The Topography of Mortality

The Topography of Mortality by Ella Zedd - Photo by Elise Anstey

“If you could be anywhere right now, where would you be?” Whenever I am asked that question, my answer is always “the mountains.” When I am scaling their peaks, worries about my social life, my future, and even my mortality, seem to melt away. Instead, I’m focused on the immediate task before me: lifting my feet over rocks, tree roots, and other obstacles, and getting myself up to the top. At some point, however, I have to hike back down the mountain and return to a world of school cliques, academic pressures, and an ever-present fear of cancer.

As I hiked out of the Pacific Crest Trail as a rising ninth grader, I was exhilarated from the eight miles my family and I had just hiked. As we got into the car, my elation was interrupted when my father’s phone rang. His face dropped, and he said “Oh, no.” I knew something was wrong. He put down the phone and explained that my great-uncle had died from pancreatic cancer.

My great-uncle refused to live in fear of this disease. He had seen what pancreatic cancer had done to his family members, including his mother, brother and sister. He preferred to live his life in a state of blissful ignorance and chose not to be screened for cancer. By the time he visited his doctor for back pain, however, cancer had metastasized throughout his entire body, and he died shortly thereafter. Hearing this right after the Pacific Crest Trail hike flipped my world upside down.

While my parents had always told me to eat healthy and wear sunscreen, I now understood that was not enough. I had heard how fast cancer could ravage a healthy human body, and I realized that all of the things I had been doing to prevent cancer could only go so far. It scares me that I might not be able to plan out my life because I do not know how cancer might play a role in it. This is particularly true since my father recently tested positive for the BRCA-2 gene mutation. Sometimes I feel powerless against this disease.

Metastasis, in terms of cancer, occurs when tumors spread and begin to affect other organs. The already life-threatening cancer spins out of control. That is what happened to my great-uncle. In my life, the subject of cancer began metastasizing before I was age three. The invasive disease has spread on both sides of my family tree for countless decades. My Dad’s father passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2000, three years before my birth, and in 2005 my Mom’s father passed away from the same disease.

I learned the words “radiation” and “cancer” at a very young age. When my summer camp friend was diagnosed with leukemia, her diagnosis erased my naive belief that my friends and I were invincible. I could not understand how someone who had shared my bunk bed was now lying in a hospital bed getting chemotherapy. I was terrified. Around that same time, my grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer. While both my friend and my grandmother survived and are now cancer free, the fear has continued to grow and spread in my mind, long after the last cancerous cells left their bodies.

When I went to my cousin with these concerns, she just laughed and said, “We will be lucky if we make it past thirty.” I have always taken pride in my ability to laugh at the bad, a skill that keeps me from getting too caught up in my worries. I wanted to find humor in cancer as easily as my cousin had, but I was unable. I began to strategize and look at the situation in a different way. I knew that while I could not laugh at my fears, I could try to understand them and maybe even find meaning in them.

When I am in the mountains, mortality seems easier to accept. In nature, I find simplicity. Animals die when they are sick and those that survive produce offspring. Eventually, they die as the cycle continues. While everything around them seems to be changing daily, mountains endure as the centuries pass. With a heavy backpack sitting on my shoulders, I know that the mountains beneath my boots are the same mountains that people like John Muir wrote about over a century ago. The rocky peaks John Muir described continue to be treasured even after his death. This continuity after death enables me to look at mortality this way: I will live as long as I can live, climb as many mountains as I can climb, and be as productive a member of society as I can be. However, like John Muir, my family members and everyone else, I will eventually die. I am defenseless against time and so are all things alive. But, the mountains will still be here for others to enjoy long after I am gone. In this way, I find that nature gives me a link to the eternal.

This past summer, as I hiked next to my mother’s childhood friends, they told me about my grandfather and their memories of him. He had nicknames for everyone he met no matter how close they were to him, and found ways to make everyone feel special. Wherever he went his presence was strong and filled with love. I could almost hear his voice and smell his Old Spice cologne as if he were hiking alongside us. As I stepped off the trail, the stories ended, and I was back into the reality where stories would be all I would ever have of him. I was angry. Angry that no matter how hard I tried I would never know him. I would never feel his strong presence. I would never get a nickname. I could have had all of these things if not for cancer.

With cancer, understanding and anger are two concepts that must exist together in my mind even though they do not agree with each other. Good times must be accompanied by loss. The memories I am collecting of my grandfathers must coexist with the reality that they are no longer here to tell me the stories themselves. My hopes for the future must live side by side with my acknowledgement that life is finite. I do not know if cancer will affect my life in the years to come, but in the midst of this eternal cycle, one thing I do have is a place to take a deep breath. I know of a place that will always be there. I have the mountains.

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Ella Zedd is a member of the class of 2022 at Druid Hills High School in Atlanta, Georgia, where she is a member of both the Varsity Swim team and Varsity Tennis team. In her free time she likes to hike, play guitar and hang out with her friends.
Accompanying photo by Elise Anstey