El Capitan

There was a cliff. It was exactly what you think it was. A sudden edge. A large drop lingering just off its sheered face. Steep and looming. El Capitan.

But the cliff wasn’t really a cliff. Nor was it a mountain. It was an event. A timeline. A milestone. One where you felt it, deep in your gut. It was a birthday; you know a decade change birthday. A big zero hovering, pulsating a white-hot light in your mind while screaming silently “time is moving on.” That scream in some ways, deafening.

That cliff was recently mine. To fall off recklessly, terrified and without abandon, letting the fall consume me. Or, to grasp it on my own terms like Alex Honnold in Free Solo (documentary) as he climbed the 3,000 foot face of El Capitan in California’s Yosemite Park without a rope. And then, I remember.

The message wasn’t clear as a fuzzy white noise filled the background. After a long pause, a familiar voice cut through the noise, clear and deep in resonance, relaying birthday wishes and a reminder to celebrate. As quickly as the message had started, it had also ended. The caller’s last words, “birthdays are special.” The caller would know. He unexpectedly passed away less than 24 hours later, his own birthday just under four weeks away. The message was left for my brother, who couldn’t answer the phone as he was out of the country. The caller was my dad. My brother played the message repeatedly after we heard the news. Each time, its shock felt a little deeper.

This call still haunts me many years later. It reminds me that birthdays are finite and even milestones or mountains, can be conquered if I choose.