In the spring of 2002 I quit my job and traveled. Living on twenty dollars a day, I wound my way around Europe until my traveling companion and I decided to cool our heels in Gimmelwald, a tiny Swiss village perched on the side of the Jungfrau mountains.
The third morning there I broke my self-imposed electronic fast to check my email and saw a message from a friend back home: “Get me a number where I can reach you.” A search of the village revealed a phone booth and I sent a reply with the phone number.
Then, I waited.
The night was black. Stars, no moon. I could just make out mountains, faintly looming across the valley. My boots clicked on the path, my eyes followed the slope of the grass to the cliff’s edge and I wondered in what way my life was about to change.
I stepped out of the darkness and into the phone booth that would connect me with home, a glass box that shielded me from the night that was about to lose its beauty.
I picked it up. It was here that I heard. This spot on the planet. This parcel of earth.
I stood in the phone booth. The darkness outside drew close. The glass was a weak shield. I held the phone in my hand for minutes. Hours?
I placed my hand against the glass, pressing away the darkness.
In October 2001, several months before the phone booth, my friend Andy and I traveled to South Bend, Indiana, with a few others to see U2.
It was a special evening for all of us including Andy, who was in pain throughout the concert. Pain, it turns out, caused by the undiagnosed cancer that already riddled his body.
His diagnosis came just a few months later—an inflection point between my old life and a new, harsher reality.
My experience with cancer is death. Both grandmothers, both grandfathers, and an aunt all suffered and died from the disease. As I left Switzerland the day after the phone call, I focused on the logistics of getting back to the States in an effort to distract myself from how I felt, which was that I was going home for a funeral.
But when I got home Andy was still youthful and vibrant. We talked as we threw a football. He was bold in his belief that his illness was but a speed bump. He referred to his treatment in military terms—the cancer was an enemy to be annihilated.
I moved back home to Tennessee and settled into a new job. I met my wife. Andy started treatment and his cancer went into remission. He got engaged and then married that winter.
Things got better. I dared to hope.
On a warm spring day, I stood in the street of a leafy Michigan neighborhood while my soon-to-be wife waited at the car door. Moments earlier I had stood in Andy’s kitchen and said goodbye—the goodbye.
His body was small. His limbs were frail. His face was gaunt. Just a year after his diagnosis, he was a lifetime removed from the bull of a young man I’d known in college.
Now I stood silently in the middle of the street, frozen, the pavement hard beneath my feet, a storm raging inside me, my mind screaming at me to go back inside. To see my friend, to hug him again, to tell him I loved him.
Instead, my hand reached for the car door.
In certain places there are imprints of your life that you leave behind.
In the middle of that leafy street outside of Andy’s house, I feel the pangs of regret. In a reality just out of reach I’m still frozen there. If only I could speak across the years, I would plead with myself to go back inside the house. I would hug my friend again, and perhaps death would see my love, and leave.
But I didn’t go back inside the house, and death didn’t leave Andy’s bedside.
Two weeks later, on May 31, 2003—a little more than a year after he was first diagnosed—Andy died.
After he died I was afraid my memory of him would recede. That, in my later years, he would be that friend I had in college who I had lost to cancer many years earlier. I figured new friendships and time would make those days fade. But I didn’t need to be afraid of losing him a second time. That’s not how his loss feels years later.
For all of the pain I still feel, memories of Andy also bring me a profound joy. I can close my eyes and picture the day we spent on the shore of Lake Michigan. How we threw a football with some college friends. How we leaned against the railing of the channel, watching boats come and go. How we sat on the pier, watching the sun set the lake on fire as it dipped below a liquid horizon. The sound of us laughing in the warm summer darkness at a roadside ice cream stand.
This memory is light and joy. It is melancholy and heartache. I love remembering this day. It reminds me that the people in our lives make us who we are.
Places can be sacred. Sometimes a beach where you watched a sunset, a phone booth on a Swiss mountainside, or a quiet neighborhood street in Michigan, become inextricably linked to tidal shifts in your life.
There is a cross in the woods outside of Sewanee, Tennessee. It’s a World War One memorial that stands about thirty feet high. Near the stone steps that lead up to the cross is a grassy clearing that slopes away and spills over the edge of the Cumberland Plateau and into the rolling hills of middle Tennessee.
I visit this place regularly—making the hour drive from my hometown to sit at the wood’s edge to rest, meditate, and be at peace.
When I came home from Andy’s funeral, I pulled off the interstate in Sewanee and drove the hilly, wooded road out to the clearing. But as I sat there I realized it had been robbed of its peace. It could not overcome my anger.
Several days later I had lunch with a pastor. I quoted Psalm 121, “He will not let your foot slip?” I said. “He let Andy’s foot slip.”
It was a question and an accusation. He didn’t answer.
My childish version of God was stripped away, replaced by a demanding god, a visceral god who would not let me turn from him despite my best efforts. The god of Job.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” I hear him thundering from the whirlwind.
In rising anger I reply, “You made me this way. You put this love for my friend inside me. And now you question my pain?”
Another friend walked away, choosing to have nothing to do with a deity who had refused desperate pleas for his friend.
Sometimes I wonder if his was the most honest response, if my belief that god refusing to “let me turn from him” was really my own lack of conviction and timid inability to let go of a fundamental part of my young life.
A few years ago, on the tenth anniversary of Andy’s death, I wrote about the first night I heard he was sick. I tried to end on a positive note, a life lesson, putting the slightest of metaphorical smiles on a painful situation. But the truth is I don’t often feel that way. Most of the time the part of my life that Andy occupied is filled with a yawning, aching emptiness as crushing as the day I heard he was gone.
I loved my friend
He went away from me
There’s nothing more to say
The poem ends,
Soft as it began—
I loved my friend.
Summer descends on Chattanooga in a thick haze, obscuring the natural beauty of the city’s surrounding mountains and ridges. The heat during June, July, and August is oppressive, and whether due to my advancing age or the effects of global warming, it seems to grow more oppressive with each passing year.
I hate running. But in the evenings that summer after the tenth anniversary of Andy’s death I laced up my shoes and ran, legs hammering the blacktop, the miles melting beneath me like the pavement in the brutal Chattanooga heat.
Each ounce of pain was a small portion of penance for living the life Andy deserved to live. Small relief from the guilt and anger that would build until the next evening, when I’d find myself pulling my shoe laces tight once more and heading out into the heat, in search of a few minutes of solace.
That night on a Swiss mountainside my world was replaced by something cold, sinister, and utterly alien. Some people remember their breath shortening, their knees weakening. I don’t.
All I remember is my hand pressing against the glass. Holding out the darkness.
Cover image by Rowan Neal.