A life well lived includes risk. It includes lessons and failures, dangers and setbacks. It is those moments, I believe, where people can rise, launch, and shine. Such a life includes fear, but fear is just another emotion, passing over us like cloud shadows on the earth. Fear is often tied to our decisions, something we accept and embrace or reject and walk away from. But not always.
About six years ago my best friend since I was five, the man who introduced me to climbing, went to Iraq. I don’t remember how or when I learned Bryan was being deployed, but the news spawned a weight in my stomach, my heart and my soul reeking of blackness and tar. I had no control, and I knew it. There were people there intent on hunting him, on doing whatever they could to kill him, and I could do nothing to protect him. I loved him, but there was nothing I could do to keep him safe. Life was about to come at Bryan full speed, and I was powerless to help. My only choice was to trust he was ready to meet the unknown, no matter what that meant. I sent him a package with everything I could think of that he might need, but otherwise I was left waiting. I sat was a feeling I’m not sure my brian will let me ever fully remember, but one I also won’t ever forget.
I am reminded of that feeling, however, every spring and every fall — every time it’s climbing season in the big mountains. Bryan completed his tour and now lives in Texas with his wife and children. Today expeditions, not deployments, revive that weight. When my best friends leave for Alaska, Patagonia, Pakistan and Nepal, the blackness, the fear, returns. The love and the loss of control I felt when my best friend put himself squarely in harm’s way comes rushing back, renewed, fresh and alive. It’s something I’m not sure I truly acknowledge until its over, until the moment has past, but until everyone is out of the mountains I’m not sure air ever reaches the depths of my lungs.
As I said yesterday, Michael, Bayard and Elliot are out. They were in Alaska to climb Mount Deborah, but now they aren’t. Since they got back I’ve texted with Elliot and talked to both Michael and Bayard. I told them how happy I am they returned safe, but I’m not sure I’ll ever get across in words how it feels to have them home. I love them. They are astronauts, best friends. I want them safe always. I want them in my life always. But I don’t get that, no matter what I do. Nothing and no one is static. Life overtakes us all, even those willing to step into its depths and scream into the blackness. Bryan, Bayard, Michael and Elliot will all scream until they are horse, until all they have left are whispers. I would never ask them to do otherwise. My fear, my feelings of loss of control, is not worth them stepping back from the brink, not worth backing down from Iraq, Alaska, Patagonia. That drive, that passion, which at times may border on recklessness, is what makes them spectacular, what makes them astronauts. Death is a side effect to life, unfortunate but unavoidable, a possibility in all things. Sitting at home isn’t safe, and even if it were I wouldn’t wish it upon these people. They stepped into life intent to live it at full speed, and it is that passion that endears them to me. That reckless beauty is what makes them exceptional. I, in turn, have to release them to love them. I must give up control, take pleasure in the risk of loss their friendship allows. I don’t get to keep them anyway. They aren’t mine to lose.
In a community like mine there is always someone “in country.” It’s a risk of surrounding yourself with passionate people, particularly with a passion that has real consequences. The weight never fully goes away — when Bayard is home, Freddie is gone. Or Peter. Or Silas. Or Kevin. Or Jimmy. And, if I think about it, I guess I wouldn’t want the weight to disappear. That would mean a life without risk, a life without passion, a life without life. That is no way to live.
But it sure is nice to have a few spaceshuttles back on the ground, a few more astronauts back on Earth. Breathe the fresh air, my friends. I will join you, but I won’t breathe too deep — a few others are still in orbit. I look forward to hearing they’ve come home too.