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Hang On or Let Go

Sometimes I push myself beyond my meager abilities, whether it is climbing Longs Peak in Colorado (where I walked on the edge of a 1,000 foot precipice –deathly afraid of heights; and then I got lost), racing a motorcycle in my younger days (ending up on one occasion with a concussion and biting through my lip), or backpacking up a mountain with too heavy a pack with my good friend Ross (to the point of exhaustion so that my son had to help me down the climb). It seems I do not learn.

You can imagine my response when my family, while in Costa Rica in March, challenged me to a rope repelling adventure: of course I will.

This is how it works. You strap on a harness that has a belt, and it goes around your legs and waist. You then tie on to a rope, and you leave the safety of the side of a climb, and repel down a vertical face.

Things went well the first two repels. Then, the granddaddy of the day was next. Now remember what I said above – I am deathly afraid of heights. Prior to repelling this third repel (it was over 100 feet down the face of a waterfall), I asked the guide if my belt and harness were on properly (it felt as if the belt was riding a little low on my waist). He checked and gave me the okay.

I swung out over the waterfall and started down. I was instructed by the guide to push off with my feet. As I did, the harness slipped slightly, throwing off my center of gravity and causing me to flip upside down, striking my head and back. The panic began.

As blood suddenly rushed to my head, I felt myself losing consciousness. My grip on the rope was giving way. The harness belt began to slip from my waist to my rear, and then to the back of my knees. The guides were in full panic mode. I was stuck on the face of a waterfall, now about 90 feet in the air.

Two of my children and my daughter-in-law were already on the ground below me. There was silence. My son Josh would not even look up.

I began having thoughts about the end. I was okay if this was it (thinking about how fortunate I had been in life), but I really wished that my children did not have to see this happen. I was becoming exhausted. My arms were cramping. My breathing was difficult. Do I continue to try to hang on?

It is always a difficult decision when you are a caregiver, or even someone with a chronic health issue, in deciding when to make end of life decisions and letting go. I have learned, personally, it is rarely – rarely, a black and white decision.

Even if you are fortunate enough to have discussed it with the ill loved one, it can be difficult at best. If you are the person with the chronic illness, there is a lot of guilt in letting go – guilt about your family, about how things will be without you.

At the same time I was in Costa Rica, my stepfather, Andy, became very ill. He had developed health issues back in December and January. He elected not to pursue aggressive treatment, but we felt sure he had a good year or two, if not longer. After I got to Costa Rica, he was put on hospice. As he had done every year of my life, he called me in Costa Rica on March 12 – my birthday. In that conversation, I asked him if I should come home to be with him. He chuckled and said “Randy, I am not going to die until after you get back.” In a day or two, matters really turned for the worse.

My nephew, a physician, called me the afternoon of March 18th. He was with Andy and said Andy was awake for the first time in two or three days. If I wanted to talk with Andy, this might be my last chance. Andy was surrounded by family members. My nephew put the phone on speaker and held it up to Andy’s ear. Andy whispered very quietly that he loved me. Then I said, “Andy, I love you. You are the best father a person could have, but it is ok to let go. It is ok for you to go home. God is ready for you.”

According to the family, Andy then uncovered himself from the sheets, started to sit up, and then lifted his arms to the sky. I heard the family in the room laugh as they tried to get Andy settled down.

That was the last communication from Andy. A few hours later, he passed away.

Andy was so concerned with leaving his family behind, that I truly believe he wanted, or needed, permission to let go.

I am so thankful I had the opportunity to participate with Andy in that decision.

Back on the repelling “adventure”. One guide climbed to me from the top of the climb; the other from the bottom. They were talking frantically. The harness continued to slip, and finally it slipped to my ankle and I knew this must be it. But then I realized that if I locked my ankles, pointing my toes upward, that I could hang on.

The guides got me flipped around, “allowing” me to repel the remaining way down.

Realizing I was done repelling for the day (if not for the rest of my life), I decided to take off my harness belt. When I looked down, I saw the strap holding it around only had about one inch to go before the whole belt let loose!

Those of you that help someone decide when to “let go” should understand that too many times it is just not clear cut. But, having a conversation about end of life, like I was fortunate enough to have with Andy on many occasions, helps give you direction and helps relieve unfounded guilt. In addition, it allows you, as the caregiver, to also “let go”.

While I am going to miss Andy greatly, it was important that he let go, and that I let him go.

*Published in 2016


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