They call me Spit
This is a different story: exceptional times require exceptional measures, after all. It starts off weirdly, without predawn alarm clocks ringing, driving in your van towards faraway places, preparing your gear for an adventure in the mountains. It does not begin in the Dolomites, in Greenland, in Nepal: it begins in my apartment in Zurich, from where I have been quarantined for the past five weeks.
My name is Giovanni. They call me Spit, because I love climbing, I love to bolt, and above all because my surname is Spitale. I am Italian, one among many who followed science in places where it is less neglected than in Italian academia. Here in Switzerland I study something complicated: biomedical ethics, a discipline which tries to help people make the least mistakes possible when you are placed in front of complicated situations: human potential, genetic engineering, the start and end of life, even epidemics. I like “the least mistakes possible”, as a concept: going to the mountains teaches you many things, and among these there is humility which you learn when you confront yourself with things that are bigger than you.
I love telling stories
I am not an athlete. I am simply someone who loves the mountains, without geographical borders or disciplines: I love climbing in the Dolomites, my home mountains, the ones which I grew up in. I love summer evenings spent in the van, on passes, preparing the next day’s adventure.
I love winter in the valleys of central Switzerland, in the Schwyz canton, the ones that nobody but the indigenous people know about, where there are no ski lifts nor chic hotels, only a lot of snow: take your splitboard and off you go, to find your line by paying with sweat and hard work.
I love to run among the unnamed peaks of the Anti-Taurus mountains, in Anatolia, a place where you learn that people are all the same, for better or for worse. I love the sky above the Venetian Prealps, the way in which it acts as a frontier between the sea and the Alps, and I love flying in that sky with my paraglider. Give me a hike and fly any day and I am good for the week.
I love telling stories. But this is not a story about skies, rock or snow. This story talks about something else that I know very well, probably even better than mountains and ethics.
This is a story of solitude.
There is always something to learn
I realise, put this way it doesn’t sound very appetizing. Let me elaborate: this is the story of how, during the most difficult period of my life, I learned to be on my own. Not because I wanted to, but because I had to: a moment in which solitude, an extreme, painful and prolonged solitude, was the only line, fine as a hair, between life and death. Of course, as things now stand we are all in this situation, no exception. But, hey, I am playing ten years in advance. My story, my lesson, is a few chapters ahead compared to that, similar even if different, to what this virus is imposing on us. Spoiler alert! I know what comes next.
None of these words are made up, everything has been tested in the field, as in the best traditions. There is the bitterness of the never-ending hours spent observing spring arriving from behind a window, and the joy of absorbing it all in one breath. There is the pain for the distance of loved ones, and the sweet relief of an embrace postponed for too long. There is my life, which unfortunately, now, is also yours.
Another spoiler: we will come out of this. Not only: we will come out of it even stronger.
2. WHITE LINE
Not only birds fly
“Watch out, be careful, things don’t look good here …” I move my foot on a flake which you can hardly see. I breathe, looking to empty my mind, chasing away my fear. “Fear kills the mind”, I recite within me, “fear is the little death that brings total obliteration”. Moc, various metres below, seems to understand, and he is ready to hold the fall. It is a weird move: you are practically in a cross shape, with your arms totally stretched out with the tips of your big toes smeared onto what is the caricature of an edge. Then you have to lift your left foot, looking for that invisible flake I was talking about. It is one of those moments which define a before and after: if you make it, it’s done.
I feel the rubber of my climbing shoe move. A mere nothing, maybe five millimetres. I feel my fingers popping out, leaving a decent amount of my skin on the crimp. Five millimetres, and then five metres of rock pass by in front of my eyes.
“A trip through time, dude” my partner comments, as I hang in mid air not very elegantly. “Did you ever think about it” he remarks sarcastically “how many geological eras did you cross during the fall?” I laugh. Never go climbing with someone who knows a thing or two about natural sciences, it will ruin all the poetry. I let him lower me down to the ground, exhausted. Riga Bianca, “white line”, is a route for which I am not yet in shape, nor is my mind.
Like a banana
It is while I take my shoes off that I notice something: it is my arms. Strange, they are not only pumped. They are black. My forearms are covered in bruises, from my wrist to my elbow. Well I did spend time on it, on this damned pitch, but I had never seen anything like this. “Ehi Moc, look at this!” Moc sretches his neck over and furrows his eyebrows. “Spit, I don’t think this is normal“ he mumbles. “When was the last time you went to a doctor?”
Good question. I haven’t been in ages, to see a doctor. Why should I? I am twenty years old, never been sick …
“I will be seeing one next week, Moc. I’ve decided to become a bone marrow donor, did you know that? It doesn’t take long: they give you a blood test, decipher your HLA, that is the code of compatibility of your immune system, and they save it in a database. “
A matter of choices
Moc is intrigued, I don’t know if it’s because of the bone marrow donation or my reticence to go to doctors. “All clear, Spit. And then? If you are compatible with someone what happens? “
Mission accomplished, to shift Moc’s attention to something more interesting isn’t that difficult after all, if you’ve known him for years. “Moc, then it depends. A bone marrow transplant is needed to cure haematology illnesses, such as leukemia, lymphoma, myeloma…the first thing is to completely destroy the sick marrow in the patients. Then a donor enters the scene: if you are compatible, they take a bit of stem cells, or directly from the bone marrow of the hips, or even from peripheral blood. It is basically like an injection. After all …” I look up, at the wall, I look at the marks my sudden fall left, on my fingers on my arms “…if this is what we do to enjoy ourselves, we shouldn’t be scared of a blood test. Especially if it will help save someone’s life “.
I fall silent. I know I am not very good with a lot of things, but I am quite good with words. Moc seems convinced by my short explanation “…of course, Spit. Sooner or later I’ll do it too, I think. It’s an easy way to save someone’s life. But get a doctor to check you out, those bruises are weird. And now, what do you think about drinking this warm beer, tossed around my backpack for at least a month? “
A white line
After one month, only one month. How many things change in one month? “‘Fuck off”, I mumble with gritted teeth while I make a rut with my nervous steps along the long hospital corridor. I pass in front of a mirror and I hardly recognise myself. Skinny, gaunt, covered in bruises as if I had just gone out to drink a beer with Tyler Durden. And then the nose thing. I look around: there will be at least thirty people, in that corridor. Doctors, nurses, patients…and across the whole corridor you can’t see a single nose. I fix my mask, annoyed.
I look in the mirror again. Behind me I notice a line of people. Gaunt, in bad shape, some are almost bald. Each one of them wears a white mask. The masks form a dotted line, from one end of the corridor to the other. A white line.
There hadn’t been a May like this for a long time. And luckily so. It’s the end of the month; in one week we have seen rain, snow, hailstones, storms, a generous sunburst which lasted a whole thirty minutes, and some more rain. It is the 21st May, I have woken up every morning for 10.030 days.
I’ve spent the last ones confined to thirty square metres together with Moc, who at this moment is lying down snoring away on the chest where I would like to put my feet up; without phones and other means of communication, our interaction with the human world has definitely been reduced.
It is a bizarre situation, apart from the shades of Brokeback Mountain and the fact that unfortunately we are both heterosexual.
This plan is not bad
On paper it all seemed like a great idea: a friend of Moc who manages a mountain hut in the Western Lagorai mountains, is prepared to lend us the keys. The season hasn’t begun yet, after all, but that is ideal for us. We could go up for a few days, having a comfortable base for long walks and a bit of climbing, presumably at Cima Trento, above the lake of Costa Brunella.
After a quick look at the maps and a consultation with Manolo, a great authority in terms of these mountains, we pack the car with all the necessary gear for our adventure and we set off. And now I have been staring at the rain for three days, one drop after another.
Nothing is happening
When you have time you also have space: not physically, though. You have room to let your mind wander where ever you think best, or to let it go where you want it to take you. The stove lets out a crackle, I get up to add a log of wood and to stretch my back.
I walk up to the window: it’s four pm, but it feels like eight, because of the dark. Nothing’s happening outside. Not even the animals are moving, with this weather. There is nothing to see apart from the incessant falling of the drops across the opaque veil of condensation on the glass.
The weight of a drop
Tic, tic, tic. I am no longer in (the) Lagorai (mountains), and the drop I am staring at is not water. I am in hospital once again, and what I see dripping slowly from the iv drip into my veins is a cocktail of lethal drugs. It is there to keep me alive, but the side effects would make you give up. But in the end, life is simply too cool, and if you are twenty years old it is far too soon to give up on it.
I am alone, behind a glass wall. I get up with difficulty, my body broken like an old man’s. I slip my slippers and dressing gown on, I wear my mask and I shuffle tiredly to the corridor. Nothing happens. I go out, being careful not to touch anything.
You need imagination
This is my favourite time of day: my illness has destroyed my immune system, and what the aplastic anemia did not do, chemo is doing. This is my favourite time of day, because when there is no one around I can go out, stretch my legs along the corridor. I have to be careful, since every single person, any single thing that is not disinfected, is like a bomb to me. It’s not great, but nonetheless it is better than lying in bed waiting to (not) die.
I have a degenerative illness of the bone marrow. Try and imagine being twenty years old, and repeat these words, in your head: “I have a degenerative illness of the bone marrow”. Cool, eh? Add the following: “the doctors say that I have a life expectancy of ten years, without a transplant”.
You need to wait
You need to wait, you always need to wait. You need a lot of blood for the transfusions, because there are too few donors and too many patients. That the chemotherapy works, because medicine is closer to art than science. To find a donor of compatible bone marrow.
Oh the irony of fate: I wanted to become donor of bone marrow and instead… Sometimes life takes very tortuous paths to teach you something. I need a transplant, I need someone who is willing to donate a part of themselves for me. It is not easy, because the statistical probabilities of finding a match are only one in one hundred thousand.
I need to wait. Head down, gritted teeth. I’ve never been good at waiting. But what can I do? There is no alternative: waiting and discipline, and keeping my mind in working order, since my body is already abandoning me. What is left of me?
I grab a bottle of disinfectant, which in this ward is everywhere, and I rub my hands with it. More out of habit than for necessity, I haven’t even touched anything, but you never know. Infections are the enemy here.
It’s safer inside
“So, Giovanni “ a nurse surprises me from behind “Always out and about? You really struggle to stay inside your room, eh?”
I stare at him straight in the face. He too is wearing a mask, which makes it almost impossible to decipher his expression. You can only rely on the eyes, on how they turn up in the corners. What a mess. I decide he’s being nice, with that irony of whoever is doing their job manages to hide and guard with care, just like a fine wine waiting to be uncorked on the right occasions.
“See, Christian, I was thinking of going for a ski. If you give me a hand to put the iv drip in a back pack then I don’t think I’ll have a problem”.
Christian smiles. I think, well, not that I have ever been a hotshot with this stuff of reading emotions in someone’s eyes.
“C’mon, come back into the room, it’s safer”. He was definitely smiling. I drag myself back to bed, with the iv drip, which, loyally, wobbles behind me.
Tic, tic, tic. I shake off the ghosts of the past, while I go back to staring at the rain in the Lagorai mountains.
Moc got up. He checked the stove, he joined me at the window to look outside, as quietly and swiftly as a cat.
Even Moc knows something about, waiting: the day he found out about my illness he immediately underwent HLA typing, becoming a potential donor of bone marrow. Not only for me: but for anyone in the world who needed him. He is not compatible with me, he can’t save my life, in spite him being one of my dearest friends and the person with whom I prefer tying my rope with. He is waiting to be called to save someone else’s life: if that should happen it would be a bit like saving mine.
It’s been a few days now that life has raised the bar, in terms of patience: they told him that his bone marrow is compatible with a person who is waiting for a transplant. Now it is not only theory. It is a true possibility, right around the corner, another couple of exams. Something that makes you tremble at the thought.
It will take approximately two months to know if it will work out. He won’t save my life, but he might save the life of some other poor creature which life has played a dirty trick on: if you forget about yourself, which every now and then is a wise thing to do, this point of view is not bad.
Something has changed
Like anyone who has found themselves waiting for something which is absolutely unpredictable, focusing one’s attention on the objective is the worst choice ever. Time never passes, every second becomes a century long and the mind wanders, losing itself among questions which nobody will be able to answer: will it be tomorrow? Will it be in a month? Will it really happen, sooner or later? A lot better to keep one’s mind busy, concentrating on something else; then, when what you were expecting arrives, all you have to do is accept it with gratitude and wonder. These are the foundations of an ancient art known to most as “killing time”.
I turn around, wasting time checking the draft of the flames. I shortly consider making a coffee, just to kill time. For that reason, but also because no coffee is as good as the one made on the stove gulped down to warm up.
“Spit, look outside”. I hardly have time to turn around and I hear the click of the camera’s shutter, a kind of permanent limb my friend carries around with him.
The first thing is light, the second is sound. The last rain drops shine and pitter patter like a waterfall of diamonds, a sort of surreal barrier in front of Costa Brunella. The sky of the sunset opens up, a procession of fleecy clouds which disappear like ghosts on parade.
To the west there is no sun setting: instead the lighthouse of Alexandria, the Chariot of the Sun driven by Phoebus, The Eye of God. I’ve never seen anything like it.
“Just think if we had gone down to the valley yesterday? “ Moc suggests, while he studies his next shot.
I don’t answer. It is probably the second time that this has ever happened to me in my life, to not find the words. I stand silent, engrossed as if I were in front of a revelation. I think of how I missed all this during those difficult months spent in the hospital and in those asphyxiating months of the quarantine, straight after. I was alive, but broken, and I was only allowed the world in sterile single portions.
I realise that I am crying, but it doesn’t matter. It’s ok.
Waiting is breathing.
We’ve been here for days, and I have learned that all the ones still left will no longer be waiting days. Not in the conventional sense of the word, at least. Not like an empty space between an event and the next one, suspended time to avoid, full of that horror for the empty child of our schizophrenic routine.
Here, on our own, in the terrible and fantastic weather of Lagorai, we have learned that waiting is the most important time, the one that without it our life would vanish into nonsense: the time for imagination, desire, judgement. Time for awareness, and time to collect (and welcome) the unexpected. The waiting is breathing.
The sky of Braunwald
The radio explodes into a burst of laughter and words only partly comprehensible, while I grab onto the right hand break and push all my body onto the same side, hanging out of my harness. The variometer chirps frenetically like a blackbird in love, from below the resinous perfume of pines rises. My heart pounds wildly while at the same time I try to dig my claws into the season’s most unexpected thermal and to understand what my wife is shouting on the radio.
This is the sky of Braunwald.
Braunwald is special: to begin with, in all of the town there are 308 inhabitants and zero cars. An almost vertical precipice divides it from the valley floor and defines the south-east limit of this sort of natural balcony, overlooking Clariden, Tödi, Hausstock, which have become, ever since I have moved over to the other side of the Alps, my favourite mountains.
We got there by train, here in Switzerland you can reach the mountains by using only public transport. We started walking early, while the sun started caressing the regular peaks of Glärnish. It is also possible to take a cable car if you want, but we enjoy exertion. It took me years to understand this, but by now it has become a fact branded on my flesh and soul: per aspera sic itur ad astra, heights can only be reached through difficulties.
“Look at the crows! “ my wife caws at the radio. “Let’s try to move above that hill, towards north-east”. Good idea: the rising column of air in which I climbed like a maple seed is gradually losing its power. I push on the speedbar and I make myself small in front of the wind to tackle the transition with as much efficiency as possible.
There was a promise
I like walking because it gives me time to think. I believe that hike and fly, just like ski mountaineering, or climbing, are metaphors of life, or that at least they work very well in describing mine. There are people who stay in the valley: a legitimate choice, obviously. There are people who consider mountains like a sort of frame, a non-area which makes the photo more interesting. I chose to climb up, those mountains, and to climb up them with my own strength.
I was born at the end of the Eighties, I grew up in a world in which everything seemed certain, including the magnificent and progressive fates awaiting us. Then everything broke down. The nine eleven, the economic and migration crisis forced us to face reality: that promise was false, it was nothing but a parenthesis of calm given to us by chance by a universe which follows other rules. We did not listen, or maybe we listened without understanding that the fragility of life is a fundamental condition, not an accidental one.
An invisible wall
I hit an invisible wall. My wing collapses. For an extremely long instant I feel weightless, just before, with a crack, my paraglider goes back to flying. Incredulously I look at the variometer, according to it we are climbing at more than five metres per second. Not bad, in December. Who could have imagined it? I close my trajectory with a series of turns, regulating them a bit at a time to find the core of this thermal. A few seconds and there I am, bull’s eye just like a well aimed dart.
I look around me, looking for my wife. She is going in now. She climbs faster than me, with her demon-like sense for air, her ability to see invisible things. Shit, it’s best I start climbing or else I will have to get out to let her pass by. I close my turns even more, trying to use the movement of my weight as best I can.
Nothing should be taken for granted
I walk quickly, one step after another, sinking into the snow up to my knees. I breathe, happy to be alive. In a certain sense I have been lucky: when the world incredulously looked at that broken agreement, trying to stick its head in the sand not see it, not to suffer, life called me to tackle its hardest challenge. Aplastic anemia took away my mountains, the perfume of flowers, contact with people.
For months I lived suspended between life and death in a sterile limbo of uncertainty consisting of disinfectants, masks, medication with indescribable side effects; and for years I continued asking myself if I would ever reach the age of thirty. While the world attempted not to see the fragility of the human condition, the transience of everything we loved, I was embraced by that fragility with no chance of escaping.
That is why I love walking so much to earn my flight, the turns on snow, or even simply the view: I’ve done it for ten years to grab hold of normal things, the ones that are taken for granted (which, what a surprise, are not at all taken for granted), little things which make life worth living.
Solitude is what has taught me the value of a drink out with friends. It is the extreme frailty that taught me the joy of reaching the anchor point after a difficult pitch.
I’ve been flying for a few minutes. I have managed to maintain the distance from my wife, who is further down. To my right lies the peak of Bös Fulen. I follow its ridge with my glance, catching sight of a small bivouac. Ok: I mentally take notes on its position, on the conformation of the rock face, on how to reach it. It could turn out to be a great trip, next spring.
The thermal is loosing strenght, and the sky is covering up. Unlikely to find another one: it is time to make the most of this altitude. I wonder how far I can go, gliding towards north. A last circle, another one, and then off I go. I grab the radio “Hey Angela” I say. “I don’t think I will land near the station. I’m heading north. Let’s keep up to date”. My wife replies with two clicks, roger that. She needs her hands on the breaks, now.
It might seem a paradox, but that is the key: to not break down you have to embrace fragility as the fundamental condition for human existence. That’s how you become antifragile. What does that mean? Well, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, mathematician and epistemologist, wrote a book about it, for those who are curious. There are different ways of enduring a crisis, be it financial, medical, existential.
A rigid system collapses, because each one of its bricks is fundamental. A resilient system bounces, returning to the end of the crisis exactly back to the starting point. An antifragile system instead grows: it uses the crisis as a lesson, providing itself with better tools to resist the ones that will follow. And it is for this reason that in windy places trees have deeper roots.
There are two questions. The first: how do you learn something, when all your senses are full of pain and angst? You need clarity of mind, to learn. The second: what is the lesson? What should we be learning?
Even though I spent part of my life teaching history and philosophy, I don’t believe in lessons and who ex cathedra imparts them.
I believe in questions and in their power, in the ability to show us not the destination, but the road. What comes after the next turn? Questions, not answers are the true engine of humanity. But I know one thing: I will find a place to land. Maybe there, near that church, a nice field not far from the rail tracks and the station. There, that’s a plan.
I know that we will all find a safe place to land, after this long and difficult flight. I know this because I know human nature, at least a little bit. We only have to learn to take care. Of ourselves, of those around us, and of all the beauty the world still has to offer us. Nothing should be taken for granted, and everything has a price to pay. Not in money: that would be too easy. Paying it will leave us more broken, but increasingly aware of the value of “normal” things.
“Land!” I whisper into the radio. “Have a good flight, see you on the train “.