This afternoon, I received the news that my friend died this morning. I’ve known for some time that he had a deadly and rapidly progressing condition. So the news was not unexpected, but it was still surprising in how ferociously piercing it felt. He told me last week it was about to happen, but there was a part of me that clung fast to denial. That’s the part of me that sits here, now, and wonders how someone can send me a message one day and be gone on another. This happens all the time in life, and yet it still seems amiss.
During these last few months, I strained to minimize the gap that had opened between us, the one that inevitably appears between a person who still belongs very much to the world, and another who is preparing to exit it. It was important to me that we remain on the same footing, and remain open to the fact that until matters are concluded, they are nothing but ambiguous. It seemed a folly to assume that he would die before me, and to presume that the path was clear. So I insisted, always, that we didn’t know who would die first, because life was unpredictable, and I take nothing for granted. I don’t know why that was important to me, but it was. When we talked about death, I didn’t want it to be exclusively about his death; I wanted to talk about our deaths, because death is universally human and it will happen to both of us. It was my way, I guess, of being in solidarity, of casting my lot with his, and of maintaining our connection.
I guess it was also a way to try to stop the widening gap between us for as long as I could. I lost that struggle today.
My friend and I were close when we were young, but then diverged in young adulthood to live our lives. Twenty or so years later, we reignited our friendship and discovered we had spent the intervening years doing many of the same things: hiking, traveling, writing, photographing nature. During the year after he was diagnosed, we spent a lot of time talking about faith, and God, and maybe an afterlife, and maybe not. In one sense, I think that was an expected thing for a person facing a shortened life span to do, all part of the process we go through to meet our own mortality and accept death. But it was more than that for me; for the last year, as we absorbed the reality of his illness and prognosis in the context of our friendship, I went with him on a tour of what it means to be human, and he was my guide.
Neither of us was able to accept the circular reasoning of much organized religion, even as we both suspected there might be something more out there than nothing. We would talk and talk, but all we were left with was the ambiguity, the uncertainty of living and dying.
One day I started reading Marrow, Elizabeth Lesser’s story of donating bone marrow to her cancer-stricken sister and, how, in the process, she and her sister worked through a conflicted relationship toward an acceptance of their authentic selves. Lesser was raised in an atheist family, but from childhood, she hungered for the divine. I message my friend after the third chapter, when Lesser explains her understanding of prayer.
“She says that when you pray, you ‘relax into the mystery’,” I tell him.
“I suppose that’s what faith is,” he replies.
“Better than making shit up,” I observe. “Maybe we need to relax into the mystery,” I type. I pause for just a second before reaching my fingers back to the keyboard, my mind chewing on the concept. A thought sprouts: It’s easier in the woods. It bubbled up automatically, almost as soon as my mind wrapped itself around the idea of relaxing into the mystery.
It’s easier in the woods.
I can entertain the mystery anywhere, acknowledge it intellectually anywhere – in my bathtub, in my car, while scrolling through my Twitter feed. But to sink into the mystery, to lay myself down on it and in turn, let it lie upon me, it’s best to be outside. There, in between trees, on lakes, slogging up mountains, the mystery hangs in the air. I’m not just relaxing into it, I’m breathing it. My friend understands this. He has climbed ice in Alaska, sat under waterfalls in the tropics, walked on trails in the Appalachians. This is where our lives and our understanding of the world intersect.
“It’s easier in the woods,” I type.
“Amen to that,” he types back.
This morning, he left for undiscovered country. Perhaps somewhere he’s relaxing into the mystery. For me, though, he’s part of it now.