Between A Rock And A Hard Place

📸 at top: Zoltan Papp

Years ago, I jokingly told a college classmate that, someday, I would write a totally Homeric novel that would make me filthy rich and undeniably famous. As a celebrated novelist, I would live a life of adventure and leisure, jet-setting around the globe. Okay, so I’m a little behind schedule on the novel, but I’ll be damned if that’ll stop me from a life of travel and recreational pursuit. I might also note that as a university student, I had yet to discover rock climbing. Like many older climbers, I wish I could have started climbing when I was an adolescent; unfortunately, rocks were still in the process of forming.

As idyllic as this road of life can be, it also has its fair share of twists and turns that wend beyond the illusion of control. Maggie’s last post (read it here) is about the latest curve we’ve encountered: her mom entering what’s likely her last phase of life with dementia and lung cancer.

Her mom really needs her help, the kind that only a strong and loving daughter can give. Joan is the last of our surviving parental units. My mother died long ago and, since our retirement journey began 4.5 years ago, we’ve each lost a father.
The rapid decline of Maggie’s mom came unexpectedly and has put us in the untenable position of being wedged “between a rock and a hard place.” Maggie (and Frankie the min-pin) are stationed up north in Michigan, acting as her 81-year-old mom’s primary care giver. She feverishly escorts her to various doctors and specialists in an attempt to discern the depth of her disease. She helps her at home with meals, medications, and the overall daily life basics, while attempting to manage the logistics of moving her out of her condo and into a senior assisted living community. Altruistic as hell.

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Red River Gorge icicles. Zoltan Papp

I remain 425 miles south, camped on our property with Lola and the Scamp. I rely on sporadic sunshine to keep the solar panels charging so that I can run the heater during the sub-freezing night time conditions. Life is hard for us when we are apart. Being without our shared warmth during long winter nights is difficult for my body to understand, let alone endure. My mind notes this information and rationalizes that our close relationship is never to be taken for granted.

While confined here alone in the Red I’m doing my best to rock climb on the rare, random days when conditions allow. I’ve been lucky to partner with a high energy friend, no-rest-days Zoltan, who has been willing to put up with my moodiness. He endeavors to inspire me. His over-zealousness balances out my malaise and together we soldier on, come hell or high water…late fall conditions can often bring both. I am reminded of the importance of genuine friendship and the power of positive mindfulness. During a bout of negativity, I revealed to Zoltan my personal theory that pessimists typically live longer then optimists. He acknowledged my comment with a nod and responded, “Sure, but I believe that optimists live better during their shortened lives.” Touché.

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Between burns at the crag with Lola and The Zoltan. 📸 Zoltan Papp

I should qualify the above “confined here alone in the Red” before I proceed. Maggie’s mom’s condo in Royal Oak, Michigan is a modest two-bedroom, one-bath. Since Maggie’s sister, Katie, has been making sporadic trips from Portland, Oregon to pitch in with the care-giving, things can get a little crowded. Even without Katie there it’s crowded, particularly when you add a Lola dog to the mix. I pick occasional stretches of fair weather days to make the 850 mile round trip to visit when least intrusive. Additionally, we cannot risk leaving our Scamp trailer and our few remaining earthly possessions on our property unattended. If left vacant for prolonged periods of time the meth-heads will take everything. They’ve done it before, and the problem in this area continues. The rampant drug problem here in Appalachia is exacerbated by recent major cuts to education, cuts to social programs, lack of affordable medical care options and an extremely high dose of denial of the root causes. Desperate people do desperate things when survival is on the line.

Last week I said goodbye to Zoltan as he wisely headed back west to his dryer and warmer home in Vegas. Lacking a partner, I decided it was time to head north to visit Maggie and her mom for a couple of days.

Leaving the rolling hills of Kentucky, I enter the 200-plus mile barren expanse known as Ohio, passing over flat farmland, broken up by occasional industrial complexes and mega churches. This lack of agreeable scenery requires the patience of a Red River Gorge climber who has encountered a lay-down-rest on a long route in the Motherlode. Extra strong coffee and multiple rest stops to play chuck-it with Lola do the trick. Before long we reached the final stretch through the Motor City (Detroit). I’m reminded of days spent as a youngster growing up in Michigan watching the Lions and Tigers play in the old Briggs Stadium. Like many memories of my early life, the old stadium has gone the way of the Quagga. Ancient history. I do the five “D’s” through the heavy traffic; dodge, duck, dip, dive and… well… dodge. Soon I arrive safely in Royal Oak to be rewarded with a loving embrace from Maggie.

In an instant, all things are right in the world once again, a momentary reprieve between that rock and hard place. I’m here for a couple of days, then back in Kentucky to resume life on an unknowable path. Our schedule is determined by the growth of a cancer equally enigmatic and mysterious. I’m fully supportive of Maggie’s efforts to make her mom’s remaining life experience comfortable and of the highest quality possible. While we may be separated by the vast wasteland of Ohio, we continue to maintain our solid bond via our separate solitudes. We know it’s only temporary. It serves as a gentle reminder that all life is transitory.

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Praying for power to the almighty Moon Board.

Lingering here in limbo, I’ve made it a goal to retool my climbing by committing to full time training. My hope is to increase my physical strength due to a loss of muscle mass typical to aging. This has led to a decline in power which has been difficult for me since I’ve relied heavily on being able to power my way through hard movement for many years. Luckily, as an aging anaerobic athlete, I’ve learned to climb smarter by adding more technical tools and tricks (knee bars for instance!) to my climbing repertoire. Still, pure power is lacking. I’ll work this deficiency it in the gym and on the Moon Board for the next couple of months, with future lofty ambitions as motivation.

Sure, I’m older then the hills at age 64, but I’m still above ground. I’m married to an inspirational woman and surrounded by good friends and family. Life is pretty damned worthy, despite the fact that a ship-eating whirlpool (Maggie’s mom’s battle with cancer, my battle with aging, and life’s typical unexpected hurdles) is to my near left, and a monster on a cliff (wet holds, frigid temps and short trips with long drives to Michigan in winter) to my proximal right, I take solace in the fact that I have Maggie and friends like Zoltan covering my back. Don’t mess with The Zoltan!

When life hands you a lemon, trade it for a lime. Slice lime. Insert slice into a nice cold Corona, and enjoy!

Chuck

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