Grief is the price we pay for love.
–Queen Elizabeth II
In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.
When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.’
The photo above is the High Peaks of the Adirondacks. My friend, Greg Stella and I used this beautiful region as our playground. Every peak, every valley had our boot prints in the mud and the rocky summits felt the back of our heads as we daydreamed away the hours after an ascent. After the ascent. Such a misnomer. It implied a “last ascent.” There was never really a last ascent. There would be another, and then another…and another. In the area shown in the photo were the majority of the oft-mentioned ADK 46. Other peaks were found outside the frame. There were 46 peaks (according to the original survey) that were 4,000′ or higher. If one climbed all of them, he or she would be eligible to join the “46 er’s” and get a patch to proudly wear on your parka or rucksack. Greg and I climbed about twenty or twenty-five of these peaks. We decided, sometime in the 1980’s that ‘bagging’ the summits wasn’t what we were searching. It became less about the numbers and more about re-climbing our favorites…some many times over.
The room in the funeral home in Owego, NY, set aside for the service was filling up fast. I was going to give the eulogy, but I had to wait until a full military service was complete. Then the priest said the words that were so often spoken at funerals. He spoke of God’s mysterious ways and equally mysterious reasons to bring down upon us congregants the unspeakable grief of an unbearable loss. Then it was my turn. I positioned myself at the podium, away from the slide show of my friend’s life. If I looked at them, I knew in my heart I would not be able to string two sentences together without a box or two of Kleenex or even better, Angel Soft. I had to focus on my note cards and pretend my heart was still whole and not cracked open with grief.
We climbed in the rain, the snow and the sleet. We slept in lean-tos when it thundered like an angry Greek God over our heads. We curled up in our cheap sleeping bags when the ambient air temperature was -30° F. And, yes it’s true. If you left your hot chocolate out beyond the roaring fire, it would freeze over in about four minutes. We slept on bare rock summits on balmy summer nights. If it was during the New Moon, we would drift into sleep under unnumbered, uncountable myriads of stars and distant planets that made the midnight hour almost bright enough a time to read a book…or a poem. But hiking wasn’t our only shared experience. We rock climbed in the ‘gunks near New Paltz, NY, entered and competed in the General Clinton Canoe Regatta. Cooperstown to Bainbridge on the lazy Susquehanna. For that we were given a small trophy and a patch for our anoraks. This was in 1976 and we came across the finish line 74th out of a field of over two hundred. Not bad for two canoeists with no training.
I completed the eulogy and held my composure better than I thought I was capable. I knew I had to be strong for his family and other relatives. I took several quick glances at Greg’s urn. It was beautiful. I wondered how they put his cremains and his spirit, talent and humor into such a small square container. If I sound like I’m bragging about all the amazing adventures Greg and I shared, nothing could be further from the truth. I felt humble and insignificant beside such a grand person, larger than life and now silent for a very long time.
We’re at the graveside. There are his parents. Over further are his neighbors. Further on are my parents. In between are our childhood friends who never walked off a plane after a tour of duty in Viet Nam. There were old girlfriends and so many others that we walked past on the streets of Owego in years gone by. Someday, I will mingle with the soil of this hallowed ground not too far from my friend. The priest said his final words. We all stood and began to slowly drift away to get on with our lives. Someone said my name. I was handed a shovel. The small hole was nearly half filled already. I scooped a spade full and let the earth fall on the top of the urn, covering two cloth patches. A green Adirondack Mountain Club patch and a red “FINISHER” patch that I had given to Patti before the service. Soon the grounds person laid the final sod clumps and tamped it down.
It was over, the ceremony that is. What was just beginning was the flood of memories so many of us spoke.
Good-bye my dear friend. I know we will meet again, on a new trail, in another place. This will happen sometime on a sunny day, when the clouds won’t be hanging so low and seem so impenetrably grey.
It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder,
It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.
[All photos are mine unless otherwise indicated]