A life worth living isn’t wrapped in cotton wool
Recently my husband and I went whitewater rafting. No lazy river for us, we love those rapids that dump you into icy water or spin you into rocks.
After a particularly perilous stretch, our guide mentioned that a woman had drowned after becoming trapped underwater between a rock and the raft. “Drowned, as in died?” I asked incredulously.
We always sign disclaimers but – rather stupidly, in hindsight – I’d forgotten these occasional adventures could actually kill us.
We talk about cotton-wooling kids, but does parenting also mean cotton-wooling ourselves?
Over the past decade, I’ve learnt to live with the sealing of my adrenalin synapses, because risk and child-rearing seem mutually exclusive. You can’t teach your kids to tie their shoelaces if you’ve lost your fingers to hypothermia.
Now I live safely. My husband, less so. After 12 years as a war photographer, he’s packed away his flak jacket, but I still see the light in his eyes when he’s dispatched to tsunamis, bombings and bushfires.
Meanwhile, I’ve given up the extreme skiing that required avalanche training. And while I once travelled through Africa’s machete country to find the oldest woman in the world, now I’d think twice.
Do I miss it? Oh, so much. But no rush, whether physically or chemically induced, is worth leaving my children without a mother.
So what of other parents who risk and sometimes lose their lives in their pursuit of danger and adventure? And what of those who do it for a career? The soldiers, police officers, firefighters who set off each day with the possibility they might not come home? Who’s a hero and who’s just plain foolhardy?
In 1995 I reported on the death of mountaineer Alison Hargreaves as she descended K2. Living her life according to the Tibetan proverb, “It is better to have lived one day as a tiger than a thousand years as
a sheep”, seemed achingly selfish against the image of her young son and daughter.
But her husband argued that everyone has the right to live their own lives and, “That’s who she was.”
The wife of kayaker Andrew McAuley used the exact same words as we sat in her Blue Mountains home after her husband perished crossing the Tasman Sea.
As their son played outside, Vicki’s face became a waterfall of pain as she sought to reconcile the loss of the man she loved with his craving for adventure.
Driving home afterwards, I also sobbed, and shouted, “You stupid man. That beautiful boy of yours will one day look out across the Tasman and wonder how that grey expanse of water could be so much more special than him.”
Years on, I’ve softened, because life – wherever or however you lead it – isn’t fail-safe. Weather, circumstances and luck can turn you from a Sir Edmund Hillary into an Alison Hargreaves.
As my friend and Wild Women on Top founder Di Westaway says, “You don’t conquer mountains; that’s a ludicrous notion. If the planets align, you may have the privilege of standing on the summit of an amazing mountain.”
Having descended Everest herself after developing a pulmonary oedema, the mum-of-three reckons it takes more courage to turn back than it does to keep going.
Just as genetics and happenstance can deliver cancer or depression, they can bestow a yearning for danger.
“No adventure is worth dying for,” McAuley wrote to a friend shortly before his death. “Life is more precious than any of these things. The paradox is some of us need to put it at risk to appreciate it.”
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