Then Thursday arrived.
On Thursday morning, I saw a message from our former acreage neighbour, Elizabeth, that one of their dogs had been chasing a fox and had not returned home the night before. Elizabeth was house and dog sitting for her parents who were away on the end of a two-week trip. I knew she would be worried and I also knew that looking for Max in the rolling Foothills was not something anyone could do alone. Even with a group it would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. I offered that Jim and I would come out to help her.
Between the time I read Elizabeth’s message, and the time I returned home, it felt like the earth had lost her axis. Max hadn’t been found, but we had followed his tracks and he eventually arrived safely home in the evening. As I drove home, mid-afternoon, the ten-minute news cycle on the local AM radio station, which usually gets repetitive after two cycles, had continuous new updates about Covid - 19. It was hard to process it all.
And then I got home and found out there was even more news to process.
Our daughter texted to ask, “Mom, did you hear? Ken King died.”
To be very, very clear, Ken, the former President and CEO of the Calgary Flames, and recently Vice Chairman of CSEC, was not my best friend. He may not even have been able to pick me out of a line up. But he has had a lasting impact on me. And the news of his death, while not a surprise, hit much harder than I had been expecting.
Two years ago, my friend Rhonda and I decided to bike in the Ride to Conquer Cancer. Rhonda’s husband, John worked with Ken, as did our friend, Coralie. I only knew Ken through the media and through their connection with him. I did know he had been diagnosed with cancer. Ken’s brother, Ray, and Ray’s wife, Francine, were going to ride in the Ride, and we were invited to join the team of King’s Road Warriors. I was pleased to have been asked. In my mind, there would be an army of us riding on that team. I was picturing our massive team at the start line and hoping I could keep up.
As with many of our imaginings, real life looks quite different. We arrived at the starting place in the predawn. Thousands of cyclists were assembling under a smoke-filled sky. The first people we saw were Ken, who was going to ride as far as he could, Ray and Francine who were joining us, Ken’s wife Marilyn, one of his daughters and several of his grandchildren who were there to cheer us on as we started. It turns out Ray, Francine, Rhonda, myself and Ken, were the entire team. I felt some pressure.
I knew Ken was not feeling well. I’d been told he did not want the spotlight on him, that he would not want us to ‘slow down’ for him, that he wouldn’t like talking about his cancer, and basically that it was biking business as usual. Most of us had tears running down our faces as the National Anthem played. And then we were off.
We all biked along pretty gently for the first couple of kilometres. We had been told it was an easy route, with gently rolling hills. That may have been a slight stretch. No more than a few kilometres into the ride the first hill loomed in front of us. I think it was Ray who said we should just bike up it like normal, that Ken would do his best to navigate it at his own speed.
I could not bear it.
I was behind the group so I slowed my pace thinking I could stay behind Ken without him knowing. I was a little concerned he might topple off his bike and I couldn’t stand the idea of him being alone. We hadn’t climbed one-quarter of the hill when he got slower and slower and slower until I could no longer stay pedalling. Neither could he. We stepped off our bikes and started to walk side by side. I said not one word. Eventually he started to talk. With labouring breath, he told me about his cancer. He told me about his prognosis. He told me about his reduced lung capacity. He told me how frustrated he was at his body. We chatted easily together.
We climbed the hill together.
I had hoped that the money we raised could save Ken, and all the others we biked for. It did not. Some have experienced a cure. Others, have had many more months and years than they would have without the research and new treatments.
What I learned from that first hill on the Ride is helping me this week as we all face uncharted waters with COVID -19. There is not one person who is not hill climbing right now. Hill climbing looks like worrying about money, like feeling forgotten, like not knowing what to do with our days, like guilt over not being at work, like guilt over being at work, like being far from family, like being close to family but not being able to see them, like second guessing ourselves, like having no control, like feeling helpless.
Often, we think we can, and perhaps even that we want, to climb our hills alone. We don’t want to be a bother. Here is what I know. All hill-climbing people make it to the top more easily when they have someone to climb along side them. We don’t need answers. We don’t need matching stories. We don’t need witty comebacks. We don’t even need to talk.
We need simply to walk beside.
Each of us can find an opportunity to walk beside. Walking beside looks like making phone calls, checking in with people who live alone, and with those whose pantry shelves my not look as full as ours. It looks like letting go, for a while, of some of the things we thought defined us. It looks like caring, and random acts of kindness. It looks like smiling from a distance, and saying thank you to health care professionals and politicians. It looks like listening.
It looks like walking up a hill with Ken King.
My wish for you during this challenging time is that you find friends and not-yet friends with whom to do some hill-walking. You’ll both feel better at the top.
My inquiry for you this week is, ‘How can I walk beside?’
Elizabeth is a certified professional Leadership Coach, and the owner of Critchley Coaching. She is the founder and president of the Canadian charity, RDL Building Hope Society. She works with corporations, non-profits and the public sector, providing leadership coaching. She creates and facilitates custom workshops for all sizes of groups. She has particular expertise in facilitating Strategic Plans for organizations. Contact Elizabeth to learn how to become a hill-walker.