Monday, November 10, 2014

When the fix is ... nonexistent

On July 4, 2004, I watched an only-in-Alaska sporting event called the Mt. Marathon race in Seward. Runners climb 3000 vertical feet in a mile-and-a-half, then turn around and scream down the mountain. The fastest runners average 12 miles per hour on the descent. To borrow from Woody in Toy Story, “That’s not running, that’s falling with style.”

The mountain is mostly bare rock, and you can watch much of the action from the streets of Seward, where the race starts and ends. I watched runners stumble across the finish line mud-spattered, bloodied, gasping for air.

I had to do the race. I just had to. The giddy thrill of my spectating experience instantly morphed into a delusion that I would run the race the following year. I wandered around Seward babbling my newfound ambition to anyone who would listen. Locals explained that I would literally have to win the lottery to get a race number. I was undaunted.

Undaunted, that is, until I hiked the trail the next day.

Patiently indulging my fantasy, John took then-two-year-old Rosie to the aquarium while I climbed Mt. Marathon in preparation for my race. Several minutes up the trail, I encountered the rock wall I had watched tens of racers deftly skitter down as they neared the race finish. I could not, but not, find the nerve or the fingerholds to scale it. After several attempts, I succumbed to my fear and sheepishly trudged up the trail that wound around the backside of the cliffs. The rest of the ascent was an exercise in staying attached to the mountain on the loose scree and tethered to my bearings as fog ensconced my world.

On the descent, I again attempted the cliffs, again chickened out, and then and forever stopped talking about getting a race number.    

Memories of my Mt. Marathon experience flooded back when, in 2012, a Mt. Marathon racer disappeared. Michael LeMaitre had never hiked the trail, and he was the last racer up the mountain. Race volunteers at the turnaround rock, situated below the summit, left before he reached their perch. They passed him heading up and asked if he needed help. He said he was fine. That was the last anyone saw of him.

His distraught wife sued the City of Seward, which sponsors the race, for $5 million. Last month – after more than two years of legal warfare – the City announced a settlement for $20,000, the minimum the city figured it would cost to go to trial.[i] Throughout the case, vitriol and suspicion flowed from city authorities; Peggy LeMaitre was painted as greedy, manipulative, moronic. It was suggested she staged her husband’s disappearance for money.

I read the news stories with abject horror. Last month marked four years since John’s death.  After he died, several friends suggested I consider suing for wrongful death. There was a reasonable case: the barrier he’d innocently vaulted was apparently below the required height for barriers that conceal a drop. Money could help offset the loss of his income.  

But I knew that suing would shunt time, money and spiritual energy from the work I needed to do healing and raising my children. I knew that wrongful death cases have a low rate of success. And I suspected that, should the case hit the papers, the greedy-widow narrative would bubble to the surface. And most of all, I knew in my heart that even the best-case scenario, a legal “win,” would not lessen our anguish.

John’s accident was one-part bad luck, one-part bad judgment. Or maybe two-parts of one, one-part the other. The point is, all accidents are some combination of a potentially unsafe situation and an error or series of errors in judgment. The law is ill equipped to find truth in these situations. Accidents are nuanced events.  

But several people counseled me to keep my options open. So I talked to an attorney, and filled out a form that effectively put the City of Minneapolis on notice that I reserved the right to sue, thus freezing the statute of limitations. This bought me time, and helped me think through what I wanted. And what I really wanted was for no one else to die the way John did. I wanted the barrier made safer.  

In the end, largely through the persistence of John’s mother, that’s what happened. The city determined that the barrier was below height standards for bicyclists, who were at risk of toppling over it while riding alongside it over the bridge. The city added a metal rail, raising the height of the concrete barrier.

Perhaps the city’s actions suggest I might have won my hypothetical lawsuit. Probably not. The law is an ugly beast. More likely, like Peggy LeMaitre, I would have been left bitter and depleted and mired in injury that’s been compounded by insult.  

I imagine Peggy never saw it coming. Wrongful death attorneys with their no-money-down deals can seem like a safe gambit. Well-meaning friends and family probably encouraged her to seek justice or demand accountability. She was vulnerable, hurting, angry; and the people who loved her wanted to fix it.

Therein lies the rub. Human compassion compels us to want to solve problems. When we see someone hurting, we want to jump in and save them, take action, do something – anything.  
But there are problems that can’t be solved. I’m not the most Zen of people and I can’t meditate to save my hide, but I’ve come to see that there are some situations you can’t fight your way through. You just have to sit with the pain, the loss, the lack of explanation. Sometimes there’s no reason and no remedy.  

I experienced something similar, albeit on a smaller scale, with the loss of my breast. As fast as they could say you’ll-never-be-a-lumpectomy-candidate (doctor-speak for, “we gotta slice this whole sucker off”), every medical professional I encountered assured me I could get reconstruction (doctor-speak for “fake boob”).

What they’re slower to explain is this: a fake breast will never look or feel like a real breast, and it will take varying degrees of time, money, discomfort and risk to construct. In my case, it would likely have required a high degree of all of them, and after figuring that out, I opted out. A year after my modified radical mastectomy, I’m comfortable in my body, relieved to be done with needless procedures, and glad I resisted the tacit pressure to pursue a fix.

My point is this: If someone you know is experiencing loss – whether it’s a spouse, a breast, a job, a house, a marriage – you don’t need to suggest a fix. Sometimes there is no fix.

But if you can’t solve your friend’s problem, you can sit with them through the long process of getting used to it. Bring flowers, bring chocolate, bring quinoa-kale salad. Bring a good joke. Bring your running shoes if running is better than sitting. Most of all, bring your patience. Help them get through each hour, each day, until the habit of living slowly brings joy and color back to their world.   

On one of Joy's and my less ambitious but always enjoyable hiking adventures. I'm having difficulty getting pics off my camera (operator error) so pics are limited.

Not Mt. Marathon -- Zombie Run in Juneau. The zombies got me but Alder outran them for 5 whole K!

With help from Sarah's mom, my awesome daughter Rosie and her friend Sarah MADE their Pink Ladies jackets.

Meantime, Legoman might be my crowning creative achievement. Design credit goes to Alder, and "making it happen" credit goes to Amy, with love and appreciation.

And love and appreciation to Brian, whose talents include installing bamboo flooring.