Strength Beyond My Own

Dear Will:

I know it doesn’t seem possible, but I’m pretty sure my hair hurts. My earlobes throb and my toenails are cramping. Even my freckles are in pain. That’s what happens, you know, when you ignore the realities of middle age and decide—who knows why?—that you will climb Mt. Whitney. That’s right: Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states, 14,505 feet above sea level. It’s not exactly a walk in the park, as they say—at least, not any park I have ever been to before.

Think of it this way: Say you start your climb (as just about everyone does) at the Whitney Portal, a mere 8,300 feet up. From there, it’s 11 miles to the summit, uphill as it turns out (who knew?). What you’ll notice as you make the ascent is that somewhere around 10,000 feet the trees pretty much give up and go home. The oxygen loses quite a bit of interest as well. So after hiking six miles with a 35-pound pack and spending the night around 12,000 feet to acclimate yourself, you will finish the climb surrounded by nothing but boulders, a few hearty wildflowers (how is that possible?), and other morons who are trudging up the hill simply because, like you, they had a few free hours and somehow it seemed like a good idea.

If you’ve never hung around at that altitude, you can’t begin to appreciate the air you’re breathing right now.  During the final five miles of our climb, I was out of breath constantly. Now I’m the first to admit that in my present physical condition I can get winded navigating the produce section at Ralph’s, but even so, this hike was different. By the end, I was barely shuffling along, concentrating on every breath in the vain attempt to give my lungs the oxygen they craved.

In our little group of 11, seven of us (four teens and three adults) made it to the summit. I confess that my reaction was more relief than elation, however, because the climb was such an ordeal. Little did I know, however, that the ordeal was just beginning.

Upon arriving at the mountain-top, one member of our group started suffering from altitude sickness, which is a polite way to say that he threw up. Repeatedly. For the entire 5-mile descent to our base camp. The poor guy was unable to eat or drink anything without, shall we say, gastric emanations. With no fuel in his body, he had a very hard time getting down from the summit. He would take a few steps, feel weary and nauseated, and have to stop to gather himself.

Once down to 12,000 feet, he began to feel better, but our group still faced the daunting task of getting back to the portal—another six miles below. Because we were racing a thunder shower, we could not stop to eat and decided we would make our way on trail mix and PowerBars alone. The trouble was that, partway down the trail, another of my companions found it increasingly difficult to hike on—not because of the altitude this time, but rather due to complete exhaustion. Eventually his food ran out. His water ran out. His legs could barely move. And yet he remained several miles from the end of the trail.

Most of our group hiked on, making it down the mountain a couple of hours ahead of me and my pal. Totally spent, he bravely stumbled on, zombie-like, willing his body down the trail only because he had no alternative. We radioed ahead to the rest of our fellows to let them know of his plight and to update them on our slow but gradual progress. Then the miracle occurred.

At some point, still far from our ultimate destination, one of the boys who had already completed that day’s 16-mile odyssey came running up the trail to meet us. He greeted us with a grin, and without much conversation relieved my friend of his 35 pounds of gear, gave us a cheerful wave, and went bounding back down the mountain. It was a stunning display of fellowship, a selfless act of amazing proportions. I learned later that when one of our leaders asked for volunteers to climb back up the trail to render assistance, everyone else was too exhausted to make the attempt. Only this 16-year-old boy was willing to go.

His act of compassion brought to mind several images: of the Good Samaritan proffering roadside aid, of Peter and John lifting and healing the lame man at the temple gates. I was also reminded of what Alma taught: That those who would be called followers of Christ must be “willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light” (Mosiah 18:8). Indeed.

Jesus said: “When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee?  or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in?  or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matthew 25:31-40)

I am also reminded of a favorite hymn:

Savior, may I learn to love thee,
Walk the path that thou hast shown,
Pause to help and lift another,
Finding strength beyond my own.
Savior, may I learn to love thee—
Lord, I would follow thee.

Let’s be clear: I did not enjoy climbing Mt. Whitney. It turned out to be one of the hardest days of my life. Even so, I know my pain will fade and my energy return, and when that happens, I will be left with a treasured memory: One of a smiling young man coming to the aid of one of his brethren. That image alone made the ordeal worth it—even in spite of my aching freckles.

PW

The Fellowship of Less-Than-Basic Cable

Dear Will:

When we moved to Orange in 1998, we owned a single, 13-inch color TV with rabbit ears. For the first 12 years of our marriage it served us well, both as an entertainment medium and as a symbol of the importance of television in our lives. Unfortunately, tucked in among the hills of Orange we found it virtually impossible to get television reception through old-fashioned , over-the-air technology. And so it was with reluctance that we phoned TimeWarner and, for the first time ever, we signed up for cable, or I should say, the cheapest cable possible: local channels and not much else. It’s the less-than-basic package they refuse to advertise and will sell to you—reluctantly—only if you ask.

Which is to say, the only TV programs we get at our house are mostly unwatchable. (That may also be true if we got the Gazillion Channel Package, but we would never know.) We don’t get HBO or FSN or even Animal Planet for that matter. Its just UPN, ABC, and several others which are incomprehensible even with the subtitles.

So how is it, you might wonder, that my seven-year-old sports nut, Seth, is in the grips of World Cup Fever? Since we don’t get ESPN, most of the games are available to us only in Spanish on Univision. And Seth doesn’t speak a lick of Spanish. In spite of it all, there he is at 6 a.m.—watching Lithuania versus Bora Bora or whatever—and trying to explain to me why the officiating is so bad. At the same time, he has developed a curious vocabulary: falta, tiro de esquina, fuera de lugar, and the one word we all understand, ¡gooooooooooooooooooool!

What I find so interesting is how this event has begun to introduce Seth to other lands and other cultures. (Do you know where Trinidad & Tobago is? I didn’t. Seth does.) It’s not just that the announcers are speaking in a foreign tongue, but he gets a chance to see the passion of the spectacle which isn’t present at all in the United States. When I was on my mission in Uruguay, I witnessed firsthand the way in which the sport both divided the country (Nacional and Peñarol were the Yankees and Red Sox of their pro soccer league) and united it (in international competition anyway). I even found myself out working one night when Uruguay won the Gold Cup soccer tournament, and all 1.5 million citizens of Montevideo (or so it seemed) streamed into my neighborhood to celebrate. It was as if I had stepped into a completely different universe where I watched, agog, as the citizenry joined in song, deliriously happy, united by a silly game.

Or perhaps not so silly. After all, the World Cup brings people from all over the world into close proximity and forces them, for a couple of hours anyway, to give some thought to another place and people. I witnessed, for example, a moment at the conclusion of one of these matches in which players from opposing teams exchanged jerseys in a traditional display of post-game sportsmanship. One of the players noticed blood on his shirt—the result, no doubt, of rough play—and then good-naturedly insisted on giving his opponent a clean, unstained one instead. It was a marvelous moment of international goodwill, and I was pleased to have Seth see it.

I’m even pleased to have him watching in Spanish inasmuch as we now find ourselves living in an increasingly multi-cultural, bilingual city. Watching a game is helping him to resist the ethnocentric tendencies to which we all fall prey, and if we can begin that process at seven instead of seventeen, I’m all for it. One of the things that the gospel of Jesus Christ is supposed to do is make us “no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens” (Ephesians 2:19). I just never imagined that less-than-basic cable could contribute to that end.

PW

A Note for Your Mirror

Dear Will:

The other day I took my three kids to Cold Stone for some ice cream while my wife Dana was at her ballet class. The four of us—Luke (15), Bryn (11), Seth (7) and I sat at the table outside snarfing down our ice cream and working together on an ill-conceived crossword puzzle Bryn had to turn in at school the next day.

While we discussed the possible solutions to yet another poorly-written clue, a woman sat down at the table with us and asked to borrow my cell phone. She made a bizarre call, ostensibly informing her son that she was calling him on someone else’s phone and therefore would talk to him later. (Huh?) Then over the next several minutes she commented on my “incredible eyes,” asked if I go to church, and then finally, as I was heading to my car with my children, inquired whether or not I was married.

It was only then that I realized that this woman had been hitting on me.

My 15-year-old, of course, thought it was perhaps the funniest thing he had witnessed since kindergarten. He quite accurately pointed out that I am one of the least likely candidates for any woman’s attention: I’m bald, middle-aged, and travel with a pack of sniping children. I’ve been married for over 20 years. It has been so long since I considered the possibility that anyone might want to flirt with me that this moment seemed like something out of “The Twilight Zone” or “Candid Camera.” He and Bryn laughed and teased me about it all the way home. It was hilarious.

As we unloaded the car, however, I discovered that Seth was in tears. These weren’t the dry tears he has mastered as part of his daily tantrum routine. These were the big, plop-on-the-ground-and-form-puddles kind of tears, complete with the trembling shoulders and uneven breathing that can only be associated with genuine, heartfelt sadness. None of us had any idea what had put him in this state.

Fortunately, by now Dana had returned home, first to hear Luke and Bryn’s report on Dad’s unlikely encounter at Cold Stone, and then to give the kind of comfort to Seth of which only a mother is capable. She held him for a few minutes while he sobbed, telling him that, whenever he felt ready, she hoped he might tell her why he was so sad. So it was that when he composed himself a little, he disappeared into the study, where he wrote the following note:

“It’s what Dad and the others were talking about.
I want you as my mom and NO other!!!”

As you might suspect, once Dana read Seth’s little note she gathered him up once more to reassure him that she is the only mother he will ever have and that she and I would not want it any other way. It had not occurred to the rest of us that this incident had been anything but funny, but to Seth, even joking about some other woman with his dad—no matter how preposterous the notion might seem to just about anyone else—was no laughing matter at all.

What a nice reminder Seth gave us of the importance of a happy, stable home. Not that ours always is either happy or stable, mind you, but even so: Seth would clearly prefer the status quo to any other configuration one might devise. Would that every father had a copy of Seth’s note taped to his mirror to remind him that what kids need more than anything is a safe, familiar place to call home, a place in which they are surrounded by all of the people they love the most.

PW