Mindful on the Mountaintop
On January 11, 2008 Sir Edmond Hillary, known as Sir Ed to his fellow New Zealanders, the first person to make it to the top of Everest, passed away. I went to see him as he lay in state in the Holy Trinity Cathedral the night before his funeral. My father has always been an armchair adventurer, health and circumstances preventing him from rafting the Amazon or climbing Denali. Sir Ed was one of his heroes and my father asked if I would go and pay my respects. I was working a late shift at the time and didn’t get off work until ten. It was closer to eleven by the time I got to the cathedral. I thought I would slip in, bow my head, and get home. I found a line around the block and it was raining.
There are few moments in my life when I have been truly ‘mindful’ in the modern psychological sense of the word. If anything I’m prone to being a touch out of sync with my life. Maybe it’s because I’m a writer, or maybe I became a writer because of it. I quietly narrate my life and the lives of others around me. Even as something is happening I’m picking the words for its story, wondering how I will relay it in the future. I store my memories that way. I don’t have a very good visual memory but I can remember stories I tell myself and if they are written as the event happens all the better. Rarely am I not writing these stories.
I stood in line for three hours waiting to see the closed, simple coffin of a man I’d never met. Others stood with me for just as long. No one grumbled about the wait, despite the cold and rain. No one would begrudge someone else’s moment with the great man. People came out of their houses with paper cups and pots of tea, and passed them down the line. People chatted with their friends and strangers. Everyone was serious but no one was grim. Hillary wasn’t a grim guy. He kept his number in the phonebook until the end and had that dry New Zealand sense of humour.
When I finally got into the cathedral I noted, and it was one of the few mental notes I made that night, that the coffin seemed so small. Hillary was a tall man with a long stride that took him up Everest and across Antarctica. The coffin seemed tiny. He was 88 when he died and age shrinks us but even for that it seemed so small. There’s some metaphor there, I’m sure.
It was only later, when I tried to think back on that night, that I realized I didn’t have a story. I had a collection of moments that I had shared with others who had stood in that line in the late night and early hours of the morning. It made me wonder about mountain climbers. When they get to the top of great peeks, their bodies exhausted and their brains short of oxygen, knowing they have a greater chance of death on the way down, do they admire the view and marvel at their own achievement or does that only happen when they are safely back down the mountain?