Living Large - Short Story by Lynne Funnell

There is an almost peace in hospitals in the middle of the night, as if between all the cries, moans and distant beep of machines, the spirits of people still roam the hallways. They sit at bedsides, united in a common purpose. You can meet a woman in the lift and know her sadness immediately. Meet a man waiting in line at the coffee shop and feel a connection with this total strangers’ story. It could be someone you would ordinarily pass on the street, without a second glance. It is real because there is no other choice.  Uncertainty is commonplace on the faces of the people along the narrow corridor of this fourth floor oncology ward.

ray and sarah isolation sAs I push the door open to Ray’s isolation room, I hold my breath in anticipation of how his night has been. You would think that this would be second nature by now. After being diagnosed with Leukaemia in 2006 our lives had taken on a daily fight to beat this. However, since the relapse, a little of that fight had gone and living with uncertainty was now the norm. It was 2008, the Doctors were trying a white cell infusion, and we all prayed that these fighter cells would attack the Leukaemia, slowing this process down. Ray was sitting propped up in his bed his head to one side staring out the window. He turned and gave me one of his usual handsome boyish grins, “Hello my sweet,” he said. His skin was greyish and his collarbones stuck out from his open pyjama shirt where tubes flowed out from his port in his chest. But his eyes were the clearest blue and all I needed to do was look into them to find the man I had fallen in love with. “It didn’t work. The white cells have done nothing and they want me to start high dose chemotherapy next week,” he sighed reluctantly. I shut my eyes tightly and wanted so desperately to wake up from this nightmare.  Why was this happening? Ray was the most incredible man I know. He never had anything bad to say about anyone and always found the positive in people. However he had a twist for me, he had booked us all on a trip to Egypt for a long weekend. We phoned the kids together. Kimberly who was just about to celebrate her 18th birthday was quietly sad; she knew the extreme danger of this trip. Sarah who was 14 years old and the closest to Ray, on the other hand, was super excited in her usual adventurous way. Our son Jayson didn’t say anything at first, but later that night he asked what would happen if Dad got sicker while we were away.

Our excitement was mixed. Our plane was about to leave for Egypt and as I gripped Ray’s hand tighter during take-off, my thoughts still wondered if this is the right thing at the right time. My whole life had been about the certainty of what was coming next but now my world had been turned upside down. The kids were as much committed to live this dream for Ray as I was.  Against the doctors’ advice, and not telling too many people, in fear of them not understanding the need to go for the dream now. Did it make sense? I didn’t know but we had to take the leap of faith. 

The Pyramids, as far back as he could remember, had fascinated Ray. Kimberly and Sarah sat together and tried to settle down to an uncomfortable sleep. I could see the apprehension in Ray’s eyes as the 300 or so people on board fidgeted, sneezed and coughed, while trying to get organized for our 8-hour flight to Cairo. He had put a surgical mask over his nose and mouth to help, in some way, with infections. We focused on making the best out of this trip; we had to fight, though our thoughts were all on his battle ahead. Next week Tuesday would come soon enough and we all wanted these few days to be filled with memories he could dream of and hold on too. Jayson kept reaching across me to touch Ray gently. Being the youngest, he was finding it hard to understand what exactly was happening.

on the plane sAs I saw the early morning sun break through the small airplane window, I started thinking about what to expect when we landed. This entire trip had been a spontaneous decision and though we had booked a hotel, we were a little hasty with the all the other plans. As we disembarked, Egypt appeared to open its arms and welcomed us as a reprieve from all other worries.  The early morning air was heavy with new smells and the heat enveloped us, which was great after the cold air-conditioned cabin of the airplane. We were in Egypt; it almost seemed unreal and I could feel the excitement build. There was a big sign at the entrance to the airport terminal ‘Smile you are in Egypt’. I smiled and fell in love with this wondrous place immediately. We walked through the doors and from that point on it was as if some divine intervention had taken over.  A man stood out from the crowd with a big board ‘Ray Funnell’ in his hand.  He steered us gently through immigration and customs to a waiting car that whisked us off to the Le Meridian Pyramids Hotel. As we drove away, I looked back wondering who that was and felt guilty for not having spent a moment to thank this stranger for his help.  Our drive through the streets was an eye opener; all the cars were wrecks and looked like they were made in the 1950’s. The roads had no markings and were tightly packed with cars moving in all directions, making it nearly impossible for pedestrians to cross the roads.

view from hotel sThe Pyramids of Giza, the most famous monuments in the world, towered into the sky between the buildings as we drove closer to our hotel. Looking at these massive structures, which still captivate our modern world with its mystery and intrigue, I could feel the weight being lifted from me. Our hotel was just off a busy street and I began to wonder whether we could check into our rooms early. The heat was already building at 8 o’clock in the morning and all I wanted was to refresh with a cool shower. We were shown to our rooms, which had been swopped to accommodate us arriving early. We had arrived on the doorstep of this far away land in spontaneous fashion and the welcoming Egyptian people blanketed us with security. As Ray pulled back the curtains, there framed in the window were the Pyramids. It was one of the most incredible sights I had ever seen, I imagined what they must have looked like covered in white marble gleaming in the sun.

Although it was short notice, Ray called down to the reception, hoping to find a tour guide to take us to the Pyramids. They informed us that all tours had been booked well in advance and furthermore Khufu’s tomb in the Great Pyramid only accommodates two groups of 100 people per morning, but they would see what they could do. A few minutes later, we received a call that we should meet our guide at reception in one hour. As it turned out, a visiting diplomat had cancelled and, though not usually done, we met Ahmed the diplomat’s guide. It was as if this was meant to be and a higher power was giving us special treatment.

We were completely at ease in Ahmed’s company as his pride in the history of Egypt became contagious. We headed up the slope onto the plateau above Giza, which was lined with tour buses and crowds of people everywhere. Ray’s eyes never left the Pyramids and I fought to hold back burning tears. For now, the world of pain and fear seemed a long ago memory. 

ahmed sAhmed warned us to stay close to him and not to talk to anyone. He affectionately called us ‘The Habibi’s’ which means friend in Arabic. We all laughed when he called, ‘Habibi’s come’ and we followed him to the edge of the plateau to take photographs of this majestic sight from a distance. I had always thought these ancient Pyramids were set in remote desert but just below us was a struggling city. There was a long line of people waiting at the ticket office in the rising heat. Our guide had somehow managed to steer us past all the many tours, past this line of people, secured us tickets and we were heading towards the Pyramid of Khafre, the son of Khufu, a slightly smaller structure.  We stood in awe as the beautiful landscape of the Western Desert came into view. In the distance, we could see some camels moving over the rolling sand dunes. At the entrance to a small chamber, a line of people stretched for a two-hour wait in the fierce sun. Ahmed marched us confidently to the front and though an intense argument ensued, the crowd parted so we could descend a narrow tunnel into the Pyramid.  Was this just luck or were we being given a gift? A gift of memories to hold onto in the coming months, I gave a little shiver, I could not help thinking of a possible life without Ray. 

family in front of sphinx sCrouching and half sitting, we cautiously moved down into the confined tunnel. I could just make out Sarah’s blonde ponytail ahead, as the rest of my family disappeared into the darkness. Half way down I had to turn around as the air was thick with dust and heat, making me claustrophobic. Ray was easy to spot amongst the other tourists with his typical cancer patient features, bald white head and dark circled eyes. Climbing out of this dark hole together, Ray and Jayson stood excitedly talking about their experience. I managed to snap a shot of them, a moment caught in time of father and son soaked with sweat, sharing a common dream without knowing if there would be more dreams like this. Directly in front of us lay the Sphinx, with the body of a lion and Khafre’s head. It laid silent, reflecting sun off its ancient limestone back. As we walked down towards the Sphinx, I watched the girls, Ray and Jayson chatting and wished I could stop time from happening.

The following day, with an impressive visit to the Egyptian Museum behind us, together with Ahmed’s endless stories of ancient Kings, I became to think Egypt was obsessed by death. Ahmed explained that Egyptians believe death on earth is the beginning journey to eternal life in the next world, which sounded all so convenient. As our return trip loomed nearer, I was feeling angry about not having control over what was to happen. How was I to remain strong without screaming from the rooftops about how unfair life was?

We agreed to have lunch at a restaurant where the locals ate, away from the usual tourist places, and once again we put ourselves in Ahmed’s hands. I think this kindly man had been quite taken by our complete trust in him, unaware of our reasons for everything unplanned.  The tented restaurant was filled with the smells of Kofta, skewers filled with fragrant lamb balls, cooking in pit-like fires.  Everything was very informal and Ahmed organised a typical selection of foods, which came in small bowls for us all to share.  We had a type of green tea while the kids had warm cans of Sprite. As I watched Ray slowly bring the hot liquid to his lips, fear gripped me again.  What are we doing? I looked down into the spinning herbs in my cup and wondered what this foreign drink could be doing to Ray’s weak immune system. I caught Ray’s eye across the table and he instantly knew my thoughts. For a moment, I saw the fear in his eyes, and then Kimberly jumped up to take a photo and we spent the afternoon happily drawn into this world.

ray sThe next morning my body was protesting out of sheer exhaustion but Ray was up early and determined to go back to the Great Pyramid to see the Kings Chamber. He was driven to make the most out of this short trip, "Living Large" as he called it. I stood by the window watching the rich reds of the early morning light just touching the base of the Pyramids and I could hear Ray on the phone asking for a taxi to take him up to the plateau once more. Sarah had gone with Ray, which initially had just been a way out of packing bags, but they came back two hours later after an incredible time. Once again, it seemed as if the usual obstacles had disappeared. The taxi driver who didn’t speak English had taken them right to the foot of the Great Pyramid and with lots of hand gesturing had gotten them included in a tour which was just leaving. Because the tour had already started, they entered the first stairway without anyone around; it was humid and they had to crouch down, following narrow passages up towards the Kings Chamber. As they entered the stillness of this chamber, it took a while for their eyes to adjust and they could see, a few people sitting meditating on the floor. Ray said he felt an intense peace wash over him and he sat for some time, thankful for all he had been given. This was the perfect timeless place to contemplate and prepare for whatever lay ahead.

The wind was whipping the sand up in a definite way, almost in protest about our leaving as we headed to the airport. Crossing over the infamous Nile river, people had come down to watch the last light of sun disappear and to take advantage of any cool breeze coming off the river. We all sat in silence each with our own thoughts of this trip. As I walked away, I glanced back and silently thanked this strange land for what it had given us. I knew that our lives would now be different because of this spontaneous experience. We would live life without looking for certainty around every corner; we would embrace it and not take anything for granted. I took a deep breath as I took the first step up towards the plane. Ray hesitated, then turned and taking my hand he looked straight into my eyes with reassurance and we climbed the rest of the way up together.


Posted by Ray:Lynne has agreed to write a book about the Living Large story. This is a sample of what Lynne will be writing. I shed a tear every time I read it. I hope you enjoy it too. I hope Lynne can find enough time to write more chapters.

Below is the story from Camp 1 in Ray's words

ray and jayThis has been an awesome adventure. Ray made some diary entries along the way. [Read them here.] I am so so proud of Ray and Jay.

Congratulations Boys

camara001 webcam 01 s camara001 webcam 02 s

Congrats to Jayson, Johan, Henk, Mike, Rodney and Sibu for making the summit of Aconcagua. We are incredibly proud of all of you.

The whole team are safe and back at base camp - Plaza de Mulas. We got to see them on the webcam and it looked as if they had been sitting there relaxing for days not climbing the 2nd highest mountain in the world.  I spoke to Ray briefly via Satellite phone a few moments ago. He has lots of stories and experiences to share which he will post as soon as he is back in Mendoza. He was 280m short of the summit, he says that last stretch was very difficult and he was slowing everyone down so decided to turn back.  Jayson carried the Sunflower flag and his school flag to the top. I am so so proud of him. He could possibly be the youngest South African to summit Aconcagua (still trying to verify this).

Congratulations to everyone who went on  this awesome journey you can be so proud of your accomplishment.

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