Earlier this year, TCA members Ulrike and Matt were married in The Church. But how did this come about? Ulrike shares the full story with us below.
Lover letters to Climbing
In Spring 2020, during the first COVID-19-induced lockdown, I followed an appeal by The Climbing Academy to write a short piece for their collection of Love Letters to Climbing, describing how climbing had transformed my life and my perception of myself, and even linked me up with a perfect partner for life. The Pandemic had turned our lives upside-down, locked us in the city, stopped us from going climbing, forced us to change our lives, yet we were content to have each other and not be alone during lockdown, content to have a little backyard that we could enjoy and transform into a thriving green oasis, content that we had a van to convert together and keep ourselves busy with. Instead of climbing, we went running and slacklining. The weather was glorious, making everything so much more bearable. The air was cleaner without all the usual traffic. We were amazed how easy it was to spend time together 24/7 without ever arguing. We were content and looked at the positives. Our story could have ended perfectly there, but it didn’t.
The first signs that something wasn’t quite right were subtle and innocuous. Matt was getting the hiccups. At first infrequently, but soon with almost every meal. He never used to get hiccups in the three years I knew him. I pushed him to consult a doctor. He was reluctant – after all, it was just the hiccups, nothing serious. I persisted. He called his GP and, predictably, wasn’t taken seriously. We were in a Pandemic, and he bothered them with the hiccups? They told him to wait a couple of weeks and see if things improved. They didn’t; in fact, the hiccups became rather more frequent. I pushed Matt to follow up with his doctors. It was impossible to see a GP in person at this point, and at every phone appointment, Matt spoke to a different practitioner. This time, he was given a month’s supply of acid reducing tablets. We waited again for things to improve. They didn’t. The third doctor still didn’t think it could be anything serious, but just to be sure, he referred Matt for an endoscopy. As it wasn’t marked urgent, we waited yet another month. Eventually, they looked into Matt’s food pipe and found a large protrusion at the very bottom, where it joined the stomach. The doctors still didn’t think it was anything serious, but just to be safe, they took a biopsy. Meanwhile, we were sent home with more acid-reducing tablets to cure what they thought was most likely an inflammation.
Then in early July, came a phone call from the hospital, asking Matt to come in for a CT scan – on the next day! We panicked. This could only mean the worst – normal NHS waiting times for CT scans were 3-4 months, even before the Pandemic. I made the mistake to google “oesophagus cancer”. For 48 hours, we were left to our brains imagining the worst. I remember that we went for a walk along the river and Matt was crying and asking me if he would have to die now. We went for the scan and were told that it could take up to three weeks to get the results. We didn’t know how to cope with such a long period of uncertainty. The next morning, the phone rang again. The hospital asked where we were – we were supposed to see the consultant about the scan. Nobody had told us. We said we could be there in 30 minutes and grabbed our bikes.
I remember cycling down the final hill to Southmead Hospital when suddenly, the dark, low-hanging clouds opened and the sun broke through. I took it as a good omen. Fifteen minutes later, we were told that Matt had a 4cm long tumour on the junction between oesophagus and stomach. We were transferred to see upper GI specialists and oncologists in the BRI. Three months of chemotherapy followed, then a big operation just before Christmas. We were told that if everything went well, Matt would be home for Christmas, so we went to choose a tree for me to cut and take home in time for Matt to come home. On 14 December, I watched Matt walk through the hospital doors to have his entire food pipe removed in a newly developed keyhole procedure – the doctors knew that he was a climber and wanted to avoid cutting his lats!
The surgery went well, and after a few days in intensive care, Matt was moved to the ward. On the last Sunday of Advent, I went to collect our Christmas tree. Then, Matt’s condition started to deteriorate. He struggled with breathing. A chest x-ray revealed that the surgical junction had developed a leak, and Matt had a full-blown chest infection. Both lungs were collapsing. On the day before Christmas Eve, he was taken to emergency surgery. Instead of celebrating Christmas together, Matt was fighting for his life. I didn’t even want to put up the tree anymore. My mum back in Germany convinced me to ask a friend to come and keep me company. I asked Kel, one of the first friends I made when I started climbing at TCA. She agreed immediately to come and stay with me over Christmas, regardless of the lockdown. Late that night came the call from the hospital that Matt was out of surgery and once more in the ICU. He was stable, but not yet out of the woods. Kel persuaded me to decorate the tree together. That night, we were drinking wine and unwrapping cute little wooden tree decorations from my childhood in Germany until the small hours.
In the end, it took eight weeks until Matt was finally released from hospital. Those were the darkest eight weeks in my life. There were no visitors allowed. The world was in lockdown. It was the coldest and darkest time of the year. My climbing community kept me sane. Kel celebrated a German-style Christmas Eve with me and we lit the candles on the tree together and video-called Matt, and our mothers abroad. My other climbing friends dragged me out for a Christmas Day walk and we video-called Matt from the Suspension Bridge. We went on winter walks and the occasional local climb. Every other morning, I ran to the hospital and did star jumps on the path opposite Matt’s window to cheer him up. Eventually, after an endlessly long five weeks, Matt was well enough for us to be allowed to briefly meet outside the hospital. I’ll never forget the emotions of those first 10 minutes of physical contact. From then on, I would cycle up to the BRI every other day, loaded with sleeping bags and down jackets to keep Matt warm while we met. We were on the way up, finally.
‘It took the joy out of the one thing I used to love’
Matt came home on 6 February. The Christmas tree was long gone, but we still celebrated our belated Christmas that evening. A week later, on the 4th anniversary of us bumping into each other for the first time during a climbing meet at The Church, we got engaged. The year that followed remained tough. More chemo- and radiotherapy followed. Not knowing how vulnerable Matt would be to COVID, we kept hiding from the world. When TCA finally reopened, we only dared to go in the early mornings, always checking the online tracker to see how busy it was. I kept working from home. Meanwhile, the intense moral support that I had received from family and friends during Matt’s hospital stay ebbed off. Before I knew it, I plunged head-first into a mental health crisis. I struggled with motivation for work, or for picking up our van conversion that had been on hold through all of Matt’s treatment. The worst thing, though, was that I couldn’t even enjoy the one thing anymore that used to be my escape from stress: climbing. Now, any stressful situation caused a nervous meltdown, and I suddenly found myself getting scared and “freezing” on routes that would normally not have presented a problem for me. In addition, I couldn’t handle the buzzing crowds that populated the finally-reopened crags. It took the joy out of the one thing I used to love.
In the end, I realised that I needed help. I found it in a wonderful little charity called The Harbour, that offered free counselling to anyone affected by life-threatening disease. Over the next 4 months, I went there once a week, and gradually restored my inner balance. The meltdowns became less and less frequent. I finally enjoyed climbing again. I successfully projected my first 7a+, then my first E2. We built a bed for the van. In the summer, I interviewed for a job in Germany and to avoid a long quarantine, Matt and I drove to Font for 10 days. It was my first encounter of the forest, and it was love at first sight. We’ve been back three times since.
Gradually, our life sneaked its way back towards normality. Then, in autumn 2022, just before Matt’s 43rd birthday, came the shock: a recent CT scan showed multiple small nodules in Matt’s lungs – the dreaded metastases. Once more, we were thrown on the big emotional rollercoaster. We talked a lot. To each other, to our friends, our family. Together with them, we started researching our options. We decided to take on the fight. I wrote to various experts around the country and beyond. With all that information gathered, we spoke to a local oncologist. In the end, Matt decided to join a clinical trial.
In the trial, participants were at random assigned to one of three possible treatment routes: chemo + a new drug, chemo + two new drugs in combination, or chemo + the standard NHS drug. Matt drew the control group, so the standard NHS treatment. Needless to say that we were disappointed! However, the doctors convinced us that there were still plenty of advantages to being on the trial, such as close monitoring of Matt’s health, frequent CT scans, and a much better nurse-to-patient ratio during the treatments. We decided to go ahead with it. In early December, Matt went in for his first round of infusions. From now on, our life’s schedule was once more dictated by a 3-weekly cycle of blood tests, infusions, then a week of Matt being knocked out, followed by a gradual recovery up to the next chemo hit.
Nevertheless, something about taking on the fight and not giving in to the cancer felt strangely energising and empowering to us. Before the treatment even started, we decided that it was time to finally follow up on our engagement and get married. We both knew we didn’t want to get married in some commercial wedding venue, and we had always toyed with the idea of having a relaxed wedding party over a long weekend, somewhere outside in a place that mattered to both of us. With the near future so uncertain, however, we felt that maybe waiting for the next summer wasn’t the best idea, and so we started looking for more local alternatives. I think fairly early on I said to Matt “wouldn’t it be fun if we could get married in The Church – after all, it’s a church, and it’s the place where we first met!” I thought asking couldn’t hurt, and to my surprise, Paul (Twomey) said yes!
It quickly transpired that organising a wedding from scratch, in just over 4 months, in a venue that had never done a wedding before, was going to be challenging! On the day, the Church was to going to be open to the public until one hour before our guests arrived, and then again on the next morning. We had to hire tables, chairs, plates, glasses, cutlery and so on, and as the wedding was going to be on a Saturday, everything had to be delivered on Friday and picked up on Monday, and stored away in between. We got to know every hidden corner and storage room in the Church in the process! I found a chaplain who was willing to hold a wedding service in a church-turned-climbing-wall, a caterer who promised to conjure up a three-course meal in a make-shift kitchen in the locker room, and a photographer who was happy to dangle from a rope while documenting our First Climb.
All through this, Nina, Rob and their TCA team did the most amazing job finding solutions for every problem along the line. On Friday 21st April 2023, we shuttled car loads of drinks, table decorations, coat hangers, seating plans, and a massive home-baked 3-tier wedding cake across Bristol to the Church, the caterer delivered their kitchen equipment including three huge ovens, and some 10 big tables and 75 chairs arrived. Somehow, we managed to store away all of this out of sight – I still don’t quite understand how!
The big day came, and the weather held up against all forecasts. After an emotional ceremony in the Register Office – where, amongst other things, the registrar told us that her own parents got married in St Werburgh’s church back in the 1960s, and she was christened there! – we breezed across Castle Park – quick photo shoot below the cherry blossom – to a family lunch at the Old Market Assembly. Before we knew it, it was time for Matt, me, and a couple of volunteering friends to head on to the Church. We had one hour to get everything set up for the guests to arrive!
We managed, and the day went smoothly from there, but so quickly that we felt it just flew by! (Non-alcoholic) welcome drinks, wedding service, First Climb, cutting the cake, guest climbing, coffee and cake, more drinks and canapés, followed by a delicious dinner and emotional speeches. Nina and her team ran the bar like professionals, our photographer seemed to be everywhere at once, and through the whole of the event, we felt like the Church itself was taking part in it all; the whole building seemed to radiate with joy about finally being both church and climbing wall at once, its two identities reunited in perfect harmony. We certainly had the time of our life that day, and we would like to thank everyone at TCA for working so hard to make it work out so perfectly.
A few months after we got married in the Church, we found an old picture showing St Werburgh’s church in its previous location, right behind the Old Town Hall which is now the Bristol Register Office. It was moved stone by stone and rebuilt in St Werburghs in the late 19th century. It felt like everything had truly come full circle.
Over four months of chemotherapy, the nodules in Matt’s lungs shrunk by half. Since our wedding, he continues to receive a targeted cell cycle blocker that has so far arrested any further growth and kept things in stasis. Our life still revolves around 3-week treatment cycles, but fortunately, the current drugs don’t have any strong side effects and Matt feels healthy and strong. In fact, he started absolutely crushing the boulders at TCA – I have no chance anymore of keeping up with him! We have no idea how long it will last, but we consider every day, however mundane, an absolute blessing.
If you enjoyed reading this story, please consider donating to The Harbour, an amazing local charity that helps people with the psychological aftermath of critical illness and loss, or to Cancer Research UK - your donation will go towards funding targeted research into diagnostics and treatment for oesophagus cancer, thereby helping to improve the outcome for patients like Matt in the future. If you are interested in holding a similar event at The Church then please contact TCA via email: firstname.lastname@example.org. For such events, we require a minimum of a 6 months notice period.