Since becoming a mother seven years ago, I have suffered from a persistent, and occasionally debilitating, fear of death. I am now a fairly healthy forty-two year old who could reasonably expect to live to at least the average life expectancy for females in this country. But statistics have not given me any comfort. When I stood up into a door frame that was six inches shorter than me over the summer, all I could think of was Natasha Richardson, the actress, who passed away suddenly in her 40s following a head injury she received when she fell on a beginner’s ski slope. It took a solid month before I accepted that yes, I would in fact survive the door frame incident. My anxiety about death is not limited to myself; it includes my children and my husband as well. That may be easier to explain, as I have had some cause to worry about the survival of both children and my husband has a couple of more serious health issues, although he can still reasonably expect to live for a couple more decades. Our son is now a healthy seven-year old, and our daughter is a similarly healthy five-year old, so there is no point in worrying about their sudden deaths. But worry I do.
Perhaps the most troublesome side effect of my own fear of death is that our daughter, who is equine in her ability to pick up on hidden undercurrents, now has something of a death fixation. Nina has asked me repeatedly what happens when we die, and on several occasions has told me how much she’ll miss me when I’m dead, which is nice to hear the first time, but not so nice to hear for the fifth or sixth time. As with so many character traits, the ones that are most difficult to deal with in my children are the ones that I have not resolved within myself, and the fear of death is no exception.
I have tried various approaches to assuage this particular anxiety. The approach that has worked best is to compare the fear of death to the fear of heights. With both, you are missing out unless you stand up straight and tall and enjoy the view from wherever you find yourself.
I took up rock climbing in my early 20s while living in Vermont. My husband, Håkan, and I began climbing at a railroad cut that was not very high. No problem. However, when that became monotonous, we started going to an area in Bolton where, for most of the climbs, topping out meant climbing beyond the level of the treetops. The climbing was not technically difficult, but it took several months before I would even attempt to finish any route there. I would get to a certain height, just before reaching treetop level, and would then insist on being lowered. These climbs were on top-rope, which is an extremely safe way to climb, so there was no real reason for me to fear for my life, but I feared anyway. Håkan clearly couldn’t understand why I kept choosing to be lowered rather than trying to finish the climb, and he consistently encouraged me to climb just a little bit higher each time. I remember the day that I finally topped out. Before being lowered, Håkan told me to turn around.
“Just have a look,” he said. “It’s beautiful.”
I turned around; he was right. It was a sunny spring day in Vermont, the mountains were vivid green, the sky was bright blue, and I could see for miles. I was not plunging to certain death, I was hanging safely in a harness, and I was appreciating a bird’s-eye view of my astoundingly beautiful home state that I had never experienced before.
Being afraid of rock climbing with ropes is somewhat sensible. You are relying on gear, and gear can fail. You are highly unlikely, while top-roping, to incur serious injury, let alone death, but it can happen. It does not, however, make a lot of sense to be afraid of mountain climbing when the mountains in question are the rolling Green Mountains of Vermont (highest peak, Mount Mansfield, at 4,380ft/1,335m). But that argument didn’t work for my very dear friend Vira. One lovely summer day Håkan and I set off with Vira for her first-ever attempt, as an adult, to reach the summit of Camel’s Hump (Vermont’s second highest peak, at 4,065ft/1,239m). We reached the flat, wide summit after a couple hours of hiking. The last bit included a bit of scrambling that we had to talk Vira through, but she made it, and once we got to the summit we assumed Vira would be fine. Håkan and I prepared to savor the packed lunch we had brought along. Then we realized that Vira was not opening her eyes.
“Vira, don’t you want a sandwich?”
“I can’t look.”
“But Vira– this is the easy part! This is where you admire the view and feel proud of climbing Camel’s Hump! You did the hard part already.”
“I think I’m going to fall off.”
“But that’s physically impossible. There’s no way to fall off of this summit.”
“Doesn’t matter. I’ll eat the sandwiches later. I’m going to sit right here with my eyes closed and wait for you.”
We shook our heads, ate our lunch, and took some pictures of Vira that, when developed, showed hands that were firmly gripping the rock beneath them and a much paler face than usual. Vira went on to conquer her acrophobia gallantly; she has crossed more mountains off her tick list than I have.
Life, though, is not as predictable as top-roping, and is not nearly as safe as summiting one of the Green Mountains. Life, it seems to me, is much more similar to hiking out to the edge of Angel’s Landing. The Wikipedia entry for Angel’s Landing describes the trail like this: “Angels Landing, known earlier as the Temple of Aeolus, is a rock formation measuring around 1,208-foot (368 m) tall in Zion National Park in southern Utah. A trail, cut into solid rock in 1926, leads to the top of Angels Landing and provides a spectacular view of Zion Canyon.” Håkan and I visited Zion National Park in the late 1980s. Zion is aptly named. The beauty of the place is such that the divine feels quite close. Zion Canyon, 15 miles long and up to half a mile deep, runs through the park, and many of the trails provide stunning views of the canyon, but the view from Angel’s Landing is exceptional. Not that I know for sure, because I myself was unable to get to the furthest point of the trail. Ah, the trail. The Wikipedia entry quoted earlier later further states: “A FAQ on Zion’s National Park Website  lists five fatalities from Angel’s Landing (possibly excluding some in which foul play was suspected). However, according to […] that webpage has listed five deaths on its FAQ since August 28, 2006 (days after the death of Bernadette Vandermeer). It is therefore unclear whether this number included her accident, and it does not reflect at least two later falls.”
Håkan and I hiked Angel’s Landing on a hot, sunny June day. I was in my early 20s and while I was not nearly as preoccupied by death as I was later to become, I had a healthy awareness of my own mortality. The first part of the trail was easy, as with most of the other trails at Zion. The higher up we got, the more challenging it became. Towards the end of the trail is a section known as Walter’s Wiggles, a series of very steep switchbacks which add elevation quickly. By the time we reached the promontory, we had been hiking strenuously for some time. The view was getting progressively more and more breathtaking. It was clear to me that the view from the very tip of the promontory, where the trail ended, would be the view of a lifetime. We started out towards the edge. The drop-offs on either side of the trail were sheer and very, very steep. I got to the resting place called Scout’s Landing, having walked several yards holding on to the chain the park had installed for particularly precarious sections of the last half-mile. To hold on to the chain, you had to bend forward. I think it would have helped if I could have stood upright, but it wouldn’t have helped enough. I told Håkan I wasn’t going any further.
“Oh, come on Beth, you’re practically there!”
“Nope. I’ve gone far enough. I don’t want to die by falling off a cliff. Maybe if they had real climbing ropes, but I’m not going out there with just this chain for security.”
“But it’ll only be ten more minutes, and then you can say you reached the end of Angel’s Landing.”
I sat there at Scout’s Landing, clinging to the ground the same way Vira had clung to the summit of Camel’s Hump, and hoped that Håkan would not add his name to the list of fatalities. I realized that, just like Vira had been on Camel’s Hump, I was unable to appreciate the vista I had worked so hard to gain access to because of my fear. I attempted to open up to the experience, but was only able to do so in little bursts before the fact that my husband was walking along a narrow ridge with plunging falls on either side made me grab the rocks around me more tightly.
Håkan survived, and when he returned to Scout’s Landing, he was rapturous about the view. At the very end, he reported, the promontory widened, so you could stand up without holding on to the chain. “You should have done it,” he said. “Are you sure you don’t want to give it a try now? I’m happy to go out again.”
“No, I’m all set, really. Maybe next time,” I said flippantly, knowing that there may well never be a next time, not least because Utah was a solid three days’ drive from Vermont.
Håkan and I have done many other hikes and climbs since, but very few stand out like Angel’s Landing. When my fear of death begins to get the upper hand, I think to myself, life is like hiking Angel’s Landing. There are times that life is easy, like the start of the trail, and everything seems to be flowing smoothly. At other times life makes me work hard, and I feel that I may or may not be able to get where I need to go, like during the Walter’s Wiggles section of Angel’s Landing, when I wasn’t sure I had the stamina to continue. There are moments in life when it is clear that there are drop-offs on either side of me and I choose to be safe rather than take a risk, like at Scout’s Landing. And there have been some times that I know I have chosen a hard road, but I have achieved my goal, and I can stand up and enjoy the beauty of my arrival. But above all, I feel that every day is like a day on the promontory of Angel’s Landing. Every day is full of both beauty and fear, and every day I have the choice– am I going to stand tall and take in the incredible vista that is life, or am I going to be so terrified by the drop-offs that I fail to really open my eyes? Because in life, the truth is that I don’t know where the drop-offs really are. They may seem very close or very far away, but my actual proximity to them is usually not for me to decide. So I may as well stand up, open my eyes, and thank whomever or whatever I want to thank for getting me this far on the path that is my life.
It may seem ironic that the image of Angel’s Landing brings me such comfort when I did not actually reach that final promontory. I have given it much consideration, but I can’t honestly say whether I regret my decision or not. I think there is a difference between knowing that there are potential drop-offs in my life– the car that could crash, the heart that could fail– and putting myself in a position where the drop-offs are very real. But I know that both Angel’s Landing and my life are full of infinite beauty as well, and when my view of that beauty becomes obscured, thinking of that trail at Zion helps to clear my vision.