On Rocks and Water
Five days ago I woke up from a nightmare. I pulled back my mosquito net, wiped the sweat from my brow and got out of bed.
You were in this horrible dream, and I straight up hated seeing you like that. Over breakfast I told Luis and Kateri about it and asked what they thought it meant. We all came to the conclusion that it meant nothing. No doubt in our minds that you were healing and that you were going to be okay. You were supposed to be okay.
We went hiking that afternoon and as the day went on I completely forgot about my dream. We walked up a jagged hillside, stepping between rocks and makeshift ladders built by the locals using bamboo and old rotted driftwood. With every step came the fear of falling because well rusted nails were the only things holding that wood together, and all of the rocks were uneven and loosely placed.
Yet, in time, we made it to the mouth of a cave, Tam Lom, or “the windy cave” according to the local Lao people.
It was unlike any cave I have ever seen before. It was almost entirely untouched. Pure. There were no marked pathways with signs giving clever nicknames to different rock formations. There were no fancy lights to better highlight the stalagmites and stalactites.
There was only rock and mud and the sounds of our steps coinciding with the drip drop of water trailing down the walls or falling from the ceiling. It was perfect. You would have liked it.
We walked deeper and deeper into the cave and along the way I looked down at some holes in the floor that had been bored out over several years by the same, steady flow of water around and through the stone.
I wondered how the cave came to be and how much change water had caused. I wondered how many other people had stood there in the dark right where I was standing. Did they feel the same sense of calm that I did?
Hours later we left the cave and headed back down the hill. We dropped our bags along the riverbank and went swimming among a stone outcropping. As I was treading water, I watched people float by in tubes and kayaks while Lao children took turns jumping off a rock into the stream.
I grew tired after a while, but just as I was about to get out, my foot brushed against a rock that was jutting up from the river depths. I found my footing and just stood there, letting the current wash over me. It was so peaceful. I liked how disconnected from the rest of the world all of this was. No internet or Starbucks. No stress or worries. Just water and air…relaxed and simple.
We got out of the river and started to head away from the farm where we were staying. Soggy and tired, we walked towards town in search of dinner and an internet café. It was my grandpa’s birthday, and I was hoping I could make an overseas call to wish him a happy one.
At dinner I had a pineapple shake, and as I sipped it I mused that this would be a day I would never forget. I felt so content.
And it turns out it is a day I will never forget, but not for the reasons I had originally thought.
I did call my grandpa. We exchanged stories and “I love you”s and when it was over I planned to quickly check my email because Luis and Kateri were outside waiting for me. It wouldn’t take long. I just wanted to see if there was any news from my friends and family back home.
That’s when the day came crashing down. That’s when my nightmare came flashing back.
I don’t know how long I sat there. I do know that I read the email about you fifty-two times before I started telling myself to stand up and go get Luis and Kateri. My brain told my feet to move, my legs to bend. But there was no movement. Only tears. I couldn’t do anything. I wanted to cry out, but my mouth felt dry. Eventually I stumbled outside to them and then we all crowded around the screen and started reading the same message over and over and over again. No matter how hard I stared at it, it wouldn’t change. It wouldn’t go away.
On the four-kilometer walk back to the farm I couldn’t walk fast enough. I tried to feel the earlier calm from the cave or the relaxation from the river, but all I could feel was confusion. I wanted to break out into a run, but my backpack was heavy, my feet blistered and my lungs restricted by sobs.
I had to keep moving though. I thought the trick was to keep moving. The trick was to not stand still. Because if I stopped it would be impossible not to turn my head and look back and see that horrible truth chasing me.
And all I could think about were rocks. You had been a rock for me. At the beginning of our time here I built a foundation for life in China. You were part of it. You can’t be gone. Because rocks don’t just disappear. What am I going to stand on now?
So then I didn’t want anything more to do with rocks that night. I wanted to kick away every one of them that I came across on that gravel road. When we got back to the farm I went to the riverbank and started throwing rocks into the water. I must have thrown in about twenty or so before I fell down exhausted and angry. I was mad at myself for being tired, mad at the universe for what happened to you. The world was no longer so beautiful.
But now I realize that even if I had been strong enough to throw all the rocks from the bank into the river, it wouldn’t have changed the course of the stream. It wouldn’t have changed anything.
It wouldn’t change all the great things you’ve done, the impact you’ve had on so many people.
And so maybe you can’t be a rock for me anymore. But you’ll keep on, just like the water in that cave. There will always be thoughts of you flowing through the hearts and minds of all who were lucky enough to know you.
Our memories of you will never stop shaping who we are. You’ll never disappear.
rip nc (kyt) http://www.peacecorps.gov/resources/media/press/2187/