And this, our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything. ~William Shakespeare
Death has kept creeping up on my mind this week, in one form or another. Did you hear about Omar Henry? He was a boxer, and a damned good one with a big career ahead of him. He was twenty-five, my age. Four months ago he was diagnosed with gall bladder cancer, and he died just days before his twenty-sixth birthday. Maybe it’s because I was just recently contemplating my own mortality, but it hit home for me. His last few tweets to the world were more visceral than they normally would have been, perhaps. I think the sort of death he faced is probably the hardest. With age, we come to expect it. In youth, if death comes for us, it’s usual brutal and sudden, no time for contemplation. He had time to face death, but not enough time to fight it. How can you prepare for that?
I had a friend who died a few years back, more of an acquaintance, but a nice guy who was close to several of my friends, nonetheless. He fell from a canyon wall while stargazing, and died. I was farther down what might have been the same canyon shooting fire arrows at bottles of gasoline, and I came through fine. It was an object lesson in just how ridiculously unfair life can be. It was also an introduction to another lesson I wouldn’t fully learn for several years.
Napkins and Jackets
This next bit is about a crinkled up napkin I found in the pocket of my leather jacket. You need some background, first.
Once upon a time, I knew a man named Bryce Gillies. Bryce was not a handsome man. He was short, and well on his way to bald at twenty, and his face was a bit asymmetrical. He was born with complications of some sort or another, I think, and I later learned from his father–who I wish I’d met under any other circumstances–that doctors thought he would never be able to walk for any long distance. I guess Bryce never got that memo. Bryce was an avid hiker and outdoorsman, an Eagle scout, a crazy good rock climber–basically everything people ever said he couldn’t be.
He was a quiet man, who kept his own counsel, but spoke up, and spoke well, when the situation called for it. In 2009 he went with me and a few other people to Ghana, where he oversaw the construction of nurse quarters for a clinic in the small village of Yua. He was an engineering student, and a smart one; he combined good sense with raw intelligence in a way few people manage. He was just along to build an irrigation system, but then the guy who knew how the building was supposed to come together caught malaria and had to be medevaced. Bryce took over, and got it done anyway. Though they spoke English, many Ghanians had trouble with our names. They called me “Corner” and Bryce “Bright”. My nickname was funny, his was, honestly, an accurate reflection of his character.
We were not the closest of friends when we left, although on friendly terms, but the two of us shared a hut (with each other and one very fast scorpion we named Gonzales) while we were there. We shared goals and quarters and terrible food, a light that we turned on and off by touching live wires together in the dark, and I think I knew him pretty well by the end.
Among other things, his good sense probably saved my life, when we were installing solar panels. He had the sense to disconnect the panels from the wiring, which is the only reason my heart didn’t stop thirty miles down a dirt road from the nearest hospital, when I grabbed exposed terminals of the positive and negative wires at the same time with sweat-soaked fingers while I was wiring the lights.
What Bryce really was, however, was a good man. One of the best I have ever known.
Some people, like me, actively work to be good, some people are just naturally predisposed to kindness, generosity, and a gentle nature. Bryce was both, and it showed. You knew it when you met him, and he never did anything in the entire time I knew him to make me question that for a moment.That’s not to say he was a stick-in-the-mud, either, he was always down for fun, or some good-natured trouble. He covered for me in Africa when I was puking my guts out from whatever tropical nastiness I had, but didn’t want to be sent home. By the end of the Ghana trip, I was determined to get to know him better and stay friends. Three weeks after we got back from Ghana, on July 18, 2009, when I was still fighting off the lingering effects of Africa (dysentery, some sort of recurring fever, and 35 pounds of weight loss) he was already feeling up to a birthday hike in the Grand Canyon back country. A bunch of people were supposed to go along, but somehow everyone backed out, and none of us realized he was on his own.
We figured it out pretty quickly when the 21st rolled around, and no one had heard from him. Search and Rescue went out. As did many people who knew him, and a lot who didn’t. I wouldn’t have been any damned help, so I spent time trying to figure out where he might have gone off the trail on USGS maps.
It was clear fairly early on in the search that he had left the trail somewhere. What all of us who were experienced hikers carefully didn’t talk about was that people don’t live four days in the Canyon without water in July. I think we held out hope that he had found a spring, or a way down to the river, and was holed up there waiting for rescue. They didn’t find him until the 25th, and I don’t think any of us really thought he was going to be alive at that point. Still, Bryce had defied expectation his whole life, and he knew what he was doing–if anyone had been able to make it, it would have been him.
When he realized he was going to die, Bryce typed out a final note to his parents, his friends, and the Ghana team on his phone. I don’t really want to go into what was said, but I will say it was true to form; light, funny, insightful, and more concerned about others than himself. His parents gave me a copy, and whenever I shuffle off this mortal coil, whoever sorts through my belongings will find it tucked away with some of my most treasured possessions.
A lot changed in my life that year. By the anniversary of Bryce’s death I had left grad school, decided to pursue a career in writing, and was living in my car traveling the country. There were many things that factored into that decision, but Bryce’s death played a role.
I remember sitting in the Starbucks at NAU, not long after Bryce died, trying to write a letter on a napkin. It was to Bryce’s parents, and it was a mess. I wanted to say so many things, and did not know how. I just knew I had to say something. These past few years have bought enough wisdom that I know now that I didn’t have to write anything, that Bryce’s parents knew everything I wanted to say more completely than I ever could. At the time, though, it seemed crucial. In the end, after sketching the building, and rambling about this and that, I decided I was at a loss. I stuffed the napkin in the outside right pocket of the jacket. It was probably early August, but it can get chilly in Flagstaff any evening of the year.
That was a confusing time. I had never suffered any illusion of my own invincibility. I’d like to think I’m pretty hard to kill, but I’ve always known I am going to die someday. But Bryce was good, and kind, about as good as people come. . . and he died a hard death, alone, on his twentieth birthday. What crystallized for me was not my own mortality, but the mortality of the people around me. All these people who matter more than life, I am going to lose, and the world is not going to give a second thought to how much they deserve to go on.
I don’t believe in a life after this one. It makes it easier to be strong, easier to be good, and more determined to leave a mark, but it leaves me painfully certain that every moment with these people is something I can’t trade back. So each moment has to be one I don’t want to trade back.
That jacket is my favorite, it’s worn and torn now, but it was fairly new at the time. When I traveled, it went with me. It’s been to dozens of states, and all over each of them. It’s not waterproof, and it’s been soaked through at least thirty times. I’ve probably worn it more days than not, all told.
The other day, when I should have been worrying about other things, I reached in that pocket. It’s something I have done thousands and thousands of times since that day, and felt a wadded up paper, I pulled it out, expecting a used Kleenex or something I had stuffed in there for lack of a better place. I almost threw it away. Instead, of course, it was the letter on that flimsy Starbucks napkin, somehow not torn and not washed out.
Without knowing it, I carried it every place I’d ever gone, for four years, somehow unnoticed in a place where I keep things all the time. Maybe there’s a metaphor in that.
Sometimes I have moments where things seem to be going poorly. It seems like the world is unfair. Then something reminds me of the people who are gone now, who deserve to be here far more than a man like me, and I am humbled. I am not humbled that I have lived when better people have died, because that’s the nature of existence. I am humbled because these better people have at various points given some of their very limited time to me, and helped me become the sort of person I want to be.
If someone put a gun to my head and asked me if I could die without regrets right this moment, I could shrug and say, “Pretty much.” And I could mean it enough that I’d make a grab for that gun, too. That’s the legacy of Bryce and good people like him I have known.
There is a truth, one that I think most people know, and one that is easier to ignore: We are, each and every one of us, Small Gods. Our time may be limited by nature, but our ability to effect change upon the world is just shy of infinite. That’s a lot of pressure, to accept that you can and do and should matter. I still think of Bryce, from time to time, and people like him I’ve known in my life–people who were kinder and better than me–often when I’m fighting between something that is good, and something that is easy. Every time I think of them, and do the right thing when otherwise I would not, Bryce is living on. It turns out if you’re a strong enough force for good to the people around you, you keep right on being a force for good. Not even death can stop you.
I think Bryce might have understood that already, when he wrote his last words: “Life is good, whether it’s long or short.”
May we all be so lucky.
For what it’s worth, I thought this song captured the feeling perfectly.