimes, to do that, we had to lean outward and use our body weight to make the ropes taut. I could hear the roar of the rising river below us and the hammering of my heart. Twin thunder shouting at me to ‘get out!’. I intended to.
Twice, we had to trust our harnesses and swing out into space. Once, we abseiled. Neither were things I have ever done before. I panicked with the abseiling. The rope burned the print from my palm because I was gripping it so hard. I was far beyond my maximum ability to keep pushing on, and yet I was. Tim was ahead now, and had cheerily set up afternoon tea at the bottom of a gully. I lurched into the space and sat my shaky self down. I swallowed the sugary cordial in great gulps, it tasted so good! Ems, the other guide, fastened her big brown eyes on us. “Want the good news, or the bad?” she asked. I couldn’t respond, I just stared at her. We had taken three hours to traverse the first half of the course. There was at least one and a half to two hours ahead, of even higher terrain. I looked down at my shaking legs and hands, wondering how I could do it. And she said “there is a way out from here if you need it”.
Striding forward, up the spiral pathway to the outside, my body surged with new energy. I was going to see the outside! I tore of my helmet, and stepped out into the air. The wind whipped my hair sideways. The pale sky rained over my face and muddy caving gear. I tipped my face upward and grinned at myself. I didn’t give a monkey’s about not making it the whole way, I was utterly delighted that I hadn’t died, wrapped in rock, pinned under the mountain. I was free.
I don’t think I will ever try caving, abseiling or rock climbing ever again, but I am glad I did.
As I write, my arms ache from the push and pull of my afternoon underground. My limbs are bruised and swollen, but my self-belief is soaring.
So, I caved. And I caved in. And I made a memory with Tatijana and CC that none of us will ever forget. A small piece in the tapestry of our lives that will connect us forever. And for me, more proof of the universal fact that we are never what we have always thought we were. We can do things that we imagine we can’t. We don’t need to limit ourselves because we are fat, or unfit, or fearful -or any other combination of self-limiting descriptors. If any of these things are holding you back, maybe you should start a ‘fuck-it’ list, too.
I’d just like to acknowledge all the beautiful people I know who are still pushing through the relentless difficulties of being sick, or caregiving for someone who is. Climbing through the mountain yesterday was so hard, but even at it’s worst, in the seconds of sheer terror, it was not as hard as the long journey through Dysautonomia. I tip my helmet to you, because you are the true boundary pushers. You are the endurance athletes. You are the explorers who discover ways to live with meaning through all that struggle. Two words for you my friends.