The Love that bridge an abyss of grief

He braved the most dan­ger­ous peaks in the world. But when he lost his child, then the wife he adored, it tested him to the very limit of en­durance

The Scottish Mail on Sunday - - Femail - By SIR CHRIS BON­ING­TON

SIR CHRIS Bon­ing­ton is our great­est liv­ing climber, and in the first ex­tract from his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy last week he re­vealed how his ad­ven­tur­ous par­ents in­spired his pi­o­neer­ing spirit. To­day, Sir Chris tells of the heart­break­ing mo­ment he learned of his young son’s death – and how he nursed his wife af­ter she was struck by the cru­ellest of diseases…

THE mo­ment I saw the Kichwa tribesman car­ry­ing a mes­sage, I knew some­thing was ter­ri­bly wrong. It was the end of May 1966. I was at the base of San­gay, an ac­tive vol­cano in the Ecuado­rian Ama­zon, pre­par­ing for a third as­cent to cap­ture pho­to­graphs of liq­uid lava spray­ing in the air with fiery bright­ness.

I dreaded open­ing the note, fear­ing some­thing had hap­pened to my wife Wendy, and felt a mo­ment of re­lief when I re­alised it wasn’t her.

But then the re­al­ity struck me: it was Conrad, our three-year-old son. He had died in an ac­ci­dent. I col­lapsed on to the ground and wept while our in­dige­nous porters stood in sym­pa­thetic si­lence. I had to pull my­self to­gether and get home as fast as I could to be with Wendy.

The tragedy had hap­pened a week ear­lier, and the fact that I learned of it so soon was thanks en­tirely to an old climb­ing friend, Si­mon Clark, who was work­ing in Ecuador.

He had seen the ac­ci­dent re­ported in The Times. Af­ter mak­ing some en­quiries, Si­mon drove out to the vil­lage of Ma­cas, where I had be­gun my trek, and sent out the Kichwa mes­sen­ger to find me. I still feel a tremen­dous sense of grat­i­tude for his ac­tions.

I walked through the dark­ness, drugged with fa­tigue, re­peat­ing to my­self the aw­ful fact that I would never em­brace my son again.

At Heathrow, Wendy pushed past the bar­rier when she saw me and we just clung to­gether, obliv­i­ous to the world around us in our shared grief and love for each other.

I dis­cov­ered that Conrad had been play­ing out­side the house of our friend Mary Ste­wart. There had been a sud­den down­pour, turn­ing the small stream at the end of her gar­den in a town north of Glas­gow into a tor­rent. Conrad, ever in­de­pen­dent and ad­ven­tur­ous, had strayed from the other chil­dren and fallen in.

Wendy had found him and suf­fered a soli­tary hell while she waited for me to re­turn home.

She had won­der­ful sup­port from fam­ily and friends but nei­ther of us felt whole with­out the other. To­gether we found strength.

I wrote at the time: ‘It is still dif­fi­cult to be­lieve that it has hap­pened. In the house, where we still have his scrib­bles on the wall, it is dif­fi­cult not to imag­ine him next door; that he will come run­ning in, that it never hap­pened. We want an­other child as soon as pos­si­ble. We shall never re­place Conrad; you can’t re­place a part of your­self.’

In a let­ter to my mother He­len, I wrote: ‘I think the only thing that has car­ried us through this is our love for each other: it brought home to me the knowl­edge that if any­thing hap­pened to Wendy, I don’t think I should want to go on liv­ing. And then this brought home my own re­spon­si­bil­ity to her, the dan­gers I have risked.’

In the two years before Conrad’s death, Wendy had de­vel­oped an in­ter­est in folk singing. She had a haunt­ing voice like Joan Baez’s, and her singing ca­reer had been gath­er­ing mo­men­tum.

Wendy, per­haps in­evitably, felt a sense of guilt that she had been prac­tis­ing in the house for her first paid gig when Conrad died and blamed her­self. I found my­self fight­ing a con­stant bat­tle to change her mind; no one could have been a bet­ter mother. The truth is you never get over it; you just learn to go on. Every time I saw a young boy in the back of a car or hand in hand with his par­ents, I could see Conrad and the long­ing for him brought on tears. Even now, when he would have been 53, I still won­der what he would be do­ing.

It was a bless­ing that Wendy be­came preg­nant again so quickly. Joe (chris­tened Daniel) was born by cae­sarean sec­tion at White­haven Hos­pi­tal in April 1967.

Not long af­ter mov­ing into our new house in Bow­don, Cheshire, Joe, by then aged 18 months, suf­fered an acute at­tack of gas­troen­teri­tis. He con­tin­ued to get weaker, and 24 hours later Wendy and I were both out of our minds with worry.

He was slip­ping into a coma when the doc­tor fi­nally ar­rived; he im­me­di­ately called an am­bu­lance. Joe was rushed to Wythen­shawe Hos­pi­tal in Manch­ester and we spent an­other ag­o­nis­ing night at his bed­side before we were told that he would be fine.

By the fol­low­ing spring, Wendy was preg­nant again, giv­ing birth to Ru­pert in July 1969, at the same hos­pi­tal where we had watched over Joe only a few months before. WENDY and I first met in the New Year of 1962. I was due to give a lec­ture and, late as al­ways, stum­bled into my com­part­ment as the train be­gan pulling out. My slides went ev­ery­where, and a girl leaped up to help me. We got chat­ting, and I dis­cov­ered she lived just around the cor­ner from me.

She and her flat­mates were hav­ing a party on Twelfth Night and in­vited me along. She didn’t men­tion that she had a friend who was look­ing for some ad­ven­ture in her life and thought I might fit the bill.

Her friend, Wendy Marchant, was small and dark and wore a lit­tle black dress; we sat and talked as though we had known each other for years.

My son had died – I would never get to hold him again There was some­thing kit­ten­ish about her, very sexy

When we danced, she held me close; there was some­thing kit­ten­ish about her, very sexy. I im­me­di­ately felt I didn’t want to be out of her com­pany. Af­ter that first night we were in­ex­tri­ca­bly bound to each other: we mar­ried that May.

Hav­ing fallen in love, it was nat­u­ral I should want to share my other pas­sion, and soon I took her climb­ing in the Peak Dis­trict at a grit­stone crag called Frog­gatt Edge. Wendy was keen but a lit­tle ap­pre­hen­sive as I tied a rope around her waist.

‘Now, this route is only a Diff,’ I told her. ‘Dif­fi­cult.’

‘Couldn’t we start with some­thing easy?’ she asked.

‘Dif­fi­cult is easy: any­thing eas­ier than this would be a walk. We’ll soon have you do­ing very Se­vere.’

I bounced up the climb, re­as­sur­ing her how easy she’d find it, but when it came to her turn she was tense and hugged the rock, as be­gin­ners of­ten do. I’d found the climb­ing so easy I’d gone off route to make it harder; as a con­se­quence the rope was run­ning to one side and when I glanced at my be­lay – a sec­tion of rope at­tached to the rock in case of a fall – it didn’t look as good as it ought to have been.

‘For God’s sake, don’t slip: I’m not sure I can hold you,’ I said.

That was enough for Wendy. I’d blown it. It was the last time she ever went climb­ing. WENDY had al­ways had prob­lems with her back and, af­ter be­ing im­pressed by the Alexan­der Tech­nique to re­align pos­ture and al­le­vi­ate mus­cu­lar and psy­cho­log­i­cal ten­sion, be­came a teacher and prac­tised for 20 years, before re­tir­ing in 2009 to fo­cus on golf, her pas­sion.

In 2011, af­ter her 73rd birth­day, Wendy be­gan trip­ping over on kerbs or rocky steps. Since 1971, we’d lived at Badger Hill, our cot­tage in Cald­beck vil­lage in the Lake Dis­trict; now we made an ap­point­ment at Cum­ber­land In­fir­mary in Carlisle.

The neu­rol­o­gist there di­ag­nosed a dropped foot caused by a dam­aged nerve in the lower leg and rec­om­mended cor­rec­tive footwear. I don’t think ei­ther of us was con­vinced. In fact, we were be­com­ing in­creas­ingly wor­ried, not just by Wendy’s falls but her pro­nounced loss of en­ergy and gen­eral un­steadi­ness.

In the past I had re­lied on Char­lie Clarke as an ex­pe­di­tion doc­tor. In early Au­gust 2012 I needed his pro­fes­sional skill as a neu­rol­o­gist. Char­lie spent a good hour with Wendy, then re­ferred us to a con­sul­tant called Tim Wil­liams at the

I stroked my wife’s hand as she gen­tly slipped away

Royal Vic­to­ria In­fir­mary in New­cas­tle. He con­ducted tests, in­clud­ing elec­tro­car­dio­grams, and then life went on as usual.

When it was time for the fol­low-up ap­point­ment a few weeks later, we were both a bit ap­pre­hen­sive as we drove over. Tim got straight to the point. He had bad news. Wendy had mo­tor neu­rone dis­ease (MND).

It was like be­ing hit very hard in the stom­ach. Both of us burst into tears and fell into one an­other’s arms and clung to each other.

Tim had a box of tis­sues handy and we slowly com­posed our­selves. Wendy told me af­ter­wards that she had won­dered if she might have mul­ti­ple scle­ro­sis, hav­ing seen a friend suf­fer from it. We had never thought of MND. Tim was sym­pa­thetic. He ex­plained to us that no one knew the cause, that the dis­ease was fa­tal and there was no cure. He thought it likely that Wendy could have be­tween two and five years, but he couldn’t be cer­tain.

That cat­a­strophic mo­ment of di­ag­no­sis was strangely in­con­clu­sive. Ev­ery­thing had changed and noth­ing had. We still had lives to live.

Wendy had an im­mense strength of char­ac­ter, and a phi­los­o­phy of liv­ing in the present, of look­ing prac­ti­cally into the future, al­ways think­ing of oth­ers before her­self, al­ways in com­mand of her­self. It was sim­ply a mat­ter of fo­cus­ing on pri­or­i­ties. At first our lives con­tin­ued as before, al­though I cut down on my en­gage­ments.

Within weeks of the di­ag­no­sis, we had an early ap­point­ment at Cum­ber­land In­fir­mary to fit Wendy for an elec­tric wheel­chair. It seemed huge, rather in­tim­i­dat­ing in fact, with a fin­ger con­troller to al­low her to steer it around fur­ni­ture. The tech­ni­cian ex­plained they didn’t want to keep chang­ing it; this model would suit Wendy as her ill­ness pro­gressed. I didn’t need the re­minder.

The ad­vance of the dis­ease was grad­ual. Wendy’s speech be­came slightly slurred. Walk­ing slowly be­came more dif­fi­cult, as did the stairs. We traded in Wendy’s Subaru for a bright red Re­nault Kan­goo. The con­trols could be hand-op­er­ated so she could drive and re­gain some in­de­pen­dence.

In the sum­mer of 2013, we moved our bed­room down­stairs and al­tered Wendy’s old pot­tery work­shop so she could drive her scooter out into the gar­den. Grad­u­ally her ill­ness bit harder and harder. She could no longer talk; in­deed barely make a sound. Wendy would ring a lit­tle bell to get at­ten­tion and then write down what­ever she wanted to say.

Things came to a head in mid-April 2014. I had dozed off but was on edge as usual, in case she needed me. I was sud­denly aware that some­thing was wrong: she wasn’t ly­ing be­side me. I hurled my­self out of bed but Wendy ran out of strength before I could reach her, slump­ing to the floor from her walk­ing frame. I wasn’t strong enough to get her back into bed on my own and had to phone my brother Ger­ald in the vil­lage.

Joe, who now lived in Aus­tralia, ar­rived in June, and though he could man­age only a few days, it was im­por­tant to them both.

Her con­di­tion wors­ened. On July 22, she in­di­cated she’d like to go out­side and look at the gar­den. We sat her in her big elec­tric wheel­chair. Ru­pert, our son, needed to help her op­er­ate the fin­ger-con­trol and we nav­i­gated our way into the gar­den, where she went slowly from plant to plant, gazing in­tensely at each one. She seemed to be say­ing good­bye.

That night Wendy sank into a fit­ful sleep and seemed to be slip­ping away. I held one hand while Ru­pert, on the other side of the bed, held her other hand. I can re­mem­ber very lit­tle of the de­tail of those mo­ments. I don’t think we were in tears then, but united in in­tense love for Wendy, try­ing to pro­tect and shel­ter her, as her breath­ing grew weaker and weaker and fi­nally be­came im­per­cep­ti­ble. Did she hear our words? Feel our hands on hers, our arms around her? I want to think she did.

Af­ter Wendy died in 2014, I fre­quently ran into Loreto Her­man, the Chilean wife of my old friend Ian McNaught-Davis, who had died af­ter a long strug­gle with Alzheimer’s. With­out think­ing, I in­vited her to join me on a lec­ture tour to Chile the fol­low­ing year. With­out hes­i­ta­tion she replied: ‘I’d love to.’

That’s re­ally where it all started. We mar­ried in London in 2016, one of the most won­der­ful days of our lives. What I value above all is find­ing, for the sec­ond time, a deep, pas­sion­ate love that fills my be­ing – and mak­ing the ab­so­lute most of what­ever time we have left on Earth.

FAM­ILY BOND: Chris with his in­fant son Conrad in 1964

LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT: Chris and Wendy in 1985 – but de­spite their strong mar­riage she didn’t share his pas­sion for climb­ing moun­tains

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