When newborn Noah Hunter was diagnosed with a sick heart, many wonderful things happened.
Juicy. The heart doctor intends the word to be descriptive and clear and therefore helpful, which it is. But it's more. It's not just that something, as in a discrete thing, within the chest of an infant boy is "juicy." It's an area, vaguely bounded, spreading. It is Saturday, the 11th of November, 2006. The baby's name is Noah. He is three weeks and four days old. And his parents have just been told that the pulmonary vessels between his heart and lungs are soppy and dilated, like the flesh of a fruit that's begun to soften and turn from the inside. Juicy.
Is it better to know too much or too little? Are the best words for such a thing the forcible ones ("juicy") or those that partially obscure it in a mesh ("ventricular septal defect").
Noah's parents, a couple from Castle Rock named Stephanie and Chris Hunter, make for an interesting case study in what is and isn't, and what should and shouldn't be, beyond words. In part, this is because they are as alike in temperament as any husband and wife you'll ever meet. Private, unassuming, with the same gentle and measured way of speaking. More important, they share a marked—and markedly specific—intellect: the kind that is capable of, and seeks out, great precision. Chris and Stephanie, who are in their early 30s, have both found careers that demand and amplify this quantitative capacity. Chris works in Denver for St. Mary Land & Exploration Company, where he creates pay decks (think of pie charts) that break down the economics of individual oil wells—with the size of each "slice" calculated out to the eighth decimal point. He loves his job. Steph, as she's known, also loves her job, at the Medical Center of Aurora, where she works as...a cardiac nurse.
Time warps, leaping and jerking instantaneously along the points of its trajectory. When did Chris get the text—30 minutes ago? An hour? A couple the Hunters knew was getting married, and Chris had taken his and Steph's only other child, two-year-old Kayleb, to the ceremony. Steph had begged out in order to take Noah to the pediatrician. Infants weren't supposed to cough, at least not persistently, and Noah had been at it for days. The doc had put the stethoscope to the baby's chest, heard an unholy whoosh in between each buh-BUM, and sent mother and child to the Sky Ridge Medical Center for an X-ray, stat. The Hunters' friends were halfway through their wedding vows when the text from Steph buzzed in Chris' jacket pocket.
THERE'S SOMETHING WRONG WITH HIS HEART.
Chris, Steph, and Noah are now in the waiting room at Sky Ridge. Kayleb's off with Chris' father. The radiologist emerges with the unnerving news that "your pediatrician is on the phone" and then escorts them to a room in the ER. There is a cell phone. It belongs to a nurse. Stephanie takes it. The Hunters' pediatrician then repeats to Stephanie over some nurse's private cell phone what the Sky Ridge radiologist has told him—that Noah's heart is enlarged. "Juicy."
"Is the X-ray there?" the pediatrician asks.
"Is the X-ray here?" Stephanie asks into the room.
The X-ray is produced.
"I have it," Steph says.
"Do you see?"
She sees. Fluid is everywhere, a blur, as if Noah had been moving when the X-ray was taken. A black corona engulfs his heart, its shadow spilling irregularly outward, pooling here and there. Noah's pulmonary arteries have so softened and stretched that they're as big as his aorta.
Stephanie's profession is now a curse. A cardiac nurse. Who happens to possess a near photographic memory. Which means that when Noah's pediatrician tells Steph that her boy in all likelihood has a "left-to-right shunting problem"—and what its dimensions are—she knows what the words mean. She begins quietly crying. The pediatrician continues to talk. Steph just listens and then, after a time, hangs up and walks back out to the waiting room. Noah's strapped into his carrier. Chris grips its halo handle with one hand. Very quietly, he asks his wife what is going on. Steph tells him: Fluid. Enlargement. Juiciness. Left-to-right.
It's not the juiciness that fells Chris. It's when he asks what a "left-to-right shunting problem" means to her and she says, "It means there's a hole in his heart, and the only way to fix it is open-heart surgery." Now he sees what she sees: his newborn son naked, on ice, his eyes taped over, his heart stilled, his chest cracked open, his ribs snapped.
Chris Hunter, gifted as he is in quantitative analysis, has no way to measure this obscene vision. It doesn't just overwhelm him. It cuts him off from himself, as if he were a puppet whose strings have been severed. His body smacks the cold, smooth floor and folds into itself, the mouth going stupid, an open flap, the breathing a weird staccato of sucks and jabs. His eyes are open and fixed on Noah, a foot away and asleep in his carrier. Steph's watching Noah, too, and from the same angle; as Chris has fallen, Steph has fallen, lassoing his neck with one arm to shield his head. It is the oddest tableau: the intensely private couple lying on the floor of the fluorescently public space as strangers watch and walk past. Their bodies are spooned, their eyes fixed on the sleeping infant. The woman has the man in a headlock, and she whispers into his ear.
Those were the doctor's words, not mine.
It might not be that.
We don't know...we don't know...we don't know.
We're going to formulate a plan.
We're going to implement the plan.
We're going to figure out what it is, and then we're going to fix it.
How, though? How can a mother and father who have just been told they may lose their baby, their heart, manage to get up off the floor, much less make and execute a plan? How can they manage even to lift one leg, and then the other?
Peg Ayan does not hesitate. She just walks right up to—breaks right into—the Hunters' psychic and physical space and begins beaming herself at them. Hi! I'm Peg! And this must be Noah! Hello, Noah! Stephanie Hunter doesn't get it. This fusillade of energy and information and instructions is irritating and patronizing except for the fact that...it isn't. This small, fit woman in front of them, she's funny. Funny as in unusual, but also in the ha-ha sense. For two months, the Hunters have been immersed in a single thought. Our child is dying. Now Steph finds that thought paused, replaced just for a moment by: like a bird. It's the damndest thing. Something about the woman brings to mind a hummingbird hovering in midair. There's a coiled energy within and around her, something brilliant and electric, but at the same time intensely stilled, intensely focused. It's been two months since Stephanie Hunter laughed in a free and unselfconscious way, and she doesn't laugh now, but something about this stranger causes her to think about laughing, to remember it.
Peg Ayan never has trouble identifying the parents amid the throng of humanity in the lobby of Children's Hospital. Everyone else is going where they're going; the parents Peg meets there are the ones who are not. The Hunters are no exception. Ayan spots them just inside the threshold of the lobby doors. Zombies, she thinks. They look like zombies. The Hunters are frozen there, standing silently side by side and leveling hollow-eyed stares at...nothing. Which is Peg Ayan's cue to do what she has been called to do: to be the first thing the parents of sick children see when they enter the hospital—and to pierce the psychic caul in which those parents have sealed themselves with their baby.
As it is with all callings, Peg Ayan (rhymes with "SAY-in") never applied for the position. She'd been hired by the hospital's customer-service department in the fall of 2004 to conduct "satisfaction" surveys and compile "data." Real death-of-fun stuff. Then Children's chief cardiac surgeon asked her to research the "satisfaction" level of former "clients"—that is, patients and their families. Ayan, who'd grown up the youngest of 10 children and worked as a social worker in Boston's public schools, spent months interviewing former patients and their relatives, social workers, staff from other children's hospitals—nearly a hundred people—before announcing what she'd found: "We need to be nicer to the families."
Though the hospital's medical care was unsurpassed, there had never been an institutional response—at any children's hospital in the country, Ayan discovered—to the plain fact that the parents of profoundly sick children are nearly as vulnerable and at the mercy of fate as their children. The parents of the cardiac unit's infant and toddler patients were, in effect, being asked to understand and navigate the technology and bureaucracy and geography of an enormous institution at a time when it was all they could do to put one foot in front of the other. "What we need," Ayan said, "is some kind of welcome program." The "W" and the "P" were capitalized in May 2005.
As the so-called welcome coordinator for the Welcome Program for the cardiac unit—the Heart Institute—at Children's Hospital, Ayan began to function as a kind of stationmaster. She reached out to the parents of young cardiac patients two weeks before a scheduled surgery, telling them what to expect and answering questions. When the families arrived at the hospital with the color drained from their faces and their sick children clutched to their chests, she would meet them in the lobby and escort them through the rigmarole of pre-op testing. It was apparent from the get-go that Ayan and her program made sense from a division-of-labor perspective. Patients' families now had a one-stop resource to turn to for nonsurgical needs—everything from getting directions; to having stays in nearby hotels arranged and subsidized for out-of-town families; to being paired with the right social worker, counselor, or minister; to having the test coming up or the one just performed explained in plain language. Ayan was the one, for instance, who would explain to parents that the first order of business—having their child's blood drawn in the outpatient lab—would be one of the most stressful, since babies with sick hearts are "bad bleeders," and it could take even a veteran phlebotomist 20 minutes to find a vein.
Something else quickly became apparent to everyone working in and being served by the cardiac unit: that Peg Ayan, this sprightly fortysomething woman from the customer-service department, actually meant it when she gave those parents her cell phone number and told them to call for any reason at any time of the day or night. They did start to call, at all hours, and as often as not the calls did not involve the kind of informational exchanges that fell under Ayan's job description. These were long calls, from people who had just had bombs tossed into their lives. These people needed—if not an explanation of why their children were sick and dying, then to be witnessed, and in a certain kind of presence. Ayan's husband, who runs a bank, got to the point where he stopped asking about the calls and the stories. "Don't tell me anymore," he told his wife, because they were too much to take.
The people Ayan worked with, the social workers and physicians, began to worry, too. You've got to draw the line, they told her. It was the conventional wisdom, especially for surgeons: The best thing you can do for yourself and your patients is to keep a certain distance, to do just your job and nothing more; if you open yourself up to all that grief, you'll drown in it.
She didn't, couldn't, keep her distance, though, and the closer she got the clearer it became—to everyone—that Peg Ayan was a person who knew no bounds, who was capable of acting as a vessel for another person's sanity when he or she could not hold and preserve it. The only line she needed to draw, she learned through trial and error, was in the pre-op waiting room. The moment when parents had to hand their infants and toddlers over to the surgeons was the only one in which she found herself losing it—the only one in which she couldn't be a sturdy, steadying presence.
Otherwise, when parents were too fatigued or heartsick to update their extended families, or even to tolerate their physical presence, it was Peg who kept them informed, or at bay. Even during the aftermath, the days and weeks and months after a surgery, the calls continued to come. This was true for the parents of children who survived and grew strong—and it was also true for the parents of children who died. In a sense, a child, like any person, is a story. Stories need proper endings, and to be told. For many of those parents of children whose stories ended at Children's Hospital, Peg Ayan met both needs; she was the first face they saw there, and there was something about her that compelled them to make her, in effect, the last.
During the 144 hours Noah is in the hospital, the Hunters can only react. Only later, when they begin to think, do they consider Peg and wonder: How did she know?
By which Steph means: the fish tank outside the room where Noah's chest was being X-rayed. It was huge, that tank, its own world, hypnotic. Steph gazed into it. She hadn't slept in more than 36 hours, and at that moment what she needed was to be hypnotized by that fish tank. Except that her mother was sitting next to her, and for whatever reason, her mother's method of dealing with her own nervous energy at that moment was to externalize it. To talk. And talk. Then, suddenly, somehow, that nervous energy was elsewhere, being engaged and absorbed. Peg was asking Steph's mom where she was staying and how she liked it and what she did for a living, and then mother and Peg were chatting elsewhere, fading, and Steph was left to vanish into the mute liveliness of the aquarium. As she did, another peculiar avian thought crossed her mind. Like a mom taking care of her little chicks.
How did Peg know?
And by which Chris means: From the moment Ayan introduced herself in the hospital lobby, she clearly recognized that while Chris possessed a low-maintenance temperament and didn't require any dramatic demonstrations of sympathy, he did have a maximal need for constant, highly detailed, and efficiently delivered information. How did she know?
She not only knew what was needed. She provided it. She sustained it. How could one person have within her all...that? Because it wasn't just the Hunters. Sometimes, for reasons that were unclear to him, or perhaps for no reason at all, Chris found himself drawn from Noah's bedside out into the halls of the pediatric intensive-care unit. Something in him needed to see the others, the circles of mothers and fathers and grandparents and siblings gathered around the white slabs of the hospital beds in murmurous worship, it seemed, of something or someone that wasn't there. Or didn't appear to be. Or appeared to be a slightly disturbed sheet, because these heartsick babies, tiny and pale to the point of near translucence, were often invisible to the naked eye unless you walked into their rooms and stood by the sides of their beds to behold them. It was a humble, humbling sight, all those others gathered in circles to ask the same question Chris and Steph were asking, the simplest and deepest question in the world—a please followed by an ellipsis and a question mark.
On the ninth of January, 2007, Noah is put to sleep, his core cooled, his chest incised, his sternum cracked, his pericardial sheath split and peeled back, his blood cycled through a machine that keeps it clean and rich with oxygen. The heart is life; when the heart stops, life ends. Now, with Noah's core lowered to 28 degrees Celsius, the fluttering walnut in his chest slows, then stills, and he is gone. While he's away, the hole in his heart is stitched shut with a Gore-Tex membrane. It takes five hours in all, and then it is over. Noah comes home from the hospital and begins to take on color and fatten and smile and coo, and it is an astonishment.
Chris Hunter understands the gift he has been given, and he is grateful for and humbled by it.
Except that the gratitude doesn't feel the way Chris had thought it would feel. He'd thought it would feel final and pleasingly heavy. Instead it feels...unstill. It itches. He thinks about all those gifted medicine men and women, the surgeons, nurses, and technicians. But it's Peg Ayan's face that he pictures, and when he does, he starts to recover memories that for some reason have been temporarily unavailable to him: the two-hour phone call, three days before Noah's surgery, during which Peg answered every detailed question Chris mustered—and then another two-hour phone call the next day, two days before the surgery, during which Chris seemed wholly unaware of the call he'd placed the day before, and during which Peg patiently answered the same questions she'd answered 24 hours earlier without burdening Chris with any indication that she had done so.
Months pass, winter turns to spring, then summer, and still the gratitude itches and wants...what?
The answer is given atop Mt. Harvard, on the 7th of July, 2007. Chris and his climbing partner, a friend from work named Navan Powers, have just summited. This is Chris' passion, climbing fourteeners, and he brings the same ethic to his leisure that he brings to his work. He has devices, of course—a Spot satellite tracker and a real-time lightning predictor and detector—and he logs on weekly to his 14ers.com account to check trip reports and conditions. He's also the kind of climber who rises at three in the morning to train on a step mill, with hiking boots on his feet and an Osprey pack weighted with 25 pounds of filled water bladders strapped to his back; the kind of climber who stops every 10 seconds to suss out (verbally) the optimal line of ascent in his 4WD while navigating a rutted dirt road on the way to a trailhead.
The man is methodical, which is why he knows that on any given climb, the idiosyncrasy in his ear veins will present itself almost exactly at 13,500 feet. It's got something to do with the exertion and the thinned air, and it happens every time: He begins to hear the tom-tomming of his own pulse. Up on Mt. Harvard, it's insistent, it's loud—a percussion he can as much feel as hear. Then he's at the top, and the mountain has done what fourteeners always do, punished and pumiced and distilled him. And suddenly this much becomes clear to him: Joy is demanding, as demanding as suffering. Looking toward Mt. Lincoln, Chris thinks about his own body and his own heart, and he thinks about Noah's body and his heart, hardly larger than a quarter even now; he wonders if this feeling is the feeling of his heart being full or of his heart being empty, the feeling of something that is present or of something that is absent—too much or too little?—and then decides that it doesn't matter, because it's wondrous either way; he thinks about how grateful he is to Peg Ayan, whom he feels has protected and preserved him and his wife as surely as the surgeons have protected and preserved Noah, and he realizes that it is incumbent upon him to express this gratitude in a way that charges the heart—his and others. He creates the blueprint right there on the summit of Mt. Harvard. He's going to found a nonprofit organization to raise money for the Welcome Program at Children's Hospital. The next summer, he and Navan will climb...let's see, eight? nine? 10? fourteeners in five days. Something like that. He'll solicit pledges on 14ers.com. This will be his contribution.
Elsewhere in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness that morning, about 12 miles south as the crow flies, some guy Chris Hunter has never heard of and in all likelihood will never cross paths with is attempting a solo ascent up the back of Mt. Princeton. Like Chris Hunter, this guy is a 14ers.com fanatic. Unlike Chris Hunter, this guy doesn't know what the hell he's doing. It's odd. He knows why he's doing what he's doing, but not what. And because he doesn't know what he's doing, he's suffering terribly. He becomes enraged, then humiliated, and then, when there is nothing left, forsaken.
In December 2006, two weeks after Chris and Stephanie Hunter learned Noah's insides were juicy, and that their baby would have to be cracked open, my wife asked me what I wanted for my 40th birthday, which was then six months away, on the first of June. I told her I wanted to fly from Richmond, Virginia, where we live, to Colorado.
"You want to spend your 40th in Denver?"—where I was born and raised. In other words: with your mom and dad instead of your wife?
"Not Denver. Colorado."
Dana looked at me for a moment. "OK...?"
"I want to fly out to Colorado by myself and camp in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, outside of Buena Vista. And climb Mt. Princeton."
I might as well have announced that I intended to have Miley Cyrus' visage tattooed across my chest. Dana had never before heard me express an interest in hiking, much less hiking in Colorado. I was surprised at the way my answer to her question had just popped out, fully formed.
Another reflexive answer, another mystified stare from my wife. It was a loaded thing to have said, given that Dana is an Episcopal priest, and that church is the very structure—geographical, temporal, psychological—of our life together. In our home, "church" is a very specific word, which means that I couldn't have used it in a generic or flippant way even if I'd wanted to.
"I don't quite know what I mean by that," I told her. "I just know that I mean it."
But I did know. Sort of. The fact is that, in the last three years, Colorado has begun to exert a gravitational pull on me that is as powerful as it is out of the blue. And yes, it's Colorado, not Denver; the place, not the people. (Though my folks are in Denver, I haven't retained any of my childhood friendships—mostly the result of my having left Denver for an East Coast boarding school in the 10th grade.) It's a force that works at the level of dreams, that presents me with images that feel like imperatives. I mean this literally. Early in the fall of 2006, several months before Dana asked me about my big four-oh, I began daydreaming and night dreaming about that great monarch, Mt. Princeton. Occasionally, then frequently, then urgently. I began Google-imaging every angle of the mountain I could find, which is how I discovered 14ers.com, the marvel of a site founded in 2000 by climber and Breckenridge resident Bill Middlebrook. (Even nonclimbers will find the seamless 360-degree summit vistas deeply nourishing.)
I tried to explain to my wife that I'd been having visions.
"Do you remember that scene in Close Encounters where Richard Dreyfuss begins feverishly constructing a mound of trash in his home for reasons he can't fathom?"
Yes, she did.
"And it's only at the end that he realizes that he's been building a model of Devils Tower in Wyoming? And that forces beyond human reckoning have summoned him there?"
"My thing with Mt. Princeton is like that."
An ambiguous nod.
Thanks to a chronic lung bug that kept me housebound through the whole of June, the man who hit the Grouse Canyon trailhead on the southwest side of Mt. Princeton as dawn broke on the 7th of July, 2007, was grayish of mien and fattish of butt. The climb hurt. Hurt bad. After five hours, with 1,200 vertical feet remaining and a puce-colored thunderhead looming, my body forced me to turn around. I barely made it back to the car. Over the final mile I was forced to manually lift each leg with both arms, one and then the other, over fallen trees obstructing the trail. There was hail. There was harsh language. There was no church.
I returned to Colorado at the end of August—skipping my wife's family reunion. This time she responded without ambiguity.
"Because a hill made you feel like a wimp back in July, and now you want to show it who's boss?"
"That's not it."
"What is it, then?"
"You know, Close Encounters..."
I could not explain it. Not until the 20th of August, that is. This time I had my lungs, and summited in two and a half hours. Having taken the rarely used back way up the mountain, I was alone—at the very spot, at nearly 13,000 feet, where I'd given up six weeks before. I sat on a rock to water up. Even at rest, my body was noisy. I could hear the thump and rush of blood in my neck. The sound of that. Acoustics are strange at that altitude. All the more so when the air is still. What was that in my left ear, that insistent high-pitched squawking? Only in the left ear. I had the distinct impression that it was originating within the ear. On it went, a bit like the hysterical squiggly sound a cassette tape makes when PLAY and REWIND are depressed together. A minute passed. Two. Was this a stroke?
Then I saw it, 150 yards away, its fat little body reared up on a rock, its head coyly tilted to one side. A marmot. Eyeing me. Giving me a piece of its mind.
There it was—and here. At this moment of maximal physical exertion, as the blood was singing in my neck and I was as gloriously in body as a soul can be, I all at once found myself out of body; found myself there. The sound that had seemingly originated in my ear had risen instead from a talkative little creature more than a hundred yards away; the barrier separating all that was internal about my person from all that was external had been obliterated. There was here, here was there; this is what I'd meant by church. Because if church and religion, Christian or other, aren't about reconciling the self to the inevitable moment when all that is internal, literally and figuratively, joins all that is external—dust to dust—then church and religion are just noisy gongs.
Is it perverse of me to say that I could have died at that moment without regret? Or that some part of me hopes I die on a mountain? Or that a codicil to my will stipulates that, come the day, my sons are to spread a portion of my ashes over that spot, as best they can find it, where I rediscovered the most important part of myself?
Perhaps it's best to say that I did not know the human organism had that much capacity to feel. That's the way it is in Colorado's sublime spaces, isn't it? You feel humbled and even humiliated by your own smallness at the same time that you feel larger and greater than you ever have. And it's not just that these feelings coexist. It's that they are the very same thing.
So what do I mean by "church"? That those high, thin Colorado places that nobody can own are where I am free at last from all of my voices, where every part of me is on speaking terms with every other part of me, and where I therefore do not, can not, feel like a visitor. That moment on the back of Mt. Princeton may have been the first of my adult life in which I knew without doubt and in real time that I wasn't, somehow, some way, trying to put one over on somebody. That's grace, right there—a state in which you can't fool anyone, and don't even have it in you to try.
I've climbed six more fourteeners since Mt. Princeton. I can never decide if the feeling they impart is a presence, a fullness of heart, or an absence—the elimination of some membrane. I hope I never figure it out. I hope the hunger for humility they both satisfy and amplify never departs me.
Because it is this hunger for humility that brought me to Chris Hunter. And it was Chris Hunter who in turn taught me that what I'd been calling "church" wasn't church at all.
By 2008, Dana had retracted her statement about it all being a "macho" thing—and she'd replaced her irritation with alarm. "Don't you know how stupid it is to climb alone?" she asked. She was right. I knew it. (I may have wanted to die in a state of rapture on a mountain in Colorado, but, for crying out loud, that doesn't mean I had a death wish.)
Still, I bristled. When reflecting on what I'd experienced on my second visit to Mt. Princeton, I often thought of the 46th Psalm, which unleashes roaring waters and shaking mountains and the melting of the very earth before offering up a whisper: Be still, and know that I am God. I had been receptive to the meaning of that marmot at the moment it appeared because, despite the churning of blood and air beneath my surfaces, I was as still as a stone. And it seemed to me that that stillness was by its nature an alone thing. How could I have listened so deeply to myself in the presence of another human being?
Whatever the case, I obligingly logged onto 14ers.com a month before our family trip to Colorado last summer in order to post a notice: Was anybody interested in joining me on La Plata (Colorado's fifth highest) sometime during the second week of July? I got no bites—perhaps because the site's users had doubts about a flatlander from Virginia being able to hack the altitude. Two weeks later, the following post appeared on the site:
Hiking for Hearts 2008
by Hunter » Sat Jun 28, 2008 1:23 am
I have to put this out there in hopes of raising awareness and support of the Welcome Program at the Children's Hospital here in Denver. When my son was 2 months old last year he had open-heart surgery at Children's which was coordinated through the Welcome Program of the Heart Institute. When we arrived at Children's the day before surgery, our fear for our baby had numbed all our thoughts. We were met at the front door by a personal coordinator who guided us through all of his pre-op tests, showed us where we'd be staying, and introduced us to the staff that would be taking care of him. Most importantly to us—she was our anchor. We are trying to raise funds as we attempt to conquer the nine 14ers listed below. 100% of the proceeds raised will be donated to the Welcome Program to ensure that the non-clinical needs of these families are being met. Some examples of these needs include housing, meals, transportation, and the availability of the amazing staff to just be there for the families. During 2007 this program welcomed 350 families and accommodated 250 hotel nights for families. Donations will be receipted by The Children's Hospital. To donate visit: http://hikingforhearts.kintera.org/
July 7th Massive & Elbert
July 8th Huron & La Plata
July 9th Princeton & Yale
July 10th Shavano, Tabeguache, & Antero
Thank you all for your time,
I thought Ah, the humility! and responded accordingly:
Re: Hiking for Hearts 2008
by Liverboy » Sat Jun 28, 2008 2:40 pm
Saw your post and was moved by your story—and hope your baby boy has fully mended. I'd been intending to hike La Plata on the 7th, 8th or 9th and was wondering if you're looking for company? I think it'd be that much more rewarding to climb with people whose mission goes above and beyond the mountain itself.
Chris found the request surprising. Much later, he confessed that, more than anything else, it was my 14ers.com tag—Liverboy—that struck him as...weird. The name is something of an inside joke with myself, although "joke" may be a cheap word to describe what it refers to. Which is that in some poetic or perverse way (or both), the reason I felt I could have died without regret at the moment that marmot on Mt. Princeton began preaching to me is that back in August of 1994, I did nearly die on a mountain in Colorado. A mild dayhike up near Silver Dollar Lake, outside of Georgetown. My little sister, then nine, decided she couldn't take another step and began to cry, so I threw her on my shoulders and piggybacked her for several miles. Something about the exertion and the thin air—doctors were never able to figure out what it was—convinced my immune system to begin attacking and liquefying my liver. Days later, a young doctor told me through tears that I wouldn't live to see the next morning. I nearly didn't but then, somehow, I did; I spent the next three months sleeping 18 hours a day, and the next year and a half freeing myself from the immunosuppressants and their grotesque side effects.
At the time Chris Hunter received my message through 14ers.com, he was, bless him, too polite to let his reservations get the best of him. He provided detailed instructions about the where and when of the meet (just outside the ghost town of Winfield, eighth of July, crack of dawn) and then, after Googling my name to determine if I was who I claimed to be, informed Navan Powers and their other Hiking For Hearts climbing partner, Don Mueller, that he wasn't entirely sure about the Virginian, and that they should feel free to "pack."
We approached from the south, a rarely used route. The ascent was beautiful. Until it wasn't. Halfway up the long, steep penultimate pitch of the mountain, a mysterious something, a kind of succubating force, shivered through me. In one instant I was charging; in the next I felt as if my body were made of mist. An altitude-adjustment problem, after all. Don Mueller offered up some vitamin elixir, then, along with Navan, took the entire pitch in a single dash. I watched them fly up the mountain while trying not to vomit.
Chris hung back with me. He had assured the other two that the Virginian was "on him," and that if the stranger started to drag them down he'd handle it.
"Go on," I assured him. "I'll meet you at the top."
Chris just stood there, sizing me up. I ran what I presumed were his thoughts through my head. Ah, shit, is this chump going belly-up on us? But that wasn't it. He was taking measure of something else, something to do with what I had been telling him about my own two little boys who, like his, were born two years apart, and with the questions I had been asking about Noah and the surgery and the time the Hunter family had spent in Children's Hospital. Chris, who I would later come to know as one of the more private people I have met, then went right ahead and in a quiet and even voice answered the question I hadn't even known I'd been asking.
"Steph handed Noah to me," he said. "We hadn't talked about what would happen when they came for him. We had been up for almost 48 hours at that point, and we'd been so busy running around doing all the tests and getting ready that, as strange as it sounds, neither of us had thought about how we were going to handle that moment. We were in the waiting room, and Steph had Noah in her arms, and then they came for him."
Peg Ayan, having drawn the only line she ever draws, was temporarily out of the pre-op waiting room; she returned to keep vigil with the Hunters during the hours Noah was in surgery.
"There were three or four of them, all in their surgical scrubs, with their masks and those hairnets," Chris told me. "And Steph handed Noah to me without saying a word."
I was still bent over, heaving for breath. "Why?"
"I knew as soon as she handed him to me that she knew she wouldn't be able to hand him over to the doctors herself. After I had him, Steph leaned over and kissed his forehead once. Her face was upside down to his. I remember somebody saying, 'We're ready to take him,' and Steph put her hands on the side of his head like this and bent down and kissed him one more time. Then she went and sat down on this chair and put her hands like this"—on either side of her face, like blinders— "and broke down."
"I remember saying 'OK.' I don't really know why. I just said 'OK' and handed Noah over to this woman. I knew that it might be the last time I would touch his body while he was alive. And the woman took him, and she said 'OK,' and then they were gone. I guess the only other thing I remember is that I had this strong desire to follow him in there. I wanted to watch."
"Do you think you could have taken that?" I asked. Chris nodded.
"If this was it, if my son was going to die, I wanted to be able to hold him during his last moments. And if I couldn't do that, or be by his side, then I wanted to be right above him, watching him."
How does one respond to something like this? With everything? Nothing? Months passed before I understood what that story, and Chris' telling it, meant for me. I feel the Call of Colorado, and that moment of mine up on Mt. Princeton was a holy one. But it wasn't church. It was inward and solitary; it was prayer. Church, on the other hand, is a thing that is done, and done with others. It was La Plata, not Princeton, which gave faces and humanity to a Call that previously had neither. La Plata—that was church. This realization grew slowly, though. At the time, there was nothing but gratitude and humility.
"Thank you," I said, and then the two of us walked to the top of the world, where Navan and Don were waiting, and the four of us raised our water bottles to toast the boy who'd brought us together in this place.
Andrew Corsello is a Denver native and a correspondent for GQ magazine. E-mail him at email@example.com.