Life Goes On… For Some
It may be borderline heresy on http://thetrek.co, but sometimes there’s more to life, and death, than the trail…
I can’t sleep. I’m on a red eye flight from Seattle to Charlotte. I should be sleeping. It’s midnight in Seattle. We land in a couple hours. Tomorrow will be brutal with no sleep.
But here I am, on a plane, wearing a hiking kilt and hoody. Strangers give me strange looks. I don’t care. I’m leaving the Pacific Crest Trail for a few days for the worst reason. I’m attending a funeral.
Our little family of seven (kids 14, 12, 9, 7 and 2) is hiking the trail, trying to accomplish something no family of seven has done, and in a wonky snow year, where every day counts. Taking three days off means we now need to walk 17 miles a day for the next four months instead of 16 miles a day.
But it was either a book title or advice some sage once offered me, “Weddings are optional, funerals are mandatory.” Walking a trail, something that has consumed our every waking (and sleeping) moment for a couple months now, seems so trite in perspective.
I wish I was an artist. I’d draw or paint or sculpt. But stick figures is the limit of my talent. I wish I was a singer. But I’ve been paid cash to stop singing and go away. I wish… but all I have is a few words. So I’ll try to write them down. They’re cheaper than a therapist anyway.
The Bratty Little Brother
Jonathan was a friend since forever. We’ve known each other since we were single digits in age, and our paths probably crossed even before we could remember. His brother and I have been best friends for over thirty years.
Jonathan was the bratty little brother we were forced to include, but secretly, we all knew we liked playing with him. We were the bratty ones for occasionally pretending it was onerous to include him when it wasn’t.
My senior year of high school, I moved into their house, literally sleeping in the basement under Jonathan’s room the entire year. Once in college, the bratty little brother was anything but, and we couldn’t even make pretenses he might be. He was now the cool one.
My Own Friend
Jonathan and I ended up having very similar interests which would predict our career paths, although admittedly Jonathan’s was a more circuitous one than mine. We took scuba together, we became lifeguards, took first aid, we just kept ending up in the same place at the same time. We took an EMT course one semester in community college, carpooling each day, with plenty of time to talk each way. This is when our friendship really grew, besides him being the best friend’s little brother. He was now simply: My friend, Jonathan.
But it was so much more than that. His family welcomed me as one of their own. It’s true, nobody could replace my own wonderful family. But Jonathan and Krystian and I would often call ourselves brothers. Their dad was ever the welcoming soul of the house. And while my mother was a personality unlike any other in an infinite number of wonderful and unique ways, I would call Jonathan’s mother M.O.M., My Other Mother, never to replace my own, but merely a supplement. One can never have too many mothers. This family became my second family, entrusted with all my secrets, privy to all my shortcomings and aware of all my faults, and willing to accept me all the same, just as all families should.
Little Brothers Grow Into Men Too
When medical school rolled around, the tables were turned, and Jonathan moved into my house, ironically taking the bedroom directly under mine. While there, Jonathan turned his high school GED into his first masters degree, following his nose for emergency medicine, but in the pre-hospital setting. Unsatisfied, he’s went on to a second masters, this time in public health, and this time across the country once again. His patient wife tolerated a lot of moves. When I heard he committed to medical school, I thought, there’s no way that boy will be happy with anything besides the variety and drama of emergency medicine, also my specialty.
Indeed, he went where he was destined, tearing down wall after wall to get there. We’d call each other occasionally, or text.
But last April 20, after two weeks hiking in the backcountry of New Mexico, I emerged to civilization and saw a missed call from Jonathan. And a message from his brother. I immediately called back, piecing together assumptions based on texts and voicemail, which would prove to be true. Cancer. We stayed in touch and stayed positive. Throughout it all, every exchange, Jonathan never failed to ask about me and my family. He never cared too much to talk about himself, but did, because he knew news was expected.
When You Know It’s the Last Visit
Last October, we decided to drive by and see Jonathan and Nadine and the boys. I’m so glad we did. He was happy and healthy. It was such a fun day. It’s the memory I will take with me forever. We talked and laughed. He so badly wanted to continue what he always did. He wanted to work. He just wanted another shift in the emergency department. He wanted to see another patient. To help another colleague. Obviously, once would never suffice and he’d want to do it again and again. But he would never get that chance. One of the greatest sorrows of my professional life is I will never get to work a shift back-to-back with my little brother, slaying sickness and cheating death. It would have been epic to bring over twenty years of professional growth full circle from an EMT class to emergency physicians.
As he and his brother always did, one day in college I found them in a competitive argument about who would be the better physician. Somehow, they arbitrarily decided the one with the steadier hand would win. Dead serious, they each offered forth a right hand at arm’s length, palm down, to demonstrate their respective superiority. Jonathan won. Everybody knew already that Krystian was destined for aviation. But that wouldn’t stop sibling rivalry. In the end, the test proved accurate and Jonathan was the physician.
Remembering Him On My Own Terms
A week or so before he died, I saw a picture of Jonathan on Facebook, I think celebrating the end of a kid’s school year. I looked at the picture and smiled. He looked so healthy. And to me, he looked like the little teenage brother I had grown up with, seeing most days of my formative years. The little kid around the corner, you bump into while grabbing a bite in the kitchen or trying to get into the bathroom. The kid with the smirk that always looks like he’s getting away with something, who has a secret you don’t know. And maybe he did.
But then I looked more closely. I spread my thumb and forefinger apart and zoomed in. I saw a grey or two. Maybe thinner hair than teenage Jonathan. Some wrinkles. Thicker eyebrows. I saw a younger version of his dad. I saw a man in his forties with a wife and three young sons.
I wondered how I looked. I’m not typically one for excessive vanity, at least not of the physical variety. I guess maybe I figure I’m not winning beauty contests, so why bother at all. I already have the hot girl as my wife. But when friends see me, do they see me as I just saw Jonathan? Teenage Jonathan? Or have I aged too? Obviously, I know the answer to that question.
I rubbed my eyes and looked at the picture again. No, there’s teenage Jonathan back again. I looked away. That’s how I want to keep it.
Getting Off Trail
Jonathan’s death hit me hard. I’d been hiking with my family in northern Washington, far from cell service. We crested a peak and I flicked my phone off airplane mode just for kicks out of curiosity.
“Jonathan is on hospice.”
I checked the date. Yesterday. My best friend, Jonathan’s brother, is texting.
I text back.
Well, that’s stupid. Let me call.
“Krystian, what can you tell me?” Does he have weeks, months? Is he in pain? Can I do anything to help?”
“We’re driving away from the funeral home. We just dropped off his body. He died two hours ago.” My best friend’s voice cracks.
I slump and my heart sinks to the rocky soil I’m treading on. My feet glue to the ground. My shoulders feel heavy, but I no longer notice there’s a 48-pound pack on my back, and I’m oblivious to the fact there’s a baby in that pack.
Krystian needs to drive Jonathan’s wife home. My family is halfway down the next mountain ahead of me. I’m fifty miles from the road. There’s nothing to do, but hang up, and wonder when I’ll next reach a peak with cell service. I start walking down the trail, chasing my family. But I just can’t.
I look out at the mountains all around me. They’re so beautiful. It’s a cloud-free bluebird day. The world feels so… alive. And so dead. Jonathan will never see this.
I notice there’s a large rock behind me, about ankle-height. I sit down, intending to take in the moment. But instead, I see nothing. My eyes are closed. I hang my head. And I start to bawl. I open my eyes and can only just make out the snot and drool hanging from my face through blurred vision. As my shoulders shake, the baby on my back, who just turned two years old a couple days ago… she starts crying with me. Sympathetic soul. She feels her daddy’s emotional pain and it hurts her. I need to pull myself together. But then I realize… she’s laughing. I assume at me, but I’m just happy she’s laughing and I think, you know, that’s exactly how Jonathan would want it.
But today I’m shattered. I’m broken. This hurts. I’ve surrounded myself with death. From years working in the emergency department and working in a rural African hospital with limited resources, death, and untimely ones at that, are routine. We lose a child in our hospital on average every third day, and I’m often holding the child while they die. So often I’d come home and find my wife had brought home a newborn that needed intensive care, more than the hospital could provide. Sometimes they’d live… sometimes not. We have a few children buried in our front yard, at least one of whom we had hoped to adopt. I’ve lost my mom and grandparents and others. But to lose a groomsman, he in my wedding and I in his, this is now my generation and close.
I hurt. But I’m not entirely sure who I hurt for. I’ve faced my own mortality aplenty, I think, between seeing so many my own age die in various hospital settings. But now I hurt for my best friend. I hurt for his parents, who must do the unthinkable and close the coffin on their own child. I hurt for his wife. I hurt for his three kids. I hurt for this family who took me in time and again when I needed it. And I hurt for Jonathan, even if he wasn’t one to hurt for himself. But it pains me deeply to think of what he’s missing. Children graduating. Weddings. Grandchildren. Retirement.
But in the end, maybe that little brother with a smirk really was getting away with something. Maybe he did know a secret. Maybe he achieved his ultimate professional goal. Maybe he achieved his ultimate personal goal, with a wife and three kids. Maybe he was able to die with all his family around him, love flowing both ways, nothing left unsaid, unpardoned.
Not the End
And maybe, that bratty little brother we were forced to play with, maybe he grew up to move across America four times chasing his dream, earning two masters on his way to become a physician, to sacrifice so much in the emergency department for patients and colleagues, to courageously fly into the face of a Covid pandemic, to become a wonderful and caring husband and father, to serve his country, his adopted country as he earned American citizenship, in the military and be promoted to major… maybe just maybe, through a life of service to others, accomplishing so much in so little time… maybe that bratty little brother just became my hero.
And maybe, no, more than maybe… I’ll certainly see that little brother, wry smiling beautiful face and all, again.
Until then, sleep well, my brother.
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I’m so sorry 💔💔💔💔
So very sorry for your great loss. That is a beautiful tribute to your friend. May God be with you and the family. Prayers.
I know it has been a while since this. Praying for the palpable closeness of God by you as memories of Jonathan surface through time.