The day I was diagnosed with cancer was the first day of the rest of my life. Ironic how I say that, only having eight months to live.
“It’s terminal,” each of my doctors said with little regard. I’m fairly certain one of them chuckled. The doctors strongly advised that chemo might have prolonged my life a bit more. My life would consist of countless blasts of radiation and violent episodes of sickness rushing through my veins, ripping my insides out from within. Towards my latter days, I would be cooped up in a hospice while on oxygen, my organs failing one-by-one until there was nowhere left for the cancer to spread. I could have taken that alternative. Hell, maybe the extra few months would have been a good time to repent for my sins.
But that ain’t living.
This, I thought to myself, with my arms outstretched towards the Himalayas, was living.
February 6th 2020
“Hey Arlo, this Sundar with Google. Listen, I heard from Melonie today about your diagnosis and I cannot be more heartbroken. Your tireless efforts with Google Maps has transformed our World and made the difference for countless lives. Here at Google, there’s nothing we can truly do to repay you for your years of work. But if there’s anything we can--”
On hearing his offer, I recalled the number.
The phone rang for a while, until being answered with an ambience of a ceiling fan and chalkboard. I then realized that Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google, had called me personally on his cellphone.
“Arlo!” Sundar greeted. I could just hear his smile from the other side of the call, “I’m glad you got to return my call.”
“Sorry,” I laughed, running my fingers through what was left of my hair. I stammered, “I don’t normally check my voicemail. It’s usually telemarketers.”
As I breathed in, a vicious coughing fit clenched my body. I felt the insides of my lungs constrict, tightening and pulsing. My hands clenched onto my shirt, begging for the cough to subside. Yet, as it seemed with my condition, there was no rest. For nearly a minute, I began to choke and cough, desperately reaching to my side for a glass of water. Yet finding none, I continued to croak.
Sundar’s voice grew worrisome, “Are you okay, Arlo?”
At last, catching my breath, I sharply answered, “I’m alright, I’m alright.”
Gently, Sundar asked, “Is your treatment going well?”
“What do you think?” I snapped back. Immediately, my face went hot red. Did I really just sass off billionaire, CEO legend Sundar Pichai? Stammering, I tried my best to correct myself, “That was uncalled for, my apologies.”
“I didn’t take offense,” quickly assured Sundar, his voice remaining content and promising. He empathized, “I can’t imagine what you and your family are going through.”
“Not much of a family left,” I said without remorse, shrugging, “All I have is my godson, but he’s living in Nepal. I haven’t bothered to tell him a thing.”
I could almost see Sundar’s face go red. He stammered for a moment. Yet, quickly gathering himself, Sundar asked me, “I hope you’ve considered my offer, Arlo. If there is anything I can do…”
For a moment I paused, reflecting for a moment. Taking a deep breath, I leaned forward and said with a smirk, “You know, Sundar, I don’t really want much. But there’s something I would love to do for you.”
“I want to map out the Mt. Everest hike.”
May 15th 2020
Hauling my equipment out of the tea house, I caught a glimpse of Mount Everest and gently smiled. As soon as I stepped out of the tent, a swarm of reporters approached me, each of them huddled against one another. Their voices clashed with one another:
“Today is the day you hike to Icefall. Can you tell us what to expect?”
“Is it true that you are filming every single moment of the journey?”
“What precautions are you taking due to your illness?”
“Have you had the chance to meet your Sherpa? Is it true that your Sherpa is the son of the cult leader Raymond Asher?"
I was rather surprised by the abundance of them. From the helicopter drop off point, it took an average hiker 10 days to reach the Everest Base Camp. I was surprised they braved the journey. I guess they were looking for a good story, I thought to myself, envisioning the tabloids claiming “Google Forces Terminally Ill Man to Map Out Mt. Everest!” I could just imagine the controversy now.
The chaotic voices were quickly silenced by the sharp clapping from behind them. Pushing the reporters aside was bright-eyed, Everest-enthusiast James Asher. I could tell right away by his whimsical beard and stark blue eyes. He viciously shouted, “Out of the way, out of the way!”
At first when I noticed him making his way through, I shuffled back. Yet as we locked eyes, my body remained frozen. No matter how hard I wanted to look away, I stared at him, desperately wanting to say something. But I couldn't... and I wouldn't. Shifting his way to the front, James stood in front of me. Neither of us said a thing, because God forbid that I was going to start the conversation.
James glanced down as my equipment, studying carefully. He tried to find something wrong with my equipment, yet finding nothing wrong, he was satisfied. As his eyes drew back to mine, my heart skipped a beat. His eyes remained locked on mine and without a sense of passion, he muttered, “Well Pop, are you ready to conquer Mt. Everest?”
With the Google camera strapped against my helmet, we began to journey. The climb to Icefall, the first stop on the route to Everest, commenced at 4 a.m. We started that early because the ice would thaw, increasing the chances for an avalanche. James had warned me that Icefall was the deadliest part of the journey, which wasn’t very reassuring mentioning that it was step one.
Khumbu Icefall is a series of glaciers, chaotically thrown against one another, with large and deep crevesses. There was no imagining how many dead bodies were lost in those deep trenches. Ladders were sprawled across the crevesses, which weren’t remotely stable to say the least. We remained silent as the both of us gradually made our way over the first crevess. James went first.
Once reaching across the first crevess, he checked the ropes and gently waved me over.
Taking a deep breath, I took the first step. The ladder railing was slippery. I glanced down, staring into the ceaseless, never-ended crevess. I shuddered.
“Take it easy, Pop,” assured James from the otherside, his hand outreached towards me. It was the first time I saw a smile on his face. I nodded, locking my eyes on the railing as I made my way across. In a matter of minutes, I landed on firm ground. My heart began to beat normally again.
“That was really good, Pop,” said James, chuckling a bit, “It’s like you’re a natural.”
“I should be,” I said, with a smirk, “After all, wasn’t I the one to teach the Great Sherpa James how to climb?” I chuckled, leaning forward to embrace him. There was a moment that James stared at me, a look of disgust spread across his face. He turned away, almost as soon as I neared him.
He muttered lowly, “Come on. We still have a long way to go, Pop.”
Braving Icefall, we at last made it to Camp One, otherwise known as the Valley of Silence. Camp One lived up to its nickname: draped across the horizon was a never-ending blanket of snow. I could hear the glacier crack underneath us, crevesses slowly beginning to form. It made me shudder, but James said it was all part of the experience. James began to pitch the tent, assuring me that he didn’t need any help.
It always seemed that James never needed help. Even when he was a young boy, I could recall the countless times that he would refuse my help, even if it was physically impossible for him to accomplish.
He was much like his father, in that way.
And his mother, too-- until she went to Waco.
With the tent set up and secured onto the ground, he motioned me in. I removed my camera, placing it outside of our tent to capture the nighttime snowfall. As I made my way inside, I was surprised to find the tent much warmer than I expected. James began to strip away his layers, but leaving his inner coat, shoes, and hat on. He muttered, “Warm your hands on the boiler. We’ll need to shut it off to keep the ground cold.”
I nodded, taking off my outer coat. Setting it aside. I sat in front of him and next to the boiler. There was an elongated silence as our bodies were warmed. We listened to the murmuring cracking underneath us. The snow grew heavy as dusk was upon us.
Without wasting a moment, James turned off the boiler. We nestled into our sleeping bags. I was prepared to remain silent for the rest of the night. Laying down, I turned my head away. I closed my eyes, only for a voice to interrupt the silence, “Pop?”
I turned around. My eyes caught a glimpse of James, sitting up. His mouth quivered as he asked in suspicion, “Why are you doing this?”
I didn’t hesitate in giving him the truth, “Because it gave me a chance to see you.”
James shook his head and said, “You could have just told me you were dying of cancer. I would have flown back--”
“Bullshit. You wouldn’t have flown back,” I muttered, my eyes locking on James, “Don’t try to fool me with that.”
James’ face froze, taken back. He had that same, stupid expression he did when first entered my life. But deep within, he knew I was right.
May 16th 2020
After a ceaseless walk through the snowy planes, we at last reached Camp 2. Camp 2 is situated by the Lhotse Wall, a nearly 75 degree slope that leads directly to Camp 3. It was at this point that our pace slowed. Breathing became heavier, much heavier for me.
Yet determined, we continued on. We had come too far for me to call a medical team.
The morning we woke up to face Lhotse Wall was, yet again, a silent one. As I strapped on my Google camera and adjusted my equipment, I watched as my godson approached me, slowly. He knelt beside me, inspecting my equipment with me. Checking my carabiner and rope, he made careful observations on their conditions. He then looked up at me and chuckled, “It’s not too late to call a helicopter.”
“We are not calling a helicopter.”
“Your breathing has gotten worse…”
“It’s supposed to get worse,” I shot back. Checking my oxygen levels, I pointed at it and exclaimed, “See, James? Enough to get me up Mt. Everest.”
“What about getting down?”
To that, I didn’t say a word.
Our journey up was far harder than either James or I expected. Since it was summertime, the snow wasn’t nearly as deep and easy to climb in. Climbing sharp inclines on ice was incredibly painful, even for an experienced climber like myself or James. A rope was tied between the both of us, him leading us through the treacherous wall. We anticipated the Icy Bulge, which is the steepest and iciest part of the journey ahead. What I didn’t anticipate, however, was what James had to say.
“You know why I wouldn’t bother seeing you, don’t you?”
While hanging on the edge of a cliff, I took the time to glance up, where I saw James glancing down at me. A distinct bitterness was on his face.
I muttered, “Because you were too busy climbing Mount Everest?”
“Because you didn’t let me visit my Dad.”
James remained still. Although the wind was deafening and harsh, I could hear a tiny sniffle. But as I glanced up, he quickly faced away.
Rolling my eyes, I sighed, “James…”
“My Dad was your best friend and… and you kept him from me, even when you knew he was dying of cancer!”
I interrupted, raising my voice against the wind, “Your father was a lunatic. Can't you remember what he put you through?!”
“My father was my father!”
As James’ voice roared, I could hear a small crack on the wall. Immediately, I scrambled for my words, “James!”
“What? What now? Are you wanting to apologize for being a shitty godfather? It's a little late for that!”
I hissed, “If you don’t want to be a shitty godson, stop yelling!”
The wall cracked some more. James faced towards the incline ahead, his feet and arms scrambling for a steady hold. His body began to shake, only causing me to panic. So much for the all-wise "Great Sherpa James". Immediately, I clutched onto the wall, holding my breath for dear life.
Remaining in place, the cracking subsided.
James reached his hand up for the next rock. But underneath his breath, he muttered, “Damn, I hate you.” The wind was just silent enough to let me hear those words.
May 22nd 2020
Sitting on the plateau of Mt. Everest was Camp 4, the Deathzone. The first night we arrived, my condition became intensively worse. When my lungs grew heavy and my cough never ceased, James was urgent to call a medical helicopter. He begged me to allow him to call; yet I, with determination spread across my body, would only die until after reaching the summit.
We stayed a few extra nights on the Deathzone, as James and I battled whether or not to call for help. When the evening came for the final climb to the summit, I hadn’t slept a wink. My eyes were bloodshot, resting on the dark blue sky. The horizon swirled of yellow hues, yet as my eyes looked up, the blueness of space remained untouched by the Sun. The stars galloped freely across their outstretched prarie, into infinities unknown.
Surely, I thought to myself, this is what Heaven looks like.
We started our ascension up the summit at midnight. James had lit a torch, holding me close to him as we made our final move. My body grew weary on our final climb, my limbs knowing what was to shortly come. Yet braving a warm smile on my face, side-by-side with my godson, I was exactly where I needed to be.
The air was impossible to breathe in. Our feet shuffled in the frigid snow and our ice axes became almost unusable against the solid icy ground. We took each step gently, his hand gently pushing my back as we continued our journey.
Underneath the bleak, night sky, I whispered against the wind, “James--”
“What?” He muttered, cracking his axe against the ice. He stepped forward, leading me on.
“I never…” I paused, trying to catch my breath. As I heaved, James quickly stopped. He turned towards me, gently holding onto my side.
“Pop, sit down.” He gently led me to a stable plateau, where there was enough room for the both of us to sit.
My hands scrambled for his. A hint of light blue came from the horizon, giving me an ounce of light to catch a glimpse of his face. He instantly grabbed my hands, a gentle smile on his face. He asked, “What is it, Pop?”
I whispered, “I’m sorry…” My eyes lifted to his, water forming in my eyes. As I blinked, a tear strolled down my face, almost instantly turned into ice. I shivered and cried out, “I’m so sorry James. I should never have kept you from your father.”
“That was not my place to keep you from him. You had every right to see him before he passed and I--”
Before I could further explain, James hushed me. His hands clutched harder onto mine. He leaned in and said, “I forgive you.”
“You were only doing that to protect me,” continued James, his gloved fingers stroking my hands. He chuckled, “Dad was a modern David Koresh. You were doing the right thing.”
I chuckled, holding onto my godson’s hands tighter. As I squeezed them, a smile was brought to my face.
“Hm?” I asked, still chuckling at the entire “David Koresh” comment.
“I’m sorry,” James’ voice was caught. He glanced down, his eyes beginning to fill with tears too. He shook his head, glancing away. He uttered, “It shouldn’t have taken you climbing Mount Everest for you to see me.”
“You… really don’t need to apologize--” I began, only for James to interrupt.
“I do, Pop.” As James spoke, his hands lightly tremored. He faced me, his face frozen in salty tears. His mouth quivered as he said, “I promise you. I am going to be with you, every step of the way. I promise.”
He clutched my helmet close, our heads gently bumping against one another. As I looked in my godson’s eyes, there was a light that shined. I turned towards the horizon, where the sun brilliantly shone across the Himalayas.
Seeing that it was morning, James helped me to my feet. Holding tight to my waist, he whispered, “As God as my witness, I promise.”
And when the time came, James was beside me. We had reached the summit and remained their until my breathing ceased on this terrain. It was only a short trip to Heaven from there.
This, I thought to myself, with my arms around my godson, was living.
. . .