In Memory of James
Seven years ago today, a young man in his early twenties went for a hike along the Horsepasture River in Transylvania County, North Carolina. It was a beautiful spring Saturday and likely the first of its kind that year, though it is hard to recall the days leading up to it with any degree of certainty. The warmer weather had begun to stretch upward from the valleys, bringing the promise of rain to the mountains and the evergreens therein. This stretch of land is particularly gorgeous at this time of year, with the warm gulf winds blown northeast along the Blue Ridge Mountains and mixing with the cool morning dew to create pools of fog that hang low in the gaps and valleys eroded into the mountainside centuries earlier. Upon witnessing its majestic and ethereal haze for the first time, the beholder sees in that moment with the same eyes as the Cherokee when they came to name this land Shaconage (“land of blue smoke”) many years before, a subrange of the Appalachians later to be known as the Great Smoky Mountains. It does not take a local to understand what might compel a man to leave his home and venture out into wilderness such as this. It was not until the following day, however, that those who loved him would know that when he left his home that morning, those steps would be the first of his journey away from this world. The young man’s name was James, and he was my friend.
I remember clearly when I first found out that James had slipped and fallen. My phone rang shortly before midnight on that same Saturday. It was my good friend Kelsey on the other end. I was surprised to hear from him on this night as we had gotten into a pretty big argument the night before on our way home from the bars in downtown Asheville. “Hey Kels,” I spoke into phone, unsure of how this conversation was going to go. “Hey man, where are you?” Kelsey asked. “I’m at home in bed man, didn’t feel much like doing anything tonight,” I answered, trying to get a sense of what he was calling about. “I thought you would be over here, do you not know what’s going on?” he asked. “No,” I said. “What do you mean? What happened?” There was a brief pause. It became clear that Kelsey was not expecting to be the first person to tell me about what happened. “It’s James,” he paused. “He fell. He went hiking today and slipped on the rocks. Lindsay was with him but they can’t find him. They’re worried that he’s really hurt or… Everyone is over at Cisco. You should be here.” “Wait, what? Where were they? Where is he now?” I asked, confused, trying to catch up. “No one knows. Everyone is really worried about him. You really should get over here now,” Kelsey insisted. “Okay, yeah, let me wake up Frannie and get dressed,” I said. “I’ll be over as soon as I can. But Kels –” “Yeah?” “Are we cool, man?” I asked. “Yes, of course, none of that shit matters now. Just get over here as soon as you can.”
I laid in bed for a moment, trying to wrap my head around this new development. Only a minute before, I was licking my wounds in bed, watching Seinfeld re-runs and trying to sleep off the rest of my hangover. Now a minute later, I was failing to come to terms with what I had been told. Reluctantly, I placed a shaky hand on my wife’s shoulder and gently woke her. “Baby, something has happened to James. Get dressed, I will explain in the car.” We quickly got dressed and got into my car. We sat in silence, too confused and too concerned to make much conversation. The news was sinking in more and more as we got closer to James’ house on Cisco Road where he lived with three of our other close friends. Paul Simon’s “Graceland,” was playing on my car stereo. The upbeat and bouncing vibe of the song felt disjointed with the growing anxiety tightening in my chest. A flurry of thoughts flashed across my mind: Is he okay? Could he really have died? No, he couldn’t have. It’s James! Shit, but what if? And what the hell happened anyway? “I’m goin’ to Graceland, Graceland…” played through the car speakers. Fuck! I remember when he asked to put on this CD the last time we drove back to Chapel Hill together. Ha, I can still see his face in my rear view mirror, playing grab-ass with Bill in the back seat and making faces at cars as we passed them. Fuck I have to turn this off. “…she said losing love, is like a window in your heart, everybody sees you’re blown apart, everybody sees the wind blow…” I exhaled sharply and turned off the music, not realizing that I had been inadvertently holding my breath. Graceland. That’s where Elvis died, right?
As we pulled up to the house, a long string of familiar cars lined either side of the road. The scene had the look of a raging party, but the mood was decidedly different inside the house. It was quite possibly the quietest I have ever heard this group of people– even sleeping they were noisier than this. You would hear an occasional nervous joke attempted, or a question half-asked, seemingly to the sky, trying to understand what exactly was going on. To the credit of our crew–my chosen family and a group whom I have been truly blessed to call friends–the conversation ultimately turned positive. We took to reminding each other that James was a talented swimmer and an experienced outdoorsman. If anyone of us could survive a fall and tough out the night, it was James. It became evident in that moment that I was not the only one to have, at one time or another, thought of James as something of a superhero. It wasn’t long before we had created and clung to a vision of him at a make-shift campsite, sitting next to a fire he had built and waiting out the night until his rescue arrived the following morning. By now, it was close to 3:00am. We received word that James’ parents, Ralph and Carolyn, would arrive in a few hours and that we would caravan out to where he was last seen as soon as dawn hit. Those of us who could sleep, did, and then as soon as the first flares of morning crept over the horizon, we piled into our cars and made the hour-plus drive out to Transylvania County.
By the time we got to the area where you can park your car and head into the woods, the fog had rolled in and a light drizzle had started. To make matters worse, the local radar promised heavier rain to be expected later into the day. We arrived shortly before the rescue crew returned to the area to continue their search. Efforts from the day before proved fruitless and we were closing in on the 24-hour mark as each worry-ridden minute ticked by. Doing our best to stay out of the way and keep our spirits as high as possible, we began to setup tarps and communal areas to take refuge from the rain and still be together. More and more people were showing up to hold vigil and help in any way that they could. Some folks showed up with food, others with water and chairs, others with musical instruments and soccer balls. By the afternoon, a small village had been formed. People were rallying from all parts of James’ life to do anything they could to offer help, comfort and much needed distraction. A small team of talented kayakers from our group did their best to do a sweep of the area as well to aid in the search effort. I witnessed a lot of bravery that day, in all of its forms. Amidst paradisal wilderness, I was left in awe of the strength of human spirit most of all.
For reasons that I’m sure you’ll understand, I will describe in less detail the minutes leading up to the moment we heard the official news that James had drowned. Much of it is blurry, anyway. I do remember appreciating the burden the ranger had that afternoon. It could not have been easy to approach us in that camper, bearing the weight of the day’s news and making real the worst of fears. It will remain burned into my memory the sheer admiration I had, and still have, for Ralph and Carolyn and James’ brothers Jonathan and Justin and for the grace they displayed on the hardest day their family has endured. They are a truly beautiful family and it has been my privilege to know them. When I stepped out of the camper, I was slightly elevated and could see out across the clearing where we had spent the day. Pairs of my friends and loved ones were all around the area, holding each other and quietly grieving. Almost like an unchoreographed dance, pairs of people would break apart and then silently move to another embrace. It was an involuntary, yet graceful, ebb and flow of mourners taking turns breaking down and giving support.
It went on like this for a long time. No one was in a particular hurry to leave. Maybe we were all hoping to catch a glimpse of his spirit as he passed through, hoping to see lightning streak across a blue sky, to see some kind of sign that he passed peacefully onto somewhere better. A place where our superheroes are as invincible as we believed them to be. In the moments dominated by a feeling of disorienting loss, language loses its meaning. All that’s left is contact, the feeling of someone clutching onto you as strongly as you to them, your faces glued together by warm tears, each steadying the other. Sometimes there is an instant when you pull apart slightly and look the other person in the eye, and even though you are both devastated and only momentarily in between sobs, one of you releases a sort of laugh-cry and for just a moment, you feel a tiny ounce of merciful comfort. Two puffy-eyed, red-nosed people holding each other and sharing a brief moment of humor and tenderness; it’s the stuff of comebacks.
In the days to follow, we spent a ton of time together and really took the communal approach to the healing process. We virtually spent every waking moment on Cisco Road and each day, a new shipment of food would show up to the door. Professors from school, old bosses, other friends and family, and even one of our favorite restaurants in Asheville, Doc Cheys, showed up with food and an empathetic ear. We would share stories of James and help each other through the moments when it all became a bit too much. I was grateful to be surrounded by people who knew exactly how I felt, surrounded by my brothers and sisters, and to be in an environment where it was safe to be vulnerable. We weren’t in much shape to be taking care of ourselves at that time and so those unexpected food deliveries proved invaluable.
I remember being blown away at the kindness that was shown to us during this time, but then it occurred to me that I had been watching my parents do this my whole life. Anytime my mom heard of someone losing a loved one, or having a baby, or anything along those lines, she would make them one of our classic family recipes, Chicken Dish, and show up to their house with a whole dish of it with instructions on how to bake it, not to mention a hearty hug and knowing look. There is something about this casserole of chicken, cheese and rice that eases heartache just a little bit with every bite. For my money, it is the quintessence of comfort food. Earlier this year, a close friend of mine’s father died and from my experience with losing James and the example my folks set for me, I knew exactly what to do. The first chance I got, I went to the grocery store and picked up ingredients for a couple batches of Chicken Dish and some disposable foil trays. It’s the moments like these where food and family count most. To offer any possible comfort to an ailing heart is a noble deed, especially in the days immediately following tragedy when you can do nothing more than to eat and wait for the pain to quiet.
It has long been popular to say that time heals all, but I must admit that I have mixed feelings on the matter. It is perhaps more accurate to assert that time provides perspective, offering us an opportunity to transform some of the pain we feel into appreciation for what we once had. On some days, this transformation can feel as unfeasible as alchemy. If time does heal, it is in the way that scar tissue appears in the place of a former wound. Although we are no longer bleeding, no longer burdened by a persistent tinge of pain that demands the entirety of our focus, scar tissue is, at its best, merely a patch sown into the fabric of our bodies. We are not whole in the way that we once were, even if we appear so. Upon closer examination, you can still see it, the white tissue grasping at skin in all directions, doing the honorable work of simply trying to keep our shit together.
As I work my way through this life, I continue to receive more and more patches with each accrued loss and injury. Often we are reminded of the bargain we have all struck with mortality in unexpected and painful ways. By its nature, scar tissue is less sensitive than the skin we were born with and so perhaps the illusion of healing is the mistaken observation of simply feeling less, or becoming numb, with our bodies and minds no longer physically capable of experiencing life as intensely and as unguarded as when we were younger. Nevertheless, we were inherently designed to heal and so maybe the better way of thinking of these patches we earn is less as visual reminders of past pain and more as individual pieces of stained glass carefully placed amongst a mosaic of who we are as people. With each added fragment of glass, the portrait of our lives changes and gives us color–each piece fitting into its own place within the frame of our memories, the binding force that holds the collection together and makes us the unique works of art that we are. It is only when we are ready to open ourselves back up to life then, to feel the warmth and light of sunshine on our patched and stained skin, that we begin to understand and appreciate how beautiful life, and its requisite pain, can be. To heal, then, is a process in which we take our shape, earn our color and ultimately become the patchwork people we were always intended to be.
Seven years have gone by fast, brother. We still miss you and think of you often. Prost, you handsome animal.