Justin and Geoff had gone on a long run/hike for the day, leaving my introverted self some much needed alone time. I headed out with my journal and my camera and a dog-eared copy of a book I was reading for the fourth time, no specific destination in mind.
I wandered, driving the curved roads and letting my thoughts drift. Eventually I found a good place to lay in the sun for a bit and read and napped and stared off for long moments as I listened to the cacophony of nature left to its own devices. It was a lovely and quiet afternoon alone, and I was ready to head toward camp and a fire and a cold beer with my people.
The sun was getting low as I began my drive back, the winding twists and turns of the two-lane road creating a play of light and long shadows as I moved in and out of the sun’s reach. My windows were down, wind blowing my hair and my arm riding the air current as my speakers blared randomly shuffled songs from my out-of-service phone.
As I rounded a bend, the first chords of Toto’s Africa began to play and suddenly it was the summer of 1985 and I was eight years old riding shotgun in my Uncle Rick’s red Ford Ranger pickup truck. At 27 years old, he was everything that defined cool to me and I watched him belt out every line by heart along to the worn out cassette, his arm out the window, his smile making me feel like the luckiest and most special girl in the entirety of human history. When the song ended, he teased me for not singing along with him and hit rewind so I could "do better this time.” He knew every word and so did I by the time he was done with me.
I veered into the first pull out I saw and sat in my own truck in 2018, almost 26 years to the day since he died so suddenly, and sob-cried through the rest of the song like I’d just lost him yesterday. When the last chord ended, I started the song over and looked up.
The canyon was gilded, the rays from the sun hiding partway behind the mountain now streaking through and setting the slopes on fire. The river at the bottom shimmered silver and the tawny grasses waved in the breeze that swept up the mountain and left gooseflesh on my arms. I opened the door and stepped out, needing to breathe this wild air into a chest that felt like it was being squeezed in a vise. I sat down in the grass, still warm from the last of the day’s light and I watched the sun finish its descent behind the peaks. I thought about all the years he’s been gone, all the moments I’ve wished for him, missed him so intensely, felt him nearby.
I watched as the last of the warmth left the sky, only the tiniest bit of light left at the edge of the far horizon, and I gathered myself to get back on the road. As I put the truck in gear, I took a last look down at the nearly dark canyon and realized how grateful I felt for the gift of this moment. I think of him often, but usually it is in the passing way that so often happens when we are in the midst of living. There will be a little twinge, but it’s fleeting and doesn’t cause much of a ripple as I go about my way. Sometimes his presence feels long ago and faded, like the photos I treasure of him instead of the vibrant reality that he truly was.
I am grateful to have had a good moment with my ghost. A reminder that I carry him with me, that he hasn’t faded, even if the intensity of the pain around his loss usually has. To have relived such a random memory with such vividness that he felt alive and next to me once more. He knocked the wind out of me for a moment, but we all need that sometimes. The punch to the gut that reminds us that we have loved and that that love doesn’t leave us just because the body of the recipient has.
I drove the rest of the way back to camp in the silence, letting the edges of my memories tuck themselves back into where they reside as I go about my living. I was met by the rosy cheeks and wide smiles of Justin and Geoff and the stories of their adventurous day as they put a beer in my hand and we got a storytelling fire ablaze.
Life is for living, and I think we live it both for ourselves and our dead. We carry them with us as we stand by the sides of golden canyons and laugh by the firelight with dear friends. We store them in our music and our memories and sometimes we get surprised when they come out to sit next to us for a bit.
But whether it’s an eighties pop song or an intentional pulling out of old photos, maybe it’s important that we make time to visit with our ghosts, to remember that the connection and the love lives on, to tell them how much we miss them, to remind ourselves how lucky we are to have had them touch our lives with so much power that it can still knock the breath clean out of us sometimes.
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