By Jon Corbet
As the oldest of Barry’s children, I am the only one who remembers him walking. With effort I can call up a hike together on Snow King Mountain: As a young boy I was making the obligatory complaints about being tired, and as a Wyoming boy I was carrying the obligatory toy rifle. I got the obligatory answer about how getting tired meant I was getting stronger, but I was not particularly convinced. As a parent myself, now, I’ve done the same conversation from the other side. It’s surprising how like our parents we become.
I still remember being taken aside and told that there had been a terrible accident. And I remember, sometime later, seeing what had become of my father’s life. It had never occurred to me that such things could happen. I kept waiting for him to get better; it was my introduction to the idea that, sometimes, people simply don’t get better.
The coverage of my father’s death dwells on what people found impressive in his life: Everest, Antarctica, Corbet’s Couloir, Jackson Hole Mountain Guides, mysterious expeditions for secretive government agencies, ski movies, etc. To a child of Barry’s, however, that stuff falls into the distant past; it’s like those pictures of your parents as small children. You accept their reality, but they are still hard to connect with the parents you have always known. The father we knew used a wheelchair; it was like saying that he had dark hair.
After all, I was 2 years old when he climbed Everest.
We all learn things from our parents–often things they never intended to teach. For our young lives, our father was a lesson on what you can do if you let nothing stop you. Those who would climb high, dangerous mountains cannot allow themselves to be easily deterred by difficulties encountered on the way. But those who would live a full life after disability takes away much that they loved to do must exhibit more fortitude than the most extreme of climbers. There is no base camp to return to when things get tough.
So, even as a child, I was impressed when my father moved to a house in the mountains–at the end of a long, uphill, dirt driveway, even. Conventional wisdom said that no paraplegic could survive, by himself, in such an isolated location. And indeed there were challenges. One snowy day, the transmission fell out of his car in that driveway, and he had to drag himself to the top, through the snow, pushing his chair ahead of him. All he would say of the incident, later, was “I almost didn’t make it.”
He didn’t just live there, however. He somehow found an all-terrain vehicle–essentially an open-air tank powered by an oversized lawn mower engine and operable with one hand–and explored the woods on his 50 acres. When I talk to my siblings, we all agree that some of our strongest memories from the first post-injury decade are riding around on that awful, noisy, smoky, fun vehicle. Our father would often employ it as a sort of chairlift, hauling us and our sleds up his hill after a hair-raising, Calvin-and-Hobbes style descent.
He built a cabin in his valley, and would retreat there for weeks at a time. He was unable to climb mountains, but he would still live among them and spend his time in the trees.
In the 1970s few people expected to see wheelchairs in national parks. A man in a chair, far from the parking lot, struggling up a steep path with a young boy pushing was a sure way to draw a crowd. It was striking: to me, my father was just “Dad”; to others, he was somebody out of his element, in need of assistance, and unable to make his own decisions. He would say he needed no help, or that his footrests could not be used to pull the chair, and we’d still end up putting those footrests back on afterward. I would see the anger under the surface after such episodes and wonder why people couldn’t just treat him like everybody else.
Our father’s vitality and love of life drove him through his first couple decades of disabled life. Perhaps a little less visible was the stubborn independence that had always been part of his character: He was going to do it himself, dammit, no matter what.
That independence clearly enabled him to live the life he chose, but it also extended to tricks like driving himself to the hospital when his heart started misbehaving–another “almost didn’t make it” experience. Least visible of all, to many, was the anger that drove him in the early days. He was pissed about what had happened to him–and not about to give an unnecessary inch to disability.
As an impressionable child, I once asked him why he didn’t get one of those neato power chairs. It looked like a lot less work, and the faster ones looked like fun. His response was that, when the time came to get a power chair, he would rather wheel off a cliff.
That time did come. His shoulders slowly gave out on him. Decades of pushing his wheelchair, age, and a long-unnoticed neck fracture all came together to create a situation where, as he put it, he was running out of limbs. Kayaking–a sport he loved because it gave him access to distant wilderness areas–became impossible. We learned not to ask him to pass that heavy plate of potatoes at the dinner table. Eventually he could no longer do his own transfers without assistance from people or machines. Eventually he got that power chair.
Pressure sores, heart problems, digestive system problems, shoulder problems, neck problems and more took their turns at putting him into the hospital for months at a time. Disability closed in on him relentlessly, and there was little that anybody could do about it. A brief spell in a nursing home after shoulder surgery put a new scare into him: that nursing home looked like a one-way ticket to absolute poverty, total loss of control, and a long wait for death.
All this could have made for a miserable decade or two at the end of his life. Had he been asked, however, he may well have said that those were some of his very best years. The early anger and “damn the torpedoes” drive had, by then, been replaced by a striking serenity, acceptance and calm. His devotion to Buddhism certainly helped make this transition happen, but there was more to it than that.
A man once given to solitary retreats became one who would host his grandchildren for a weekend and spoil them without mercy. He’d give them rides on that power chair, take them to movies, feed them a pound of bacon for breakfast, and love them without limit.
He wrote Options and realized that he had a lot to give to–and gain from–the larger disability community. This work eventually led to his years as the editor of New Mobility–a position from which he drew great satisfaction, if not always steady paychecks. An unending series of friends–new and old–streamed through his house. He crossed paths with an astounding woman who became his long-distance valentine. Barry Corbet had become a beacon that attracted a great variety of people–and he loved it. So did the rest of us; he was a force that brought people together.
His end came a bit sooner–and in a different form–than he had expected. He accepted it with even more than the usual grace; he had long since learned to deal with things that cannot be changed. The simple fact, also, was that he was tired. As he told us once, there is no vacation from disability, and he had been fighting it for a long time. Cancer was his sign that he could stop fighting–and that he could end his story without facing that final, helpless decline in a nursing home which he so feared. He was able to end his life the way he lived it: in his own home, surrounded by family, and on his own terms. He lived, truly lived, until the very end, and he clearly enjoyed his last weeks, despite their challenges.
In typical form, he got every last bit of his Christmas shopping–a task he detested–done, but missed the celebration. When the end came, on Dec. 18, he was more than ready for it. The end of his life was, to those of us who loved him, a bitter and unwelcome thing. But it would be hard to argue that he died at the wrong time. In a final letter sent to friends, he wrote: “I’ve had love overflowing, impassioned careers, a life of adventure and everything I’ve ever wanted. Nothing missed and no regrets.” He meant every word of it.