"Lots of people want to ride with you in the limo, but what you want is someone who will take the bus with you when the limo breaks down."
– Oprah Winfrey
I lost another friend this week. One day she was there — happy smile, self-deprecating wit, active mind, healthy-fit body — and then she wasn't. Just like that: here today, gone tomorrow. And it left me with a hole in my heart as big as the world.
Death happens. After all, life is a terminal condition on this beautiful blue planet. But that doesn't make letting go any easier. Particularly when the deceased still had so much to offer the world.
And I can't help but shake my fist at the gods. And ask the obvious: Why? Why? Why?
Excuse me... I'm getting side-tracked. Back to my story.
She wasn't really my friend at first. She was my wife's friend. And the two women shared a host of common interests: high-energy husbands, active go-for-it daughters, a profound connection to Whistler, a well-developed sense of social responsibility... the list went on and on. They were almost like sisters that way, more than just friends.
And off they'd go — running together or skiing together or paddling together... or just sharing tea and gardening tips, whatever — and they'd laugh and solve all the world's problems. Or at least their world's problems.
When Wendy (my wife), died five years ago, her running friend was one of the first to come to our aid. The love and support she showed my family — unconditional! — went a long way in making the first few weeks of our nightmare a bit more bearable. Seemed like she and/or her husband were around the house, available, whenever we needed them.
But we were too much in shock to pay much attention. It was like waking up and finding yourself in someone else's life — "that's not really me, is it?" — like we were mere actors in some weird meta-drama that had descended upon us. Yet Wendy's friend was never put off by the weirdness of the situation.
She just smiled and stayed close. "If you need anything..." Meals would appear, chores would get done, and bills would get paid. "... don't worry, we're there for you."
Things eventually settled down. The story of Wendy's death eventually became old news. And friends and family and colleagues moved on to other issues. But for us, my daughters and I, the long and difficult process of re-building our lives had only just begun.
I'm not going to bore you with the travails that visited us over the next few years. But they almost defeated me. Not only had I lost the most important person in my life — my best friend, my confidante, my partner — but my body had decided to revolt as well. I spent the better part of two years chained to a chair on my deck — unable to ski or ride or surf or run or even hike up a hill — wondering if I'd ever manage to get the pieces of my own Humpty-Dumpty life back together again.
That's when Wendy's friend became my friend. For she refused to give up on me. Long after many others (family, friends, etc.) had stopped visiting — did I mention I wasn't the most patient of patients in those years? — she just kept on coming. Dropping by with books and home-baked goodies, staying for a chat or a cup of tea, just making sure, she said, that the girls and I were doing OK.
Sometimes we were silent. Sometimes we laughed. Most times we just talked. But invariably, her visits would raise my flagging spirits.
She was just like the Energizer Bunny that way. No matter how moody or negative or maudlin I became — no matter how hard-edged my comments were – she never lost her smile or her positive energy. "I just finished this book, Michel," she'd say, handing me a fresh new novel by Atwood or Ondaatje or Borges or Perez-Reverte. "And I want to hear what you think about it. So you better read it." And then she'd smile. "I'll drop by again in a few days and we can talk about it."
She loved reading. She loved writing... but she didn't have the confidence, I think, to take the leap and start penning words professionally. That's why, to a certain extent, she lived vicariously through my own published stories. She was always a big supporter of "Alta States" — to her, a lifelong critical thinker, it only made sense to have someone in this community willing to challenge the status quo. "Give 'em hell," she'd tell me. "Your voice is so-o-o-o important to Whistler's future!" Didn't matter if she agreed with me or not, she'd often say, she just enjoyed the way I crafted my tales. "You always make me think," she'd add. And then she'd laugh. "Even when I don't want to."
And I cherished her support. And her friendship. And that nervous little laugh she had when she thought she'd pushed an idea too far. We spent a lot of hours, she and I, talking about the craziest of stuff... politics and education and economics and history and family and Whistler culture and destiny and...
And yet. And yet. She never divulged much about her own personal issues. The demons that were howling at her own door. And I was too mired in my own issues to prod too deeply into her all-too-real problems.
Meanwhile, she just kept on giving. She was a tireless volunteer — willing to step up and help others at a moment's notice. Money, time, energy, expertise... didn't matter what was asked of her, she was ready to contribute. And she made it all look so easy.
I can still see her in her spiffy Whistler Mountain Host uniform — a big grin painted across her face — guiding happy tourists around the slopes that she loved so much. "It's such fun to meet people from so many different places," she once told me. "And then to be able to offer them a little insider knowledge on the mountain — what a great way to give back." She was a Snoweater through and through. A gem. An exceptional human being who made the world a little better everywhere she ventured.
And now she's gone. Poof... just like that. And another Whistler voice is no more.
Sigh. Why do the good ones die so young?
I had my friend's passing very much in mind when I went up Whistler Mountain last Friday. I'm not much of a Catholic anymore — haven't been since my adolescence — but Good Friday is one holy day that's hard to ignore. Especially now. After all, Easter is all about death and rebirth. Destruction and redemption. Mostly though, Easter is all about getting on with things.
And I couldn't help but reflect on all the good things my friend had wrought on my family's life (before and after Wendy's death). Such a shame, I thought. Such a damn, stupid shame.
But then the sun broke though the clouds. And the new snow on the trees sparkled like each crystal had been injected with a million diamonds. And the Peak Chair finally opened and the upper-mountain pow was soft and plentiful and completely unrealistic for a late April day. And Whistler Snoweaters smiled and laughed and played like old times. And even at the end of the day, when it appeared that the sun would be eaten by hungry clouds, Ole Yeller refused to be cowed and shone warmly on those still basking in its spring rays.
That's when it hit me. This was my friend's parting gift. One last "Hurrah!" before she left this sphere forever. It was just her kind of moment. Her kind of gesture.
I can even see her happy smile in my mind's eye. "Pretty cool, eh?" I can hear her saying. "I love these kinda days — you know, spring in the valley, winter at the peak. This is what makes this place so special. That's why I love Whistler so much." And then: "Thought this would be a fitting way to say my farewells..."
Indeed. Goodbye my friend. And thank you. You made a difference in my life... may your next journey be a good one.