It’s Thanksgiving Day, 2020.
I have so much to be thankful for, but instead of jotting a list of my blessings, which I would normally do on this day, I need to confess something that is weighing on my soul.
At this moment, I am on my way to Bryce Canyon, Utah, to live for 4 glorious days in winter splendor and natural beauty. As I write this, my sweetie is driving our new-used Yukon (which I named Cornelius), and we are flying down highway 15, listening to Christmas music because we won’t be spending Christmas together this year (first time ever). So we agreed to make Thanksgiving our Christmas. We even brought Christmas lights and presents and decorations for our hotel room to make it more Christmasy.
But just after our last Starbucks pit stop, I received a text from a dear friend, that Larri, our best friend from high school, who went into the hospital a few days before, took a turn for the worse. “They believe she doesn’t have much time left,” Cindy said through her tears. “She’s being placed in hospice and probably won’t make it to the end of the week.”
My first instinct was to turn the car around and go back home, but the family requested ‘no visitors other than family,’ and as I sit here considering the options, I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Larri (whom Cindy and I nicknamed “Sunshine“ in 8th grade) wouldn’t have wanted us to interrupt our vacation for her. She was one to celebrate life whenever and wherever possible. And even if we turned around and headed back home, there would be nothing I could do but grieve the eminent loss of a beautiful soul who walked this planet for nearly 61 years.
I haven’t seen Sunshine in person all that much over the last decade or so, but our hearts were always connected, and mine was breaking.
Later that same day…
I sat in the passenger seat, trying to make sense of my garbled emotions—writing in my journal, listening to Christmas songs of “good cheer,” silent tears running down my cheeks—and wondered how I could possibly celebrate our Thanksgiving-Christmas and have a wonderful time in Utah when my friend was dying in Long Beach.
It didn’t seem right.
It was a dichotomy that twisted my heart and fractured my thoughts.
Yet, how fair would it be to the love of my life, who worked for months to pull off this trip… a trip we were both so looking forward to… a trip to celebrate the Christmas we were going to spend apart in one month’s time? No. Of course I can’t do that to him, but how do I get to a place where I actually can celebrate, and love and laugh, when my heart is breaking? I can’t just act like everything‘s fine. That wouldn’t be fair to either of us.
I looked over at my sweetie as he drove, whistling the tune that was playing on the stereo, a silly grin spreading across his face (he loves road trips and Christmas music as much as I do). How could I tell him my friend is dying and I feel sick inside just thinking about having a good time?
I chose not to tell him just then. I wanted to process what I was feeling a bit more, and I wanted him to live in that feeling a while longer—that happy, free feeling we always get when we set out on a journey together. I wanted him to feel it even if I couldn’t. There’d be time enough later to talk about what’s going on back home. And maybe by then I would have some answers to the questions I keep asking myself.
In Utah now. Driving back to our hotel after seeing Bryce Canyon National Park for the first time. Something… something happened to me today while I was there. Something wholly unexpected. All the questions I grappled with only yesterday, somehow just… fell away. Strange as it sounds, I got my answers from Bryce itself. I will try to explain what I mean by that, but I fear words may fall short of what I have just experienced.
It’s not easy to describe the beauty and grandeur of Bryce Canyon. There is no true comparison on the planet, and no adjective measures up. The statement “words don’t do it justice“ doesn’t even cut it. But I am compelled to try, perhaps simply because I’m a writer, or maybe because even pictures don’t do it justice, which is kind of strange since the photographs of this place are stunning. It all pales in comparison to the actual experience of being here. In actuality, if you have seen photographs of Bryce Canyon and think you know what it’s like, you’re mistaken.
Bryce is something you don’t just see with your eyes, it’s something you feel in your bones, something you sense deep in your soul. Its majesty tingles on the skin and steals your breath.
As you stand on its edge, you are inspired to take deep breaths, to breathe it in, and the very act of breathing deep, of sharing it air, feels like its capable of healing whatever is wrong within you. It feels like this canyon can, in a single breath, change discord into harmony, resistance into revelation, sorrow into peace, disequilibrium into balance.
When you walk among its spires, you are transported back in time to when the earth was new, and then somehow sped through the ages up to the present moment… because when you pier up at these monolithic formations, you are not seeing what they were, as you would a grandfather tree that has been standing for millennia, you are seeing what they have become. What you are seeing is a glimpse of a centuries-old process of erosion that is still in play, still evolving and becoming. And, what you are seeing, standing before these sentinels, will never be seen again… not by you, not by anyone, because it never has, nor ever will, remain the same.
Bryce looks like its frozen in time, but if you were to capture a time lapse of it over a century, you would see a magnificent sculpture being created and re-created in a never-ending work of living art.
Here, they call this “The Illusion of Permanence.” As I read about it on a sign poised on the edge of one of the canyon’s many vistas, I began to get that feeling that I was meant to be here…right here…at this very moment. Like this moment had something important to teach my heart.
And then I knew.
The illusion of permanence wasn’t just about the magnificent spires in this national park, it was about us. You and me, and the people in our lives. It’s about living in the now and savoring all of our precious life moments. It’s about not taking a single day for granted.
On the road here, passing through three states, I struggled against the grief catching up to me, threatening to overtake me, and began to feel a sense of regret intruding upon my private sadness. I flashed on Sunshine’s surprise 60th birthday party last year—a grand celebration that her two beautiful adult children had thrown for her. We did not attend. My sweetie and I had been out of town for a week and returned late that day, exhausted. As we drove the 10 hours it took to get here, with nothing to distract me from my thoughts, I kept thinking, ’If only I had known it was going to be her last birthday on this planet, we could have left a day early to be home in time to attend. I thought there were many birthdays to come. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was under the influence of The Illusion of Permanence.
Most of us never stop to think this may be the last time I ever see this person…the last time we will ever see them smile, or hear them laugh, or share a meal, or raise a glass. And, I guess that’s as it should be, for though loss forever looms in the nebulous future, we need to celebrate our nows with those we love, unencumbered by the potential of tragedy.
But how many of us truly celebrate the moments we are in while we are in them? How many of us are truly grateful for this instant, and this one, and this one, no matter what tomorrow may bring, despite the impermanence of life? I’ll wager that most either live in denial of the impermanence of life, or in fear of it. How many of us truly live in the present moment, live in awe of this dance we call life, knowing that its inevitable end makes those moments that much sweeter?
Sunshine did. And she taught me to as well. It was one of her greatest gifts to all who loved her. Joy. Laughter. The celebration of Life. Being true to the moment. I am so grateful for our precious years together. We met as children, half-baked, and together, over the decades, became the individuals we were destined to be, seeing our differences not as stumbling blocks, but stepping stones on the path to true friendship.
On the last day of our visit, I stood alone at the edge of Bryce Canyon, soaking in her wisdom. Her majestic expanse rose up before me, lifting me up… healing my broken heart so completely, that I felt I was flying. I stretched my arms wide, and called out, “Thank you Bryce! Thank you earth! I love you and I want you to know I appreciate all that you are. I’m so grateful to be here, seeing your magnificence in all its glory! I am humbled by your grandeur, your scope and scale, your strength and endurance, and I am transformed by your beauty again and again. I have to go now, but I will take you with me as I leave, and your time-sculpted canyons, your magnificent trees, your brilliant skies will live and breathe inside my heart until I can return, and return I will!”
As I finished my spontaneous tribute to this big beautiful world, I experienced a strange effervescent awareness of Sunshine’s soul leaving the planet and felt her smiling back at me.
She was there, with me, for just a moment, but in that brief moment, I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
I knew it, and she knew it. Sunshine always knew who I was meant to become, and always supported my choice to follow the creative path even when it took me away from her. She was the first to believe in me, and with her belief so strong, I learned to believe in myself. I will be forever grateful for her unconditional love and support, the laughter we shared, and the precious friendship that endured over the last 50 years.
She will shine on. And I will think of her whenever I see a beautiful sunrise.
I dedicate this post to Sunshine’s two beautiful children, Anna and Matthew, to whom she was not only a great mother, but also a great friend. I know what that’s like, because my mother was also my best friend, and Larri always said she learned how to be a great parent from knowing my parents. I lost my mom around the holidays too. My heart goes out to both of you. I hope this sharing brings you peace and healing. And please know that I will always be there for you whenever you need me.