The following day the only thing that dragged me out of my tent was the urge to pee. Without that, I might have stayed in my plastic coffin all day, staring off into the orange colored oblivion and sweating in the midday heat. I became jealous of Mike and Hannah who had a tent to share. Mine felt incredibly lonely.
My first interactions with other campers that morning were null and meaningless. They had no idea I just lost a friend I had known since kindergarten. They probably thought that my grey eyes and absent demeanor were from a lack of sleep. They wouldn’t be totally off base. It wasn’t until I exhausted myself with tears that my mind turned thoughtless and body gave up in order to allow me to sleep.
Over breakfast we attempted to make a game plan for the rest of our trip. The clatter of cooking and excited chatter from other campers at the picnic tables felt like a personal attack upon my mournful state of mind. Just yesterday that was us. How incredibly quickly things had changed. My mind spun and I became dizzy from the velocity and fragility of human life. The once flavorful oatmeal was now like cement in my mouth. Sealing my esophagus. Too hot coffee was the only thing that helped, scalding my mouth and dislodging the choking concoction. Lumps washed down, clunking their way along, adding more weight to what already seemed like a ton of bricks.
We decided to stay one more day and go home the next. The reality was that if I were to be sad, I would rather do it with my friends and in the woods rather than in my shuttered up room. Alone. There would be plenty of time for that anyway. I also felt as if Eric would have wanted that, for us to finish the trip. So we packed the car once again and drove off into the Kentucky countryside. The first location we arrived at was busy with other climbers. It felt weird to be grieving in a space where I am normally so happy meeting other climbers, exchanging beta and sharing a passion. I unpacked my gear and tried to be as friendly as I could, eagerly wanting to climb so that the thoughts of my dead friend could be shut off momentarily while I climbed.
Amongst the commotion of the crag, people chatting and cheering one another on, I met a dog. The Australian shepherd came up to me as if it knew something was wrong. I’ve always heard that dogs have a keen ability of showing love to whom its needed. I happily welcomed its kindness and curiosity. The mismatched eyes of the shepherd seemed to stare through me and my hands felt weightless in its soft fur. Eventually wondering where their dog was, the owner came looking. There she found us happily sitting in the dirt. I introduced myself and started talking about how friendly her dog was. “What’s its name?” I asked. The owner answered, “Cruise… his name is Cruise.” I couldn’t believe it. My heart leaped and jerked with excitement. Was this some kind of joke? Eric’s last name is Cruz. I didn’t say anything to the owner. I didn’t want her to know about our special connection.
I told Mike and Hannah about what the owner had told me. About Cruise the dog. Hannah hugged me and reassured me, “I think that’s an omen that you are exactly where you should be.” In that moment such a huge weight was lifted from my shoulders. She was right. All the doubt and helplessness and distance I felt from Eric and from my friends and loved ones seemed to melt away. All the questions about if I should race home or not no longer mattered. Yes I was far and yes I was sad, but I was where I needed to be. I just needed to hold on a bit longer and be patient until I could share my grief with family and friends back home.
We finished our day of climbing and meandered lazily back to the car. It was by no means a strong day of climbing but using my body felt good. A privileged reminder that I was still alive. And, like always, the few moments of chatterless clarity I was able to attain while climbing were a nice reprieve. I couldn’t stop thinking about the dog Cruise. I was sad that he wasn’t there. Like I lost Eric for a second time. I tried to remind myself to be grateful for the short time we did get to share, sitting among the Fall trees, petting and playing. A reminder of the even longer, but still dreadfully short, time that I got to call Eric one of my best friends.