Many years ago I read a startling story that resonated deeply not for the incredible survival of its hero, but for the courage of the man whose actions – which were totally unacceptable according to the code by which he lived – triggered an entire escapade and saved both their lives.
The book – Touching the Void – has since been made into a movie, so most of us will have lived in 3D Imax cinemascope the tale of Joe Simpson dangling from the end of a long long rope over a crevice deep in the face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes, his mate Simon Yates high above and faced with a decision – cut the rope and give both a chance at survival (though Joe’s chances were slim, to be sure) or freeze to death in dire limbo at each end of that rope.
He cut the rope.
Recently I found myself in a similar situation.
That is supposed to be funny, hahahahaha.
Metaphorically speaking, however, it was a similar situation.
During my recent tour of the US I had accepted the hospitality of a generous woman, a mother and grandmother like myself – she picked me up from the train station, invited me into her home, gave me a room with a fabulous bed, took me out for dinner and packed a picnic lunch for our walk in a nearby forest the following day.
She was wonderful and I loved the time we shared together.
Coincidentally, more recently, we crossed paths in Scotland’s far north-east, where I was on a mission to visit a small fishing village where I had lived for a year in 1975 and she was in the early weeks of a year long sojourn from home.
My journey was a homecoming, a revisiting of one of the best years of my life. Hers was the reshaping of a life, a woman at a crossroads.
I met this woman in Inverness and, ignoring the voices of conscience telling me this was not the right thing to do, invited her along for the ride – she was at loose ends in the far north-east and, after my few days in Hopeman, I was planning to drive around Scotland.
Why not share the journey?
After all, I reasoned, it was the least I could offer in return for her hospitality.
I did not count on the depth of my need for access to my most private self for the journey to Hopeman, my need to commune with myself, heart and soul, uninterrupted by the voice and presence of another.
I did not count on the burden of someone with no purpose other than to follow me at a time when I needed solitude.
I did not count on the overbearing weight of someone who in reality was seeking only shelter from the grief in her own heart, unshed and unspoken – and who in truth was at the end of her own tether.
After 24 hours dangling at either end of our crevice, I cut the rope.
And watched as this woman made choices that would cast her into an emotional abyss as vast as Joe Simpson’s was cold.
Many times I wanted to make suggestions, but as I watched her walk into the wind and rain of a coastal wilderness, alone, overburdened by her baggage, I held my peace, understanding this journey was her own private reckoning.
Her turning point.
Her shedding of the burdens that shaped her life.
Here was the purpose of her journey from home.
This was when I remembered Simon Yates, the man who cut Joe Simpson’s rope and plunged him into an horrendous expedition that ultimately, because he was able to summon the courage to meet each terrifying obstacle, and keep going, saved his life.
I wondered if the woman would ever understand that my actions were vital to both our survival, if she would ever forgive me.
For like Simon Yates, I was aware I would now bear the flak of an entire community, her friends and family in the US, for whom my actions were unacceptable, and would render me forever more as an untrustworthy companion.
It was her teddy bear that gave me the courage to hold my ground and liberate us both from a toxic situation.
It was the last thing she packed into her bag. ‘O, you have a teddy,’ I said. ‘Yes,’ she replied, ‘he is the only person I can trust.’
As she walked in the grey rain of morning, away from me and my car, I thought of the teddy – and sent my hopes onto the wind that, like Joe Simpson and Simon Yates both, she would learn also to trust herself.