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  • Writer's pictureHazel Moran

Dad - 5 years on

When dad died, it felt like a black hole opened at my feet. The 5 am email that arrived to confirm that 8 members of the expedition were missing and the subsequent months that followed, created a gravitational collapse, so strong, it would change my life irrevocably.

 

Dad

Dad was a talented climber, explorer, published author and an International British Mountain Guide. But I remember him as an unassuming, middle-class dad who helped me with a my school projects, wore socks and velcro sandals and was mildly embarrassing… which is right of passage for any dad of a teenage girl. At home, he could be found, most mornings doing two finger pull ups on the stairs in his pyjamas and most evenings hunched over at his desk, having to be summoned to dinner at least 3 times before he would appear. He ate mango chutney with every meal (yes, even lasagne…), read the Sunday papers and thoroughly enjoyed a round of toast and marmalade. But, sandwiched between a seemingly mundane and routine home life, he was climbing mountains, writing about mountains and dreaming about mountains.

 

And it would be the mountains that would ultimately take away those lovely, cosy, safe pockets of a conventional life away.

 

We all have fleeting thoughts of the ‘worst case scenario’, but we never allow ourselves, or perhaps we can’t fully comprehend that it could, in the blink of an eye, become our reality. Our brain is incredibly efficient at dissociation, protecting us from imagining disaster, loss and pain, and without that protective bubble, we could not live our daily lives with such freedom. Each time I have thought deeply about my own relationship with risk, our precarious existence and inherent fragility in this world, I have never reached a conclusion that feels satisfying and whole. It was much easier to lean into my privilege, wrap myself up in the soft familiar blanket of safety with a side serving of healthy denial. Living like most of us do, with a silent appeal to the aether that ‘it won’t happen to me’. And that’s how I lived my life, until I didn’t.

 

For me, Dad’s job was all I had ever known him to do and as a little girl I truly believed he was immortal, the kind of old and wise presence that would go on forever, maybe that’s how we all see our dad’s if we are lucky enough to have them in our life. I coped with his long absences from home by imagining him as a sort of mountain hero. One of my most vivid childhood memories was peering out of the big windows at Inverness airport as dad stepped off his EasyJet flight, arriving home after another trip to the Himalaya (all hero’s fly EasyJet…). He was wearing his salopettes with his B3 boots slung over his shoulder, unshaven and rugged. I remember feeling an intense mix of excitement to see him after 6 weeks apart and brimming with childlike imaginations of the magical adventures he had been on in far flung and exotic places. That moment has stuck with me and I recognise now that it was pride I was feeling. Of all the people stepping off that plane, that one there, with the boots and the rucksack, was my dad! 

 

Of course, as I got older, he became less of a hero figure and more of a ‘please drop me off 5 mins away from the school dance because everything you do is cringe…’ type of dad. In short, I took his presence for granted, he was a constant in my life and I never imagined a world in which he wouldn’t be.

 

I had just turned 29 when it happened. I was a little too self-assured to comprehend what was to come that year. My life had not always been straight forward, despite being fortunate in many ways, I had made my fair share of bad decisions, finding my way in my teens and early 20’s via the ‘scenic route’ with questionable navigation… which I am sure caused my dad a lot of worry and frustration. Unlike me, he seemed to live his life with one, singular and great passion which gave him a North Star to follow, so he could not always relate to me, his often directionless and chaotic daughter. But I do know he loved me, in all my mess. Despite the long way round approach, I always seemed to fall back on my feet, be that privilege, hard work, tenacity or just luck. By my late 20’s, I was finally on the straight and narrow, I had a good job, I was newly married and just as I thought life was finally simple, the email arrived, the black hole opened, and so begun a journey I had no choice but to take. 

 

Grief is unique to everyone who encounters it. Each life lived, relationship shared, and circumstance of a premature goodbye dictates the ride we embark on. How much we give ourselves over to the process and allow ourselves to be tossed around in the overwhelm of the unimaginable, will dictate where we land on the other side. I heard someone describe it as having a vat of lemon juice poured over you, only to feel it’s sting in wounds and abrasions you didn’t even know were there.

 

My grief presented itself as a rude awakening to my own reality, how I was living my life and my place in the world. It was as much an outpouring of love and sorrow for my dad and those who lost their lives that day, as it was a reaching inward to the parts of myself that I had not yet been able to access, or had simply not wanted to. It was raw and terrifying look at myself in the mirror, some parts of my reflection soft and familiar, some parts sharp and unwanted.

 

The last 5 years has felt like watching a feature length movie of my life, my choices, my story and how I have interacted with those I love. Only it’s the director’s cut and I am walking back through my life with fresh eyes. The pain of loss forced me to come up for air and after the shock subsided, I began to unpack complicated relationships, unearth the things I had wilfully buried, face regrets and the parts of my life that begged to be seen and changed. In all the sorrow, I also found a much deeper appreciation of the absolute beauty and gorgeous chaos of being alive and that, I guess, was the upside of grief for me. Suddenly life is sharp focus and it’s pretty miraculous! I started to make choices and make changes. I think it made me brave. 


However much I have longed to turn back the clock and show my dad how I loved him. more. better. differently. It was just the intense pain and the regret of loving someone imperfectly, which we all encounter at some point in our life.

 

My relationship with dad's death is complex and I continue to wrestle with it now, and perhaps I always will. All I know is that we take calculated risks every time we step out into the world, from driving cars and motorcycles, riding bikes, climbing mountains to the less obvious choices like the food we eat and how we take care of ourselves. We take even greater risks with our hearts, falling madly in love, being vulnerable and telling someone how you feel, taking that leap of faith only to potentially lose it all along the way. But are these not the things that make us feel truly alive? Is this not the point of this one wild and precious human experience, no matter how painful the outcome.


We push the boundaries of what is considered ‘safe’ and comfortable in a million ways, and we are constantly making a subconscious calculation of the benefits vs the potential costs. People have asked me ‘are you angry with your dad’ or ‘do you wish he didn’t climb mountains’, and the answer is always no, he was a whole and fulfilled person because of his passion for the mountains and to wish that away would mean wishing away his greatest joy in life. To wish that away would be selfish. 

 

As the grief and loss subside, no longer a tsunami but now gentle tidal ebb and flow lapping around my ankles but never submerging me completely. What remains is the lessons it has taught me about my life, the way it forces us to meet ourselves, how it humbles us and grounds us in reality. The heavy regrets we carry that we must put down and make peace with and how it reveals the true depths and capacity we have for loving someone. The irony of it all is that my ‘better self’ was born of his departure from this world. A stark reminder that a life without pain and discomfort, is often one that is not truly explored.  I think dad had found his own awakening through his own discomfort, his love for the mountains and his spiritual connection with them.

 

What are we left with when someone leaves us here in this world? For me, it was a complete recalibration of my life and one I am grateful for, although, one I would gladly forgo to have him back.

 

Since his death, I have had a deep yearning to return to Scotland and the mountains, after many years away, it turns out dad was on to something… Although I do not climb them with the same passion, skill or dedication as him, they have offered me great solace, peace and healing when I have ventured into them and they have asked nothing of me in return. Perhaps that’s what he found there too. 

 

Although we might not feel strong enough to withstand it, we are built for love and loss. If I could go back, if I knew then what I know now. I would ask him more questions about his life, his experiences, opinions, adventures, emotions, his hopes and dreams and his regrets and sorrows. I would sit opposite him and soak it all in, storing it in my mind and soul so I could draw on it now. I would take time to know him more and maybe I would have known myself more through him. 


My loss is not unique, but it is a reminder to ask the questions, listen to the stories, have the difficult conversations, make the difficult choices and bear witness to the inner worlds of the people we love so that when they are no longer here and the memories fade and slip through your fingers, we have more to hold on to, and less puzzle pieces to find and make fit.

 

Since 2019, I have often spoken of and written about my dad’s life, his work and his many great achievements. And I feel fortunate to be a witness to his legacy and the impact he had on those who admired him. We have created a Foundation that he would undoubtedly be deeply proud of and we still hear his name held in high esteem in many rooms.

 

But, to me, he was, is and always will be, dad; you made me a better person in life and in death.

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