One summer, not too long ago, Jay Williams left the familiarity of his parents’ peanut farm in Georgia. He traveled to Yosemite National Park in California to work for the concession service. I met him under the towering granite face of Glacier Point. He and I shared a cabin tent in Curry Village through that glorious season, tucked into a colony of canvas shelters with a clutch of other young people keen for adventure.
When not working, we praised the geography of the Sierra by backpacking, jumping into swimming holes, and climbing boulders and high cliffs. We met people from around the globe and talked into the night. It was hard not to laugh and shake our heads when Jay told a story about being asked by a tourist: “Where’s Ol’ Faithful?”
“That’s in Yellowstone National Park,” Jay told them. “In Wyoming. This is Yosemite.”
Yosemite indeed. It’s a treasure of the world, tarnished only by hordes of people and throngs of automobiles. However, these tourists, prolific and bemusing, paid our wages and allowed us to live where most are restricted to a 14-day stay.
It was one of the best summers of my life, so good perhaps because I knew it was fleeting, bright and beautiful as a shooting star before its death in the dark. Jay and all these friends would scatter back into the world after a stint of flipping burgers and making beds and renting out rafts. Most likely, we’d never talk to each other again.
But Jay and I did talk. Aware that I’d be at my mother’s house over the Christmas holiday, he called me. We caught up, and I learned about his new interest in running. The following year he told me about the big bicycle trip he was planning, a fundraiser for a nonprofit battling HIV and water shortages in Africa. He found me each year so we could share tales and plans for the future.
After I’d settled down in Moab, I received a message from Jay. He wrote: “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about religion and politics, and I was wondering if I could run some ideas by you to see what you thought. I hope all is well with you. Talk to ya later.”
I replied: “Yeah, of course you can send me some of your thoughts. Can’t wait to hear back from you.”
But I didn’t hear back. Several days after he sent that message, while working, Jay fell 20 feet from a ladder. His Facebook wall overflowed with posts from friends near and far asking for prayers, seeking a miracle to help Jay rise out of a coma.
Sadly, our miracle didn’t materialize. Jay died within 24 hours.
I have a picture of Jay from our summer in Yosemite. He’s sitting in a too-small cardboard box, arms and legs and head sticking out from the top. I don’t know why he climbed in there. But he’s laughing. He’s laughing so hard his face is red, one of those fits of hysteria that somehow activates the tear ducts, overflowing with joy. That’s how I like to remember Jay. And I like to remember the many outstanding things about him – that he was always game for an adventure, that he raised money for charities, that he helped friends and strangers alike, that he was slow to condemn and quick to compliment.
Still, I am haunted. Jay’s message and his workplace accident loom over me like a shadow.
I am haunted too by the avalanche that forever buried Erica, my climbing partner. Her grand adventures were supposed to continue beyond her twenties.
I am haunted by the BASE jumping accident that killed my neighbor Seth. We’d talked about going climbing one day.
I am haunted by cancer and cirrhosis and heart disease claiming my relatives and friends.
Andy Rooney said, “Death is just a distant rumor to the young.” It seems we learn ever more about the rumor. Tragic and personal details gradually perforate our shell of innocence. Some might say the deaths of friends and family are what age us, not the passage of time.
Rather than merely older, though, I find myself awakened. Jay’s death and each death slap me and ask, verily demand: What are you doing with this darling life?
In spite of the lengthening shadow, I am trying to be more like Jay – illuminated. I want to reach out to the people I love. I want to help a stranger. I wish to write a reply to Jay and to all our loved ones lost that says: “Whatever your thoughts on religion and politics, I thank you. Thank you for living your creed and doing your best. I miss you and celebrate every second of your time on this gorgeous planet. For now, I’m signing off, but in your honor, I will grab this wondrous day by the lapels and kiss it on both cheeks.”
Daniel McNeil is the director of Grand Area Mentoring.