Trying

For two weeks I’ve tried being sad.

I’ve tried being confused and distressed and disheartened. I’ve tried weeping and wondering why, I’ve tried to reason and rationalize, I’ve read journal articles and anecdotes about suddenly broken hearts and tried to acknowledge that random horrible shit apparently happens for no good reason. And to good people, too. The best.

I’ve tried to accept that the comforting illusion of a safe and happy and fair world is just that: an illusion. Life may be an adventure, should be lived on the edge, but it is also risky business. You never know when it may suddenly end. Through no fault of your own.

I’ve tried to accept that time moves on relentlessly, effortlessly leaving behind something as enormous and hideous and numbingly painful as the untimely end of a life; that Chad has been reduced to an already fading memory, a nostalgic smile of remembrance on so many faces.

I’ve tried all of that. But I’ve failed miserably.

Because I just can’t seem to comprehend this new version of the script, the one where Chad has been written out, the one where Chad dies – yeah, spoiler alert: he dies – where one minute he is there on the beautiful, fun, gnarly trail in front of us on a spectacular late summer morning, leading the way on an epic adventure, radiating happiness and an exuberant passion for life, sharing and caring and loving and living, and the next he is… Not.

Because, dammit, this sort of thing is not supposed to happen. This is the sort of temporary glitch in the Matrix that needs to be undone, fixed, reversed, remedied, reset, retracted, returned to the way things were. Before. When Chad still was.

And as I force myself to realize that none of that is going to happen, as my despair ferments and festers, my grief can’t help but turn to anger. It’s such a guy thing: our crude and pathetic Neanderthal way of dealing with frustration over our own impotence, our primitive reaction to the fear we feel when we’re faced with things we can’t control.

He may be gone, but the pain remains, along with the sorrow, the grief, the disbelief. And as the exposed nerves get sanded down, the tears are shed and compassion blunted, I’m left feeling numb and resentful, mighty pissed off at the world. And instead of sad, I’m getting mad as I think back on that terrible horrible no good run in the White Mountains.

I’m disgusted that it took hours for help to reach us. It’s unacceptable that this had to happen on the single most isolated part of the toughest stretch of the trail. I completely resent that a helicopter didn’t simply materialize in the crisp blue sky above Moosilauke seconds after Chad collapsed. I refuse to accept that, even if a helicopter had appeared, even if I’d had an inflatable ER complete with an AED and adrenaline shots in my backpack, it wouldn’t have made any difference. I’m fuming over our inability to do anything – anything at all – of real significance for Chad. Except to “be there” for him. How lame. How useless. And I did not want to be there, no more than I want to accept that a body as supremely fit and finely conditioned, a mind as confident, experienced, cool, calm and collected as Chad’s could simply shut down without warning. How can that be okay?

I’m furious that my fervent wish for everything to just be okay wasn’t granted, even though I asked really nicely. For the nightmare to end.

After the first few chaotic minutes, there was this desperate desire for everything to return to normal, for the whole thing to be nothing more than a scare, for Chad to shake his head, prop himself up on an elbow with a shit-eating grin on his face, and say, “Whoa, what the hell just happened?” We’d laugh, brush ourselves off, slap each other on the shoulder and head on down the trail. It’d be yet another one of those crazy trail tales to recount over beers later. It would have been scary but okay; it would have reminded us that we’re only mortal, that while we play at being Superman in the mountains the shit could get real one day. It would have been a chilling reminder, but one that we could have shaken off.

You can’t shake this. Normal doesn’t return after this.

We asked. We begged. Please, make it all better. But nobody listened. Just as Chad didn’t listen as we nudged and cajoled and called and cried for him to come back, to respond, to recover. He just lay there, dressed to run, but motionless, in the sunlight on that slab of New Hampshire granite on the Appalachian Trail. Absurdly still for someone who was always – always – on the move, doing, getting things done. His face bore an expression of surprise and anguish, not really pain. And because we were giving him CPR he was warm, he had color, he felt real and alive. How’s that for logic: he doesn’t look dead, therefore he can’t be dead. You hear that, Chad?

I remember the feel of his stubble as I cradled his neck from the coarse granite, tilting his head back time and again to get an airway. I remember feeling obscenely out of place and indecent, because in a fair world it would surely be his wife who got to hold him as he veered off the trail for good. I remember the taste of stale air as it left his lungs (sure, his chest would rise and fall with each breath I gave him – but that’s just the work of good plumbing, not a sign of life). I remember being profoundly troubled by the specs of dust and tiny twigs that would stick to his still open eyes, and the revulsion at leaning on his battered rib cage as it slowly gave in after thousands of useless chest compressions. I remember feeling annoyed by the increasingly feeble words of encouragement from the emergency dispatcher coming over the cell phone held high in the air by some passing stranger. “You’re doing a great job.” Like hell I am. Then why isn’t he standing up and eating a cheese stick, getting ready for the next bit of climbing?

Then the sinking, clawing feeling of dread as minutes turned to hours and endless rounds of CPR became a grotesque charade, carried on for an indifferent audience of one. Two words: he’s dead. First syllable: shit.

Well-intentioned and self-proclaimed former EMTs hiking the AT pull us aside and tell us we could just stop. There’s no way he’s coming back after two hours of CPR, they explain with an apologetic shrug. And even though deep down we know they’re right, there’s no way we can stop and live with ourselves. Carrying on seems like the only decent thing to do – he’s not dead until someone who is distinctly not us tells us so. We need a second opinion at the very least, and until the rescue team arrives it’s simply a question of preserving the status quo, however absurd and grotesque and pointless. To pretend in an attempt to fend off the inevitable. To deny the facts before us.

But then the rescue guys in shiny red jackets finally came up the mountain with their magic pixie dust and made everything better, and everyone lived happily ever after. The End.

Except, not. They came, glanced at the mess we’d made, confirmed how long we’d been busy making it, and did what needed to be done: they reluctantly but professionally told us what we already knew. What we needed to hear. At the very least, they provided closure of sorts to the initial hands-on part of the ordeal. They took charge, and Jeremy and I could finish our run together — but alone — sharing an incomprehensibly horrible experience, tentatively taking the first feeble steps towards shaping some semblance of a new reality without Chad in it. We left him, quite literally, on the trail behind us.

Two weeks later, I’m still stunned. The wheels refuse to turn, I keep stumbling across dark cracks and crevices into which I promptly plummet and get lost.

But as Dr. Seuss might say: “You’ve tried sad, you’ve tried mad – but now, why not try glad?” Believe me, Doctor, I’m trying. In addition to my own family and friends, I draw strength from countless wonderful memories of Chad at events, smiling, laughing, making stuff happen, making others happy. I tune in to the supporting vibe coming from an incredible community of runners that I only know because Chad encouraged me to try something new and launched me on adventures on the trails that I now love. I marvel at his incredible family — resilient, caring, compassionate, even in their own time of tremendous grief. Wait, you’re hugging me?

He may be gone, but his spirit and his energy remains. As I grasp for a path out of the darkness it’s no great surprise to realize that Chad will be there to lead the way.

At the celebration of his life today I grabbed two bags of peanut M&Ms – Chad’s go-to “power pellets,” the silly fuel that he used to motivate and reward and cajole runners of all ages to push themselves further than they thought they could go, to overcome obstacles they thought were insurmountable. One bag for right now because I needed it, badly, one bag for later, when I finally find myself on the other side of this mountain of grief and can turn with a smile to thank Chad for making it all happen. I’ll get there, eventually – Chad would have told me as much, and I would have believed him, and that would have been all the encouragement I would have needed.

Happy Trails, Chad. Always happy trails.