Thursday, February 28, 2013

Dealing with Death on the other side of the World

I left America knowing two family members were facing serious health problems. I knew I might not see them again, but of course, I was hopeful that they would be alive when I returned to the US. Maybe I was too hopeful. My uncle died on Friday from brain cancer. I found out Saturday morning when I received a message from my mother.

At the time, I was on another weekend trip with a group of six Thanda volunteers and two guides. We were visiting the Drakensberg Mountains. On Friday night, we visited a very beautiful waterfall to take photographs and enjoy a dip in the pool beside the waterfall. Back in camp, I was standing outside of the cabin I was sharing with three other volunteers, waiting for my turn at the shower. The view was amazing. I could see mountains of all shapes and sizes – pointy, round, and flat on top. Below, I could see trees and bushes. Above, I saw rays of sunshine streaming out from behinds the mountains.

Scenery like that usually makes me feel very peaceful, but that day I had an uneasy feeling. Something felt wrong. I thought maybe I was emotional because I’ve been in Africa almost a month and maybe I’m a little homesick. Then, out of nowhere, a bushbuck appeared along the tree-line. A bushbuck is a graceful African antelope with a caramel colored coat and white markings. I’m not sure how to explain it, but I felt that the bushbuck was there for me, reassuring me that everything would be okay.

I couldn’t sleep much at all that night. Even after seeing the bushbuck, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. At dawn, when it was time to wake up and get ready for the day, I got the message about my uncle. At first, I thought I was still dreaming. It was hard to believe that he was gone. I went back outside where the view was as beautiful as it had been the night before. The sun hadn’t risen yet, so the mountains were shadowy and there were still a few stars out. Gradually, the grief washed over me. I had lost another family member to cancer.

I had to make a choice – stay in camp feeling sad and missing the activities we had planned for the weekend or be with my new family and live my life. I was pretty sure I knew the best way to honor my uncle, a man who seized every opportunity to live his own life. I found myself a rock and a pen. I wrote RIP on it. Our morning plan was to hike up one of the mountains to a tunnel where we would have photographic opportunities. We started out slowly and the pace was giving me too much time to think. I told everyone I’d meet them at the tunnel and hiked as fast as I could. It was a great way for me to release the grief and anger that I felt. I finished the trail in two hours and about thirty minutes later the rest of the group showed up.

I tried to focus on taking photographs of the tunnel and the surrounding scenery, but my heart wasn’t in it. My mind was on my uncle and the other relatives who died in the past two years. When everybody was starting the head back, I took the RIP rock I had carried up the mountain and placed it on top of another rock in the water in front of the entrance of the tunnel. I had a moment of silence and then I threw the rock over the waterfall. It was an emotional moment. It would have been good to share it with my cousins and other family members, but they were halfway around the world.

I took my time going down the mountain. At one of the waterfalls, the guides and some of the volunteers were cliff-jumping. I was still feeling emotional so I just sat and watched. One by one, they went hurtling over the cliff, each of them looking joyous and free. I realized that this was the kind of thing my uncle would have urged me to do. I used to swim in the ocean with my cousins every summer and he would always encourage us to swim even when the waves were big and rough.

I took off my shoes. Without saying anything, I climbed up the boulders. I looked down over the waterfall. It was a little scary and high. But in my mind, I could see my uncle plunging into the waves and it seemed like something I had to do. “This is for you,” I said out loud before I jumped. The water was shockingly cold and refreshing. It felt as if the water washed away all my problems. I decided to jump again. And this time I thought of all the people who died too soon because of cancer.

One of my guides decided to climb to an even higher cliff. We watched as he stepped to the edge of the ledge and jumped. Nobody else would do it, but my adrenalin was going. I scrambled up to the higher cliff. From on top, the jumped looked even longer than it did from down below. It was pretty scary and I had a moment of hesitation. And then I launched myself into the air. This jump was for myself. After my aunt died, I promised myself that I would live my life and make the most out of it. Now I was keeping that promise by jumping into a cold, clean waterfall on the other side of the world.

It is never easy to lose someone you care about. And it’s even harder when you are too far away to share your grief with friends and family. The one thing that makes it just a little bit easier is knowing that the people who are gone lived full and meaningful lives while they were here. To me, it seems like the best way to honor my uncles and my aunt is to learn this lesson from them. Their memory makes me want to live – truly live, boldly and without fear – every single day that I am given.

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