climbing wall at Estes Park. Mind you, it's a small novice climb that can be scaled by some of the older children. But for me, it's a test. Will there come a time when I am too weak to reach the top? Am I in worse shape than the last time?
Two years ago, I faced the challenge bravely. The wall has three sides: easy, hard, and harder. Of course, I immediately lined up on the expert side. As the carabiner was snapped on my waist, I called out "on belay" and waited for the retort, "belay on". My muscles began to stretch.
I climbed up the face of the wall. My feet slipped from time to time as I reached for the next hand hold. A few minutes later, I hung from the top. I floated downward, kicking my feet against the structure, I gently landed on the ground. I admired the tautness of my burning muscles.
Two years later, the wall looked much larger. I scaled up much like before. But coming down, I felt more winded. I bent over and held my knees as I worked to catch my breath.
My pride at success, however, was short lived. Although I had conquered the the hardest side, I had climbed up the middle. If I limited myself to the right edge, the level of difficulty became much greater. Jutting out was a stair like structure with two hand holds on the bottom, and then a few on top. The problem was that I would have to hoist myself without concrete footing for my legs.
With only minutes left in our session, I saddled back into the harness. The first few steps were like butter. I grabbed both arms below the jutting structure and shot my right hand onto the area above. Then with all my might, I pulled upward and hoisted my left hand, just barely catching the hold at the last minute. But now I came to the tough part. Hanging from both arms, there was no where to put my feet. I heard the guide yelling from below. My only chance was to wedge my knees against the wood structure and pull up hard.
With my feet collapsed into my waste, I thrust my knees against the grain of the solid structure. It began to slip and scrape my skin. I flailed forward, my hands catching the rubbery hold above. Gingerly I lifted my foot and placed it into the hold my hand had just left. Then I did the same on the other side.
I stood a few moments to steady my breathing. My chest heaved back and forth trying to hold onto what little oxygen it could capture from the high altitude. I was home free. Half way up, I was past the hardest part of the climb.
In some ways, this physical triumph made me reminisce about other challenges in my past: growing up with a learning disability, the death of my father, and a ruthless medical education. How many times had I been stuck in a bad spot with my knees scraping against the mishaps of life?
And more importantly, how many patients have I watched mercilessly work their way through hardship. They struggle on the right edge of the climbing wall hoisting themselves past surgery, chemotherapy, or cardiac catheterization.
Much like my climb, getting through the roughest patch is not always the end of the journey. Even after all I had accomplished, two thirds of the way up, my leg reached out a little too far and cramped. My feet slipped, and there I hung from the safety rope. Failure.
For my patients, almost is not an option. They not only suffer through the challenges, but also the nerve racking moments in between.
There is no pinnacle or a raucous dance of joy.
There are only peaks and valleys.