I am feeling a deep sorrow these days. It is not the sort of sorrow that cuts deep, leaving you raw and all cried out. Rather, there is a solitude in it. I can describe it as the sort of peace that comes over as you successfully, effortlessly maintain a back float in deep water. To do this, one has to relax into it and trust the water to hold them. It is a sort of balancing of the scale. The sky is above, clouds quickly rushing to form shapes and then dissipate, and the water below, an entire world teeming with life underneath you.
I knew him for seven days seventeen years ago. I’m sure I ran into him in the hallways of the high school prior to and beyond that, but our real time together only filled seven days. Somewhat by fluke, we went on a canoe trip together. The youth group was organizing it and I ended up in a group with my best friend and four other people. There were two male chaperones. Our canoe trip was to the Boundary Waters – we were to portage to our campsites, carrying our canoes and packs, and then canoe between islands. I had never been to the Boundary Waters before and it was no joke. We hiked for miles and canoed for even more. We pitched tents at dusk on the rocky islands and we strung our food up in the trees to avoid bears visiting. We were exhausted and sore and had to work together. We bonded quickly.
He was goofy and frankly, kind of irritating in a high school boy kind of way. He was a little cocky and professed to know how to do everything. We teased him and he made digs back. I have a single picture of him with a silly grin on his face, he’s shirtless and has an ax in his hand, piece of firewood in front of him waiting to be split. He’s got a baby face, a farmer’s tan and he wears his baseball cap backwards.
About a week ago when I was looking at facebook, something popped up in my feed with his name attached. It was a benefit that someone was putting on. I contacted the person and found that he had been diagnosed with very serious cancer about three weeks prior. I was shocked and in disbelief. I verified over and over that it was truly him. Many times over the past seventeen years, I have gone through my old “film” pictures and each time I would encounter those ten pictures from that trip to Boundary Waters. Each time I would think about throwing them as I hardly knew most of the people in them. Why did I keep them? But I always tucked them back in the box, committing them to memory once again. When I heard his name a week ago, the first time I’ve heard it in so many years, instantly I saw the picture. Even upon seeing a recent picture of him, I could only think of him as that young boy, life ahead of him.
On Sunday he died. I have the picture of him sitting near my candles, he appears even more vibrant there. I feel somewhat self-indulgent and overdramatic writing this. Is my life truly changed because he is no longer on this earth? Do I have any right to attach sorrow to this? Shouldn’t I leave that for his family? But this line of thinking seems to assume that there is a limit to the amount of allowable sorrow; that there is a quota to be reached and once it is, no more can be had. No, my life isn’t directly changed without him here but the world is changed as it is with every death; the gears must learn to shift differently
So I sit in a kind of shiva. I am not Jewish and neither was he, but this idea of mourning and helping the dead pass over resonates with me. I take deep breaths and exhale loudly. I let my body relax and I float.