Someone once told me that to live is to keep on fighting even when you’re tired, that each day brings its own joys.
I don’t see it, though.
Lately it seems like I’m barely surviving, not living.
In the blink of an eye, the days I spent hiding in my bed turned into a year. A year since I last saw Stephen. A year since I sent my cousin to his death.
We were close, so close that instead of cousins, he was the older brother I never had. We fought with each other, and together we fought against bullies. We stole each others’ food, complained about school, and raved over the books and movies we watched. He was my best friend.
Every year, we had an annual bonding trip where we’d hike up a mountain to a lodge there, and despite my annual half-joking complaint that I was so unfit that I’d die before I ever managed to reach the top, he always pushed me to achieve it. Last year, though, I told him I wouldn’t go, arguing that I needed to study for my finals. Ever the understanding person he was, he’d agreed, instead joining a volunteer trip to Chad to help set up schools there for a few months.
I still remember him laughing and waving goodbye to everyone, telling me that come hell or high water, next year we would go on that trip, even if he had to drag me kicking and screaming. How I wish that he did. I would’ve gladly endured the cuts and exhaustion if we could go on that trip together.
By the time he came back, all of us could tell something that was wrong. He’d lost so much weight he became emaciated, his skin was sallow, and whenever I visited my aunt and uncle, the sound of his coughs reverberated throughout the house. The only thing that remained for us to recognise him was the light in his eyes and his optimistic personality.
My aunt and uncle desperately sent him to countless doctors, but the results were always inconclusive and their diagnosis couldn’t be more similar than if they parroted the same script.
“It could be anything. We can’t treat him if we don’t know what’s wrong with him; he could get worse if we treat him for the wrong illness.”
“Can’t you see that he can’t get any worse? He’s dying!” I wanted to scream every time someone said that, but that wouldn’t help. The worst thing was that I could see that Stephan knew his time was an hourglass that was quickly emptying, but instead of regretting his life not lived, he pasted on a smile every day and continued on living out his remaining time doing all he could to help those around him.
Never one to make a big fuss, he left quietly. When his pain finally came to an end, he left with a peaceful smile, but we were left to deal with the tears and agony. Having witnessed the devastation of his parents firsthand, the tormented wail of a mother losing her firstborn was a sound I’ll never forget. His siblings, too young to understand what was going on, only stared confusedly at their parents with big innocent eyes, neither knowing why their parents were weeping nor why they were told that their brother wasn’t coming back. As for me, I lived through the guilt, knowing that he wouldn’t have contracted that disease if only he hadn’t gone to Chad. If only we had gone on our annual trip. If only I hadn’t ditched.
Ever since he was stolen by the Reaper, life became meaningless. How could I continue on as if my best friend’s life hadn’t been abruptly and cruelly cut off? How could I, when he no longer could because I abandoned him? Days blended into nights, months blurred together. All too suddenly, it was the time of the year Stephan and I would go on the trek.
As much as I wanted to stay home and continue ignoring reality, I owed it to the friends we’d made of the other annual hikers and lodge owners to let them know of his… passing. Try as I might, I couldn’t bring myself to say the ‘d’ word. It was too… final. No more hanging out with him, laughing with him, or getting advice from him.
More importantly, a few days before he left us, Stephan made me promise to travel our path this year, to ‘breathe some clean air for the both of us’. So, to honour his wishes, here I was.
With a heavy heart, I opened my eyes, staring at the now daunting mountain that was once a challenge I relished overcoming. The sky seemed to stare gravely down on the journey I was about to embark on, alone on this path for the first time in my life.
Every step I took was made of sheer willpower, every gaze of the scenery pulsing against my eyes as it fought to keep the tears at bay. Every place I looked held meaning; the spot near the river where we first encountered a bear and ran away from it like headless chickens; the designated campfire area where Stephan realised he’d brought marshmallows so expired that its colour had gone from white to mould green; and the tree where I’d pretended to be a snow leopard and jumped from the boughs, making him scream at a frequency I didn’t even know the human voice could pronounce and made me laugh like a hyena.
Staring at the edge of the mountaintop that I finally reached, the view of the valley below didn’t fail to yet again take my breath away. This time though, it wasn’t because of the beauty, but of the memories each nook and cranny held. Memories of good times that were never to be again.
With this realisation, I clawed at my throat, finding it impossible to draw breath. Tears poured down my face, threatening to drown me in the never-ending cascade of liquid. My body shook as I collapsed into the snow, unable to stop trembling.
I sobbed and wailed, crying for Stephan, who would never get to appreciate life anymore. I cried for his parents, who had to bury their child, instead of the other way around after they lived to a ripe old age. I cried for his siblings, who lost the best brother anyone could ever ask for. I cried for my parents, who had to suffer while I lived in my own world. And I cried for myself, because I didn’t know how to move on. I’d dwelled in the world of the past for so long that I’ve forgotten how to live.
I know not how long I laid there, trembling, only that I did so until I felt a warm hand placed on my shoulder. Looking up through eyes swollen with grief, I saw the familiar shape of Mrs. Sjöberg, one of the owners running the lodge where all hikers stayed upon reaching the peak.
“Come in, dear,” said the old lady, her voice as gentle and soothing as the sound of water lapping at the shore. “Let’s get you warmed up. Can’t have Stephan meeting his cousin so soon.”
“Shh,” she patted my back softly. “He called to tell us the news before he passed and asked us to look out for your arrival this year.”
My chest ached, knowing that even when faced with the overwhelming knowledge of his impending end, he was still looking out for others. We walked in silence for a while until we reached the lodge, where I hesitated.
“Go on in, they’re waiting for you.”
Tentatively, I took a step into the lodge, leaving the shadows of the dying sunset and entering the large room warmed with the glow from the rumbling fireplace, and gasped. In the centre of the room, everyone we’d ever met throughout the years while trekking the path sat in a circle, conversing.
One of them, Astrid, an extroverted woman in her 20s, came over and dragged me to the group. Soon, Mr Sjöberg joined the circle, bearing blessings of hot chocolate and thick blankets.
I don’t know how the conversation shifted to Stephan, but it did. Rather than offer meaningless condolences, though, they began recalling stories of him. Some were funny, happy, or ridiculous while others were painful or embarrassing, but, at its centre, all held the element of a spark of him. Together, we laughed and cried. Throughout the night, they kept his memory alive.
After we all bade each other goodnight and I settled in the soft warm bed prepared by the Sjöbergs, I felt the comforting embrace of peace settle within me. I’d thought that it was wrong to live when I was the cause of his death, that letting go of the pain meant that I was letting go of him, abandoning him, but this trip showed me that it wasn’t so. Yes, he was… dead, but he wasn’t gone; he will always be with me in my most cherished memories. Tonight, my friends had helped to untie the strings burdening me, giving me the freedom to grow beyond his death.
Hiking is much like life, uncertain if you’re on the right path until you reach your destination. I got lost for a while, but slowly yet surely, I’ll heal and find my way.
Written by: Marinella Lotte