Runner-up, 2017 Remember in November Contest for Creative Nonfiction
Almost 30 years ago, Mary-Claire King located the region on the genome that became known as the BRCA1 gene. Later it was discovered that BRCA1 was far more likely to appear in female Ashkenazi Jews than in the general female population. This finally explained why breast cancer in Jewish women manifested in such heroic numbers.
I developed the affliction at 36, my sister at 50. It took her life.
Less definitive, research suggested that a predisposition to bipolar disorder might be another windfall specific to Jews from Central or Eastern Europe. There, over the centuries, this imperfect cluster was forced by their God, their rabbis, and ghettoisation to intramarry, making both these infirmities one generation’s legacy to the next. They also passed down its nightmares: of carnage, pogroms, and, ultimately, the Holocaust.
Now, instead of our parents, we became the ones who ran; we dodged the bullets, but it was our good fortune to be able to open our eyes at dream’s end and discover that it just wasn’t real. Still, we never knew when we would find ourselves shot to wakefulness, holding our breath in the dark against the gas.
My friend, a history professor, says all Jews are bipolar. It comes, he tells me, from demographic and historical rather than biological imperatives: the frontal lobe obsessed by exile, the occipital dreaming of redemption.
I neither understand nor believe him.
* * *
“Must you really go?” asked my parents, brows furrowed, eyes troubled.
“If you must,” thus my husband, “take a friend with you.”
“Just do it,” bubbled my 18-year-old daughter.
“Wouldn’t you worry?” asked my girlfriend of 30 years. “Put yourself in their shoes.”
All my life, I’ve been wandering around in someone else’s shoes…
* * *
Cancer drove me. Seven years after the event I still couldn’t say the word. Neither could my friends, at least not to my face. We were like residents of Hogwarts, calling Voldemort ‘You-Know-Who.’
I knew I had to leave.
Everyone around me was afraid. Jews didn’t go trekking anywhere, let alone to the Himalayas. They went to the Gold or Sunshine Coasts–they paddled in the shallows, risked melanoma baking under the hot southern sun, and they ate, oh, how they ate. But right now I couldn’t join them. I needed to travel far and high. I had come to believe that distance and altitude might be all that was capable of altering an outlook that was blinding me.
The first specific I confronted, even before leaving, was that Sir Edmund’s throw-away line explaining his Everest achievement (if indeed he’d said it at all) contained a profound truth. I realised I was going to Nepal’s Annapurna Ranges because they were there and I was here, here being Melbourne, Australia: the end of the earth, a place where death could sneak up on you if you weren’t looking.
* * *
The shock of Kathmandu was acute. I was unprepared for its frenetic colour and squalor, its teeming, malodorous streets whose reek was fueled by open sewers with animal and human excrement lining the footpaths. Fumes drifted in clouds; the air was blue. Motorised passenger vehicles, looking like covered wagons attached to lawn-mowers, monopolised every thru-way. Tooting streams of reconditioned buses and cars imported from India added to the noise and pollutants. Breathing became an act of will, and the proud, surrounding mountains were at best seen through a sepia shroud. At night the roads were empty; only the haze and smog persisted, rising to rally in ghostly remnants around the lamplight.
My fellow-trekkers came from all over the world. Fiona, part-Maori, part-Irish, became my roommate. I fell in love with her. At five-eleven, with hectic red curls, smooth skin improbably olive, and green eyes ocean-deep, she didn’t walk, she strode. And she was a poet.
We spent our last night in the city agonising over what to pack. Daypacks would be our individual responsibility while porters would carry the rest.
“But, don’t pack too much in your kit,” Fiona said. She had trekked before. “We’re hiking for eleven days. It’s not right to make the porters tow more than necessary.”
We shared a bottle of beer, and so to bed. In the dark, my voice quiet, I told her about the cancer. I called it ‘The Big C.’ She was snoring gently even before I began. Which made the telling easier.
If I state that each aspect and stage of the trip was harrowing and difficult, how do I communicate the sense of exhilaration and incredulity that accompanied the hardship? Alongside verdant, terraced fields of the villages we hauled ourselves up steps cut into the rock over hundreds of years. If I write only of that and of the throat-constricting beauty of the Himalayas surrounding us in white majesty, I am in danger of creating a travelogue. Such an account would pass over the friendship and consideration which the group—guides, porters, trekkers all—began extending to one another. And were I to tell it merely as a day-by-day account? It would lose the enchantment it so palpably had for the fourteen-odd people whose serendipity had placed them in the way of such an adventure.
The seven hour bus ride to Pokhara from where our westward trek would begin was a juddering nightmare. There was motion sickness and then shock at our first encounter with Nepalese toilets. It was also a phantasmagoria of children racing to keep up with us after each stop; of women carrying impossible loads on their backs; of corrugated tin roofs connected to their walls simply by the weight of stones; and of large pumpkins ripening up there in the winter sun. Cows and buffalo wandered the streets but, as the bus climbed and the air cleared, we left the chaos of the city behind. Leisurely scenes of shepherds and goatherds minding their flocks or mothers picking nits from their children’s hair met our unfailingly astounded eyes.
Nightfall at Fedi, the first teahouse: Tibetan refugees sold us their jewellery. We drank our first cup of buffalo milk, had our first taste of yak cheese.
“Look there,” said Nabim our trekking chief. “Tomorrow, we go there.”
Our eyes followed his outstretched arm to the almost vertical ascent. I tried not to be afraid.
That night, just before I fell asleep, I thought I heard Fiona say, “It must have been dreadful. My mother had it and it killed her.”
Breakfast was porridge and buffalo milk after which the climb began. Very quickly, our respective aptitudes for such exertion divided us into three groups. These would, by and large, be the order we would trek in. At the front, always, were Bill, Joan and Alfred, Englishpersons whose ages ranged between fifty and seventy. We might be getting on, their upright postures would say to stragglers, but watch how we handle this mountain.
The multi-national group about a half hour behind them ranged in age from eighteen to mid-thirties. With nothing to prove, their approach was more leisurely.
Then there was the third group, one to two hours behind the rest which, on any given day, at any given time, comprised me. Nevertheless, because the unwritten yet unbreakable rule of guided trekking is ‘leave no trekker behind,’ there was Indra, a guide who was assigned solely to me. It had to be this way: alone I would never have made it. And the expedition couldn’t be race. Unlike the English, I didn’t have it in me to charge up the mountain.
Sometimes I had been able to outwit adversity. The regrowth of my hair after chemotherapy was swift and remarkable. Even doctors wondered at the speed of it and before long I could look at myself in the mirror again. But among that plethora of skilled, sympathetic professionals, the one exception taught me that it was impossible to circumvent outrageous fortune all of the time. He was my radiation therapist, a great, strapping brute of a man who wore his health rudely. For reasons unknown he often wore a safari suit. A trekker, a hiker, a great outdoorsman, he seemed to think it was appropriate to regale me with his exploits in Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression or on the Inca Jungle trek in Peru. Struggling just to walk back to the car, I felt depleted by his tales.
And he took it as a personal affront that my skin refused to burn under the radiation. It turned a pale pink and stayed there.
“There should be far more reddening,” he told me frequently. “A great many people get blisters.”
I think I apologised for being so remiss.
But that was then. Now I would outfox hazard and peril with far more stamina than I had shown that alarming physician. Somewhere beneath the dread this latest journey awoke in me, when each day I knew I would have to face that mountain again, there was also a curious clarity. I recognised that few things could equal brushing my hair and watching it float to the floor, or vomiting for hours after the chemotherapy. Worst had been not knowing whether I would survive to watch my children grow. That harrying doctor was the least of it. But with it all in the past, I grasped that my task in the present was simply to reach the lunch spot every afternoon and the teahouse every evening. Sharing rum with my fellow trekkers to warm the freezing nights, I understood that there could be nothing to prove, only the track to follow, the road to climb.
And on the fourth day, there was diarrhoea. The night it struck, my fever ran high. I began to shake.
Beside me, Fiona rolled over. “You’re moaning,” she said. “What is it?”
She touched her hand to my forehead.
“Shit. You’re on fire.”
From her daypack she extracted a small handful of paracetamol. I looked at it dubiously.
“I know you’re only supposed to take two at a time,” she said, “but trust me. If you don’t take the lot right now, they’ll be rolling you naked in the snow to bring your temperature down.”
Those small white pills stopped my shivering and gave me enough strength to spend the night voiding everything. Squatting over the huge hole in the ground that passed for a toilet, I almost blacked out from the fumes. I lost my balance and nearly tumbled in. As I struggled to my feet, my torch slipped from my hand and toppled into the chasm, momentarily illuminating its horrors in a strange blue glow.
At breakfast we were told that today’s climb would be the toughest yet. First it involved a steep descent to the bottom of a gorge. From there we would cross a long, rickety bridge over a swift, waterfall-fed river so we could begin the four-hour ascent to Ghandruk. Indra presented me with a bamboo staff as we waited for the others to go—no question of being anywhere but last on this day—and we set off.
The day becomes dreamlike in my recollection. I had to rest often, overcome by exhaustion, wanting at each pause only to sleep, praying my bowels would not betray me on the mountainside—which, of course, they did. Indra would walk away and smoke a cigarette while I did what I had to do, stomach muscles in spasm, letting out deep, agonised groans reminiscent of childbirth. Privacy and dignity became abstract notions—important even in extremis, but able to be enlisted and mustered only by an act of will. When I wanted privacy, I did not look in Indra’s direction and trusted he would not look in mine. Dignity was simpler: it involved putting one foot in front of the other and not breaking down to howl at adversity.
By afternoon, Indra looked at me, gauging the level of my exhaustion. Eventually he approached some villagers he knew who took me to their hut. Inside a catacomb of rooms, I came to a bed opposite a tiny window and took off my jacket. When I removed my cap, all at once the women began to chatter. As always, my hair had fallen to my waist. One approached me and gently wound some strands around her hand. She spoke a few words and the others seemed to agree. Indra laughed.
“They say, ‘Beautiful.’”
Collapsing on the bed I was covered with rough fabric, more like sacking than a blanket. I drifted into a light sleep and then the dream came, one which had haunted so many of my nights over the past seven years.
I stand in my bathroom at the spot which allows the angle of the two mirrors to reveal my whole body, front and back. Halfway through my treatment, I am bald. Moreover, my body is beginning to obey the dictates of gravity. Then, with that bizarre mise-en-scene capacity of all dreams, I am standing at the far end of a narrow courtyard between Block 10 and Block 11. I know I am in Auschwitz . There is a brick wall connecting the two blocks and, against it, the place where inmates are executed. I stand there in a line. The rest of my family stands with me. We are all bald, but this baldness has nothing to do with cancer. Now the enemy raises its rifles. When I sit up, blood throbbing, I am sure I hear shots.
I lay back down and waited for Indra to wake me. When he did, only forty-five minutes had elapsed. It was three in the afternoon and night falls early on the mountain; we could not wait any longer if we were to reach Ghandruk before dark. I was given the choice of rejoining the group at the teahouse or staying where I was for the night and being helicoptered back to Kathmandu the next morning. I arose and asked for a cup of tea and some biscuits. It was the first food I would eat all day and I needed it to fuel the final push.
The helicopter was never an option.
Just before five o’clock we arrived at the teahouse, of course the one that sat at the highest point of the village. This final climb reduced me to tears. Almost submerged by the sense of my inadequacy and humbled by Indra’s unending patience, I said, pointing to my temple: “In here I am very quick,” and then to my feet, “but these are very slow. I am sorry.”
When the other trekkers saw me—they were waiting on the balcony for my approach—they sent up a cheer. I felt like a hero.
The next morning we awoke to silence. A hush of snowflakes obliterated the track we were supposed to follow and made trekking that day impossible. I used the time to sleep and recover.
It seems to me now, when the skies are greyest outside my Melbourne window, that the rest of the trek evolved upon a totally distinct plane. It was difficult and demanding; I was still and always last, but the fear was gone. Somehow I had stood before the barricades of my experience and leapt across them into territory strange and foreign, yet electric with all that was still unexplored, still possible.
Even so, the lumpectomy on my left breast—scarring it, making it much smaller than my right—presented me with an unforeseen difficulty. I had left my rather heavy silicone gel prosthetic back in Melbourne, afraid I might lose or damage it. Now, with each step over the uneven terrain, I was acutely aware of the asymmetry of my torso which affected the rest of my gait. At first this lop-sidedness impeded my progress but as the days wore on it began to matter less and less. It became evident to me that, with or without the prosthetic, I had to re-learn how to stand and walk arrow-straight. And not just on the mountain.
At times we would look down on valleys that were cloud-covered, utterly obscured by vapour, so high had we climbed. At others, with snow crunching underfoot and sun blazing down from above, it became hot enough to trek in shorts and T-shirts—until four in the afternoon when we would hastily have to don our multi-layered costumes. The cold that was once again on its way became so intense at night that I would wake up not sure where I was or why. Once, Indra said he had found a spare blanket for me. I spent the night warm and happy until I awoke for a drink of water and discovered him sleeping without a blanket of his own.
There were nights when all of us sat around the fire, drinking rum and singing Nepalese songs the guides had taught us. Most nights the fire would be so hot that rather than move away from it and each other, we doffed jackets and even jumpers. We laughed at each other in our T-shirts. It was summer at midnight on the mountain.
One night Fiona ran her fingers over my forearm. By the firelight my skin looked almost translucent.
“It’s as though I can see your blood flow. Like a pale tide.”
I did not brush her hand away.
“And these?” she asked.
She laughed. “I know, but why so thin?”
“They say the chemo does it.”
“They’re like filaments. Like sapphire threads of writing.”
She really was a poet but I thought of my mother. Not chemo. Not sapphire. Blue numbers tattooed on her left, inner forearm.
I swatted Fiona’s hand away.
We were in denial. We refused to imagine this time ever coming to an end. Which of course it did on a wild night in a Pokhara restaurant filled with music, more rum, and bodies dancing, flying with the agility that the days on the mountain had bequeathed us. But finally the music stopped and with infinite regret we gathered our things together. We were about to leave when a fight broke out among locals at the bar. Voices rose, bodies tensed, danger loomed. The fourteen of us stood huddled together, aghast at the sudden turn of events. Voices rose even higher. Quietly our guides and porters moved to surround us. With a suddenness that caused us all to flinch, one of them began to pound a rhythmic cadence upon the drum that belonged to the trekking chief. The rest of them began to sing, their music and song swelling to such a crescendo it overwhelmed completely the warring voices of the antagonists. Angry shouts turned to laughter when the would-be adversaries realised the futility of trying to make themselves heard. As we left, they were buying one another beers.
* * *
Back home in Melbourne as I unpacked, baggage, too, became far more than the sum of its parts. There was the moment when, after the first fifteen minutes of vertical climbing on the very first day, the trekking chief said to me, “I will take your pack.” My initial response was one of immense relief tinged with guilt that he should need to add my load to his. But the day was yet so young and my exhaustion already so complete that I unstrapped it from my shoulders and handed it to him with profound thanks. I took my litre bottle of still, clear mineral water from its muddled interior and at once another guide took it from my hand. That was my first encounter with Indra. Whenever I stopped to rest, he would hand me the bottle. In the beginning, he would actually apologise for not anticipating my every requirement for rest or fluid.
“Sorry,” he would say, the word as he said it sounding like ‘sawry.’ At each apology I would shake my head, embarrassed, and say, “Please, it’s all right,” until a final “sawry” caused me to blurt out: “Not sorry. No. Please don’t say it. I am sorry.”
I was sorry he had to carry my water, and that he became the one to whom I relinquished my pack with such unprotesting regularity. I was sorry I was so maladroit and so graceless in his territory when nightly, in my fantasies, I would fly in his wake, not stumble.
As the trek approached its final days he would take my pack and water without asking. He would extend his hand to mine when the route became so steeply icy that, left to my own devices, I would surely have fallen. There were others sick with the shits or the vomits. Some of them had even grazed their backs as well as their shins and their knees from countless falls. Their spirits cringed at the thought of yet another perpendicular ascent or descent but they stubbornly refused all help offered them. I understood that they wanted no one even to glimpse their frailty, but it seemed to me that I could not hide mine and, even had I been able to, what merit would I have accrued in what meaningless heaven as a result?
It was only when I was back home in this grey-skied city that I realised I had been saying to another human being, Yes, take this pack from me. It is too heavy. I have been carrying baggage—so often other people’s, not mine—that has caused me to stumble and become short of breath all my life. Take it because I know you can, because you offer with such generosity, because on your back my load is weightless and when you carry it I am free.
For the very first time I found the notion of ‘less is more’ completely revealed. We had made do with fewer clothes, with sleeping on mattresses thin and hard. We had allowed ourselves to pack less in our kit-bags, to eat less at every meal because more would have brought on a recurrence of illness, and to demand less of the day: just that the skies remain clear and the track not too slippery to negotiate.
In the holy books, our sages write that no man (they never cared about the women; still don’t) is an atheist. Why? Because in troubled times, they say, every man prays to God for succour.
My father used to pray and so did my mother, but it didn’t help, they told me. I figured they should know. They had seen the smoke-shrouded skies of Auschwitz and would probably never stop dreaming them.
I had prayed, too, in my time of need, and because I survived as they had, did that mean God had listened?
Once, as I sat opposite my father drinking the strong, black coffee we both loved, he said to me,“Think how many died in the camps, or of cancer in the hospitals. Just because we survived means nothing. We weren’t braver, stronger, smarter. Just luckier.”
I thought I saw his eyes grow hard.
“Your sister was not so lucky. And it’s obvious that no god stepped up to save her.”
I ached for the two of them, the living and the dead, but I began to wonder whether it wasn’t time to walk away from pain that was not my own.
I may well have gone to the Annapurnas because they were there, yet here, where the reality is not the mountain, does death stalk me once again? If the answer is yes, as of course it must be, and if the god of my parents was only ever a dark fairy-tale, all I can do now is
sit myself down on the edge of the abyss
dangle my feet into the void
then dodge and dance away from the chasm in steps I learnt on the trek.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Krishnamani Ananthanarayanan
Congratulations on your essay, it was a privilege to be a part of the process this year! I came back to your essay again and again and was impressed with the imagery, the mastery of your subject matter, and the way you tied it all together. There were beautiful small details and touches as well as the overarching themes and they were woven together perfectly. Congratulations again, it is a wonderful piece of writing.