It’s as vivid today as it was when it happened five years ago: Chris and I bodysurfing on an abandoned beach just outside of Acapulco and Stephanie looking at us with wonder from the shore. He and I would get slammed, and slammed again, then come up smiling from sand-filled ear to water-logged ear. Just before going in, we looked out into the vast horizon. The sky was clear blue. There were no clouds in sight. The ocean held us in its wake. Suddenly, we both gasped at the same time: a flying stingray briefly jumped out of the water just fifteen feet away.
“Did you see that?” he asked me.
“That was so cool,” I said.
Christopher Cady was my best friend’s boyfriend. He and Stephanie — like myself — had a real case of wanderlust. With no one else could I share my travel stories and feel completely understood. Only they understood why I would want to attend college in Maine, a continent and ocean away from my home in Hawaii: for the pure challenge and unpredictability.
Steph and I lived vicariously through each other, traversing the globe and telling each other tale after wondrous tale. Their travels brought them from Maine to Mexico to Taos to Central America to Boston, but culminated abruptly in Chamonix one fateful afternoon in January 2004. Chris had prepared an engagement ring before their trip. He didn’t get a chance to give it to her because, despite the storm that was brewing that late afternoon, he took an off-piste route and went missing.
Later that month, a memorial service was held in Boston — his body still not found. “Christopher,” Stephanie spoke in the eulogy, “I love you with everything that I am, and I can’t wait until the day I see you again.” Her chin lowered as she held back painful tears and backed away from the podium. Her black hourglass slinked back into the chair in the front row. Chris’s body wasn’t found until the snow thawed in May, but our suspicions were correct: he was killed in an avalanche.
Resilient, she is. Stephanie picked up the pieces so quickly that by the fall of the same year she met the man she was going to marry and by July 2005 she was pregnant. By November, she was married; by April 2006, with newborn son. And despite knowing she had dealt with a tremendous loss, I was dealing with my own. Steph had lost a lover and, now, after trading in her adventurous ways for a stable life with husband and child, I felt like I was losing a true confidante.
As Stephanie entered this new phase in her life, I discovered freedom in global exploration, traveling to India and Mediterranean Europe. It seems our lives have diverted in different directions. Fulfillment arrived in the form of new love and companionship for Steph; I found it through international travel.
Recently, when Steph found out I would be visiting Asia, she immediately put me in touch with Rick, her husband’s best friend from high school. Rick had been living in Vientiane (Laos) for nearly a decade and directing a village-focused NGO. I figured, if Stephanie can’t travel across the Pacific to meet her friend, then I will do it for her.
Rick and I met over lunch at his wife’s Full Moon Café. He taught me how to eat laap with sticky rice and told me about Colebrook, Stephanie’s new baby, whom I have yet to meet. When he described life as an ex-patriot, it resonated for me in a way that foretells my own direction in life. We talked about the ease of life outside America. There is a freshness to it experienced only when removed from the bubble. From my travels through Laos, I shared with Rick my observation of its growing popularity as a tourist destination. Vang Vieng, in particular, is trying to accommodate for its tourist boom by building guesthouses along its tubing route.
“Things aren’t like they used to be,” Rick told me. “What you see now is not how it will be tomorrow.”
Now, I’m thinking of Chris. Instead of reading an email about he and Steph’s adventure in South America I am reading descriptions of Colebrooks’s first words, first steps, or first Halloween costume (he was a lion). I don’t think it would have been better one way or the other, but somehow I have come to accept things the way they are. Yet, I’ve decided that when I return to Acapulco or Laos, I won’t go back to the same places. They just wouldn’t be the “same same” — they’d be different.
“You have to be careful of the undertow,” Chris had warned me before we both ventured into the Acapulco water. “The waves are stronger than you think.”
I dove through a 4-footer and popped out the other side. Chris and I waded a while just beyond the breaking waves, bobbing to water that seemed so alive–like a big belly breathing. We didn’t say anything for some time; we just took in the moment.
“I’m thinking,” I finally said as the ocean rose and exhaled, “can you be truly happy with life if you haven’t experienced something like this?”
“Or,” Chris said, “can you truly enjoy it if you don’t have someone to share it with?” He looked longingly to shore, where Stephanie was watching us from the shade of a thatched beach umbrella.
“Experiencing it… Sharing it… Which one’s more important?” I asked.
“Definitely a little bit of both.”
I am now experiencing and sharing life in ways I never would have — and, strange as it may seem, I credit Christopher Cady, by best friend’s boyfriend, for helping me understand life’s more profound mysteries. If it weren’t for Chris, I wouldn’t have bodysurfed in Acapulco. I wouldn’t have married Stephanie off to another man. I wouldn’t have met Rick in Vientiane. If it weren’t for Chris, I wouldn’t have experienced a lot of the things that have put the joy of life, heartbreak of death, and discovery of traveling into utterly ironic perspective.