The most fucked-up part about brain cancer is that you keep hearing how much it changes people: It makes them mean. Nurses tell you which medicine is for your dad’s agitation, but deflect on what that actually means. “You’ll know,” they say.
You freeze up inside when you realize the only thing scarier than the person you love living long enough to lose themselves is if they don’t. As desirable outcomes begin to collapse in on themselves, you’re eventually only left with the haunted hope that the person will either wake up new or not at all.
But morning after morning you wake up the same, waiting to learn which awful way this ends, until finally you realize you’ve been bunkered down, blood in your teeth, witness to the waning hours of the wrong war. Live or die, no one really fights cancer. My father certainly didn’t. That’s a bumper sticker, not an actual thing. Cancer takes what it wants. The real fight, the one I’ll always remember, is not if you live, but how you live once you know you won’t.
“The jungle must be indifferent to our preferred level of risk tolerance,” I said to my friend Mike Swartz as we trudged through the canopy’s hot underbelly, scanning for snakes. Mike, Sam Daulton, Remy Franklin, Jacob Kupferman, and I were hiking toward basecamp through São Tomé’s moist broadleaf forest. It was August on the Equator, and we were all drenched in either sweat or rain.
São Tomé is the larger of two islands in the Gulf of Guinea, and together form Africa’s second-smallest, and possibly least-visited country: São Tomé and Príncipe. A single winding road—EN n° 2—traces the perimeter of the island, but doesn’t quite connect. From its southern flank, if you look north, past the tessellated palm plantations into the Parque National Obo, you can see Pico Cão Grande, a 1,200-foot volcanic plug exploding into the cloud-soaked sky. At the base of the primeval black fang is a massive cavity, bleached-white above a leafy sea. In 2016, Gareth “Gaz” Leah and Sergio “Tiny” Almada established a stunning climb through this 15-story cave and up the southern face of the tower, but they never sent the crux. Two years later, we were there to try.
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