In an instant, there is nothing but darkness. My eyes are open, but they might as well be shut tight. The only sensation they provide is the feeling of water moving across and against them, causing me to blink again and again. With each flutter of my eyelids, I hope to see something. Still only darkness. It is not silent, but the sound around me is dull, muted. Everything is muffled, almost like a dream where I can’t quite make out what is going on or being said. I can feel the current swirling all around me and against me, moving me. The river feels like hands on my back and shoulders, standing over me, pushing me down from above. My body presses against the riverbed. I can feel the worn rocks on the backs of my legs and in the small of my back. I reach out with my hands, out in front of my face and above my head. It seems that the tips of my fingers have gained some heightened sense of awareness. Smooth and worn, but not featureless, my hands move across the underside of a large boulder. I can feel its variations and intricacies. The more I move my hands, the more of this rock I feel. Then suddenly, a flash in my mind, a thought, a memory.
Sitting around a campfire, my bare feet are propped up on a stone fire ring. Friends are in camp chairs all around, some with beer in hand, their feet mimicking mine. My wife sits next to me. Her long, straight sandy-brown hair hangs down past her shoulders, framing her face. The flames dance in her deep, dark eyes. We have sat like this a thousand times over: telling stories, laughing, debating. But this memory is specific, for one of our topics this night happened to be death. “How would you go, if you could choose?” Most responded with answers like “quickly” or “in my sleep.” A climber friend of mine joked about it happening on impact. Not necessarily the most peaceful, but definitely quick. But then I gave my answer, different from all the rest. I knew the ways I did not want to die. I had seen an aunt die after dealing with cancer for years, her husband and two daughters having ridden an emotional and exhausting roller coaster that I cannot even begin to fathom. I had a grandparent who physically and mentally deteriorated from Parkinson’s and dementia. The last time I saw her I am fairly sure she had no idea who I was. Or maybe she did, but she just had no way of showing it. Saddening while simultaneously frustrating. I did not want something drawn out. I did not want to get sick. So when it came to me around the campfire that night, my preferred method of departure was to drown. I have spent over a decade, more than a third of my life, working on rivers. I figured that if I died from drowning, that meant that up until the moment I passed, I was doing what I loved, and I liked the idea of that. I remember even half heartedly joking that if I lived long enough to be a worn, salty, decrepit old man, that I might just take one last trip down the river and find a rock to stuff myself under. Well, it was a few decades sooner than I would have liked, but here I was.
As my hands continued to move back and forth, my fingertips had assumed the role of my eyes and searched for an exit. The realization came to me, surprisingly matter-of-factly, “I’m gonna die under this rock.” I did not feel scared or sad. I did not begin to struggle or fight. It wasn't that I consciously choose to not feel or do those things. I just . . . didn’t. And then, like being awakened from an extremely involved and intricate dream, my now highly sensitized hands felt something new, air. My eyes quickly opened to notice light shining through the water above, and I went after it with everything I had. Just as abruptly as it had begun, it was over, and I was breathing deeply again.
Last night I learned of the passing of fellow paddler, a river guide I had the opportunity to work with and had come to befriend, admire, and respect. It would be an understatement to say he was well known throughout the “river community.” A guide and instructor, world-class professional kayaker, and mentor to so many, he was diagnosed with cancer, and within a few weeks, suddenly he’s gone. I remember every time we would see each other out on the river, Brian would make an effort to paddle his raft of people over to mine, and tell the folks in my boat, “You guys don’t know how lucky you are. You’re getting to boat with one of the best river guides I know. I really hope you appreciate him.” Now, there is no telling how many different crews of paddlers he would say that to while on the river, probably more than anything to help out a fellow guide with a tip at the end of the day. But never the less, it always made me feel special. Here was this guy, 10 times the boater I’d ever be, and he would make it a point to compliment me, to build me up.
More often than not, death can be so damn frustrating and seems so pointless, such a waste. If Brian would have been sitting around the fire that night, I know for sure he would not have chosen “cancer in my 30s.” I stayed up most of the night, as many others did I am sure. The recirculating and unanswerable question of “Why?” came back again and again, and with each pass it made, I could feel the tension and frustration build. My head would spin, mind jumping from one memory to the next, and my chest would tighten and my breathing become slightly strained. I tossed and turned and sat up for hours, heart heavy and unsettled. But as the first morning light began to make its way through the clouds and whispers of the night’s rain dropped off the leaves, I began to realize I had been completely missing the point. Death had become a distraction, and I had allowed it to garner all my attention. “How would I die if I could choose?” is the wrong question. The more important, relevant question is “How will I live?” because that I can choose. I have very little control over how I leave this spinning ball of rock and water, and maybe that is what’s so frustrating about it. But I have complete control over what I do with the time I’m given here.
I think back on all the experiences I’ve had and the things I’ve learned from my time on the river. In the beautiful whirling messes of waves and whitewater, there is way more out of my control than in it. And yet I know there are a few certain things I do have control over, things that I can do. Distractions are crashing and calling all around, trying to steal my attention, but if I remain focused on where I want to go, and the little things I can do to help myself get there, then I can find myself so immersed in the moment that time almost stands still. In the midst of chaos, waves building and breaking and exploding off the rocks of the riverbed, I can dance with one of the most powerful things on earth, and, even if only for a fleeting moment, be a part of something beautiful.
There is plenty out there to distract us, plenty to steal our attention away. To the living, death can feel like an unexpected punch in the gut, the kind that leaves you breathless and helplessly grasping. Death can drop us to our knees and have us crying out to God. And maybe, in some final twist, these are death's gifts to us. For what good is death if it doesn't awaken the living? That blow to the gut that knocks the air out of us reminds us how precious each breath is. In dropping to our knees, death reminds us that it is important to stop, to cry, to question. It awakens us from the complacent lull that we might not even realize we have been in. Brian left us too soon, there is no question, but that doesn’t change how much he lived while he was here. The sting of death is a little less when viewed through the context of life. I grabbed my river gear this morning no longer questioning how or when I will die. How we die doesn’t really matter. My concern is how I am going to dance with life today.