New Year 2017 was an odd one. Far from being worried about the forthcoming year and expecting to be glad to finally turn my back on such an annus horribilis, it was unnerving to discover melancholia at year’s end and in fact a desire to cling onto 2017, to not let go of any aspect. It was the darkest, toughest year of my life but it was mine, it was an achievement, I was challenged, endured and Caroline is alive. Amongst the grief and loss I want to hold on to that.
Wilderness Lessons in Challenge and Growth
As a teen I completed several challenge hikes with my Venture Scout group, two of which, the 35-mile White Rose Walk in Yorkshire and the 24-mile Yorkshire Three Peaks, are memorable as my first long distance walks without training – the fitness of youth! – and being the only female in the team. I remember tea in pint cups on completion of the Three Peaks and a fabric badge for the White Rose walk.
I also remember the raft of emotions those experiences engendered, particularly the White Rose walk which started at ludicrous o’clock in the dark. The following 13 hours were steeped in nerves, excitement, anxiety, fear, desolation, depression, euphoria, relief, anger, rage, happiness, exaltation, joy, irritation, connection, isolation, exhilaration, elation, sadness, wonder, resilience, endurance… I described the event afterwards as experiencing every human emotion in one day!
One example of this craziness of the human spirit under pressure was making a toilet stop in deep heather where the stunning beauty of the moorland views made me cry! Within minutes euphoria was replaced by deep enmity towards my teammates who hadn’t waited while I answered the call of nature, making me cry with an altogether different emotion. The boys and our Scout leader carried on out of modesty in an exposed wilderness but my skewed, exhausted mind didn’t compute it that way!
I owe this team a huge debt of gratitude for helping me complete that walk and setting me up for a lifetime love of the wild and the ability to meet challenges head on, whatever the odds.
May 1991, White Rose Walk finishers
(L to R, Dave, Spook, Paul, Warren)
In his autobiography, Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know, Sir Ranulph Fiennes describes the massive depths of emotion experienced on pushing himself to the limits of physical and mental endurance – his polar expeditions massively outweigh my meagre hiking challenges yet it is inspirational that a seasoned explorer recounts with blistering honesty the effect of physical exploration on emotional capacity.
I recount this now because my own challenges in 2017 have proved similar emotionally, albeit it more intensely, to that first hike 26 years ago. The range of emotions has topped the scale and the endurance, resilience and fortitude required to keep going through Caroline’s cancer battle and my best friend’s death has been, looking back, intense.
But I’m here at the end of the year to march with Caroline into the challenges of 2018 knowing we can handle whatever comes our way. Doesn’t mean I have to let go of 2017 yet though.
And, as on those hikes, I owe an unspeakable debt of gratitude to the hundreds of people who have kept me afloat and sane during the lows and the highs. I wish I could list everyone by name.
All I can say is THANK YOU to everyone who has been with me, Wild Daddy and Caroline on this journey – YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE AND WHAT YOUR CONTACT HAS MEANT – from readers who I have never met to unfaltering family, friends and neighbours who proved their weight in gold, medics, specialists, psychologists, people who have cooked and cleaned for us, everyone who has prayed, sent messages, post, gifts and love to Caroline, old friends who got in touch anew and new friends who appeared from nowhere, hospital cleaners who took time to smile, crack a joke and keep the ward infection-free, strangers who paid for meals, Caroline’s Cub and dancing groups, hospital volunteers who provided massages, haircuts, hugs and all of you who have provided shoulders, metaphorically or physically, to cry on, laugh on and lean on.
All of you gave us the strength to be there for Caroline and support her through her trials.
My deepest joy throughout Caroline’s cancer treatment was, and is now, watching her live life. Watching the little things she does, the thoughts that cross her mind, the things she chooses to do, the adventures she embarks on despite her weakened physical state, the love she shows and the way she takes every challenge in her tiny, indomitable stride.
The loves of Caroline’s life – nature, adventure (and food?!)
My deepest sadness is the loss. Of Caroline’s innocence and childhood as well as the life of my gorgeous best friend. We hide from these emotions without knowing it. I didn’t tell the boys on the hike how I felt, Sir Ranulph didn’t howl like a wounded animal when he wanted to.
Gathering Up The Darkness
Recently, considering a visit to Julia’s woodland burial site I said I’d love to go though my mind was screaming ‘no’. That day was spent becoming gradually more sad until the sluice gates opened and a black sadness poured out in heartbroken sobs. The last thing I wanted to do was see that grave. It shouldn’t be there; she should not be dead.
I want to see HER, to see her smile, watch her dance among the trees not lie buried beneath them. I want to tell her that Caroline is in remission. And that triggered heartbreak about Caroline too. It was a long time subsiding as it had been a long time suppressed.
We gather up our darkness in whatever way we can but we must let it out when it surfaces or it will stifle and choke us.
On New Year’s Day a narcissus flowered in the garden, and an orange Calendula was also unseasonably in bloom.
Daffodils were in profusion on the day Julia died last March, and she loved Calendula.
She is alive in the world in some sense and always will be. And my Caroline is alive. For these blessings I am forever grateful.
Mid-winter flowers, 2017
From this wilderness of emotions, I dedicate these words, and the survival of 2017, to three of the great inspirations in my life; –
– my wonder warrior Caroline who has so far kicked her cancer into oblivion,
– one of my best friends Julia (16/06/1979 to 30/03/2017) whose love of life was total and whose battle was inspirational and devastating,
– and my old Venture Scout leader, Spook (05/05/2017), who eased me into the world of challenge and endurance and who was also taken by cancer this year, way before his time. Another funeral missed due to chemotherapy.
Caroline, Julia and Spook
May their fighting spirit, inspiration, their challenges and their emotion carry us all forward with the will to face the world head on and live each day to our utmost best.
Health and happiness to everyone through 2018 and beyond.