When someone we love with our heart dies suddenly, we question what we thought were the givens about life. Life as we understood it ends.
In the year after Evelyn died, I often went to Yosemite to take a break from grief. But I reached a point where simple survival was no longer enough. I set my fears aside and headed into the wilderness to explore grief. I took risks and pushed on every boundary I could find because I wanted to understand what life and death were about.
My original plan was to head west for the top of El Capitan, but I realize that if there is ice and deep snow here, then it’s likely that the same conditions exist over the next five miles of trail. I head off anyway, figuring that if I can see part of the trail now and then, I’ll be okay. But after twenty minutes of tromping around through snow that is now up to my hips, I find no evidence of a trail.
I stop moving and consider my options. The trail often runs along the rim of the valley. A slip over the edge would be fatal. I could also fall into a snow-hidden crevasse, break an ankle, and freeze to death, unable to get out. A mountain lion also lives around here, and although I haven’t seen his tracks, this doesn’t mean that he isn’t watching. I calculate how far I can push my luck.
There are some boundaries in the wilderness I should not cross. This may be one of them. How long can I stand here before the ways of the wilderness catch up? How much do I really trust nature?
Wanting to salvage something from the hike, I turn around and make my way carefully over to the icy lip of Yosemite Falls. Its thin winter stream flows over the edge like water being poured from a pitcher as it drops 3500 feet. The lacy plume is quiet, unlike the surge and roar of this waterfall in the spring.
In the distance, under dark gray clouds, the frozen, slate blue mountains of the Sierra Nevada stretch for a hundred miles, with snow-covered flanks and raw, serrated peaks where only the solitary, the strong, and the creative survive.
The clouds move lower and it begins to snow again, lightly at first, then heavier.
I am standing in the wilderness and could be dead in the next minute if I make a wrong decision, slip, or the mountain lion shows up and feels threatened by my presence. I should be scared, but I am so energized by the stark beauty of these frozen mountains mantled in snow that I am stunned into silence. I see how fragile life is, and how beautiful.
When Evelyn was alive, there were boundaries I would not cross because I wanted to stay alive for her. Now I push on every barrier to see if it’s real or imaginary. Too many matters that once held me back because of fear have turned out to be illusions. This now includes death.
I will grieve as I want, and for as long as I need. The expectations of others for how I should behave are their problem. I will push on every boundary of life until I find the mystery that lies hidden beyond.