Life, Loss, and Moving On

Six years ago, my friend died mountaineering.  A person I’d shared food and hugs and life with was gone.  

I’ve been reflecting, in the weeks since the anniversary.  I see the mountains we hiked and the cliffs we climbed, but the images are faded, like old photos weathered by sun.  I hear some of the words she said—but mostly, our conversations have blurred.  In place of sounds, there’s only a vague sense of how I felt as we spoke together.  And even the feeling isn’t as fresh.  There’s a distance to the memories, something that dulls the pain of her loss; and something that dulls the joys we had together .

Worst of all, I’m realizing how much less often I think of her.

I didn’t plan to move on.  I didn’t want to move on.  It happened too slowly to notice, like the aging of an athlete or the growth of a tree.  It happened over the two thousand, two hundred and ninedays that have passed since she died.  The distance grew a tiny bit with every morning I rushed to work.  It grew as I filed my taxes and ran my errands and navigated the problems of life.  And the distance grew when good things happened, too.  It grew with the hugs of new friends and the skin of new lovers and the tastes of new foods.  It grew little by little, too slow to see until now, when I started to write this essay.

To be honest, it feels disloyal to realize how much I have moved on.  It feels disloyal even though I know she would have wanted that for me.  I would have wanted the same for her, if it had been me who’d fallen down that mountain.  I don’t believe in life after death—and I would have wanted my friend to find peace in the new world where I wasn’t there.  I would have wanted new conversations to stretch her mind, and new friendships to stretch her heart.  I would have wanted this—and if it had happened I would have sunk into her past, like rain settling into the ocean depths. 

And yet…it feels wrong to realize how little I’ve thought of her in the past year.  Memories are the only thing keeping her in the world.  Memories are what make her more than an arrangement of atoms that is no longer there.  It feels wrong that the memories are growing distant, like the experiences of another person.

Although…in a sense, they are the experiences of another person.

The man I was on January 11th of 2015 is gone.  Today there’s an echo of that man—or an echo of an echo, a copy of a copy.  That’s what I am today, writing these words.  I’m an echo of a younger man, someone frantically researching that accident.  I’m an echo of someone staring into the ocean and crying, pondering everything that happened and everything that could have been.  I’m an echo of someone who thought of his dead friend every day, someone who fantasized being on that mountain and somehow stopping the fall.

And in six more years, I’ll be gone.  The person I am now will no longer be in the world, even if thoughts still ripple through my skull. 

Today is my only chance to live as the person I am now.  Tomorrow an echo of me can be true to someone else—but there’s never another time to honor who I am today.  And realizing this is making me want to live my life, not waste it. 

This doesn’t mean we should do exactly what we want all the time.  It’s best to wake up to your alarm clock and go to work today, even if you’d rather chuck your phone out the window and sleep until noon.  But if there’s something you really want…fucking do your best to make it happen. 

Two years ago, I was getting ready for a trip to our cabin in Alaska.  My friend and roommate was going through a tough time.  He’d ended a relationship that evening, twelve hours before I would drive away from the screens and suffering of 21st century life.  I repeated the offer I’d made before: there was space, if he wanted to come.  My friend sighed.  He’d love to, but he didn’t have the time.  He was in grad school, and his project was going so-so. 

The next morning, my buddy came into the living room to see me off.  There was something wistful in his eyes that made me offer again.  I saw the desire in his face, and I cut off his denial with a question.

“What would happen if you came with us?”

His eyes stirred with sudden musing.  I probed further, watering the seed I’d planted.

 “Would you get kicked out of your program?  “Would you lose your funding?”

My buddy’s face twitched in a searching, inward look, as if he was calculating.  I smiled.

I’m going to finish packing,” I said with a hint of mischief in my eyes.

Ten minutes later, he came into my room.

“I’m coming!”

My friend was lucky.  He was working without immediate deadlines, and when he called his supervisor, he was able to get the time off.  A lot of people would lose their job if they took off on short notice, and a lot of people would be homeless without their jobs.  But when you want to do something, asking what would happen if you did it is the right question

So what would happen if you quit your life and traveled?  You’d have a great experience and learn a lot—and maybe you’d have to work a shitty job for a while when you came back.  I did construction for a bit when I was 30 and had a Master’s degree, and it wasn’t the end of the world.  Yes, I have privilege—but so do a lot of people who think they can’t do what I did.

What would happen if you answered honestly, when someone asked how it was going?  You’d push some people away, but you’d learn who your real friends were.  After that, you could focus your life on the people who matter. 

What would happen if you told your crush you have feelings?  Maybe you’d start something great.  Maybe you’d get rejected—and that’d be great too!  It’d be great to move on knowing you’d given life your best.

Life is too short to do anything else.  Memory is too short to do anything else.  Even who we are  is too short to do anything else.  

I’ll try to remember that each morning, when I’m deciding how to spend the day.  I’ll try to honor the only person I’ll ever be, on the only day I ever can.

And Steff…

I miss you, writing these words.  I know you would have liked them.  I know you would have been happy with how I’ve grown.  I’m sorry you didn’t get to grow, too.  I’m sorry you never got to see Patagonia.  I’m sorry you never got to find a life partner and hold a baby and guide your parents out of this world.

Rest in Peace,

Steph.

I miss you, and I hope I always will.

I’ll give my best at life, for you and for everyone who no longer can.