Two years ago today my dad died from an aggressive brain cancer. He died three months after he was diagnosed, out of the blue, having had no previous major medical issues, and at a relatively young age - 61. He also died with plans. The cancer struck with cruel timing - literally midway through maybe his biggest adventure: a move to Las Vegas from his lifelong home in small-town Ohio, to be closer to his grandchildren, and to prepare for a retirement in a beautiful part of the country.
It also struck a month before Angel and I started a thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, and he died just days after we hit the midway point. Despite the fact that he was recovering from brain surgery, he and my mom drove us from Las Vegas to the Southern Terminus in Campo, CA, and then met us in Big Bear, several hundred miles in. Having always been strong, independent, and active, at that point my mom commented that a three block walk we made from our hotel to a pizza place was the longest he'd been on since surgery. A cruel irony, having just walked several hundred miles through desert sun to the same spot.
Dad was a country person, but not exactly an adventurous person: I have fond memories of using gasoline to blow up underground bee hives as a family, and he spent hundreds of summer days outside mowing our massive lawn, and winter days shoveling snow from our long driveway, but he wasn't a camper, hunter, or fisherman for the most part.
He also wasn't that much of a social person. His memorial was mostly populated by family, with a few close friends, and it was strange for me to see that even a lot of the old acquaintances that showed up didn't seem to know that much about him. He lived a private life, and spent most of his time and energy on us, his immediate family.
What he was, characteristically, was a good person. He was kind to people. Not particularly educated, but smart. He was faithful and unfailingly supportive to his wife and family. He was generous with money and had his priorities straight.
Maybe because Dad's death happened, for me, in the context of a life lived outdoors on the PCT, a lot of my reflection on it has focused on life's cycles. Dad didn't deserve to die in the way he did, or at the time he did, but death isn't exactly something one earns or doesn't. It's just something that is in life. It's strange, in a way, how much we ignore its inevitability, and how much it takes us by surprise when it comes.
Two years out and looking back, that perspective on death has inspired a weird sort of boldness. When death is inevitable, your time alive matters more, and because you know it is limited, it becomes urgent to try to live well.
The ripples out from Dad's death among those of us who were close to him have moved in that direction, which is a great testament to his life. In the immediate aftermath for Angel and I, it meant getting back on the PCT and pushing ourselves as hard physically as we ever have to finish in the same season following his death. For my mom, it meant months training and preparing for her first backpacking trip, hiking the 8 miles in from Manning Park to the Northern Terminus to meet us at the finish, completing the circuit, and spreading some of Dad's ashes.
Two years out, my Mom's life has - to me at least - looked like a living out the goals that she and Dad had set. She's traveled all around the West Coast from her Las Vegas base, has gone on several more camping and backpacking trips, and has spent the bulk of her time at home with their grandkids.
For Angel and I, the path that Dad's death set us on eventually led us here, to this blog, because it drove us deeper into the pursuit of what we love, life outdoors. It drove us to a trip around Latin America last year, a few months dirtbagging around the West Coast, a decision to give this business a go, a kayak trip down the Hudson, and an intentional reshaping of our lifestyle to try to minimize time spent on things that don't matter and maximize time spent on things that do.
This weekend we spent a few days camping on the Olympic Peninsula with our niece, and with the anniversary of Dad's death looming, it was impossible not to read it in this context. Lilly is 6, and is Angel's brother's daughter. She lives in Ohio and on her first trip to the West Coast it was poignant to see the life at the flip side of death, as she dove headfirst into some of her first outdoor adventures: scaling trees, paddling furiously in circles on a mountain lake, racing down rugged Pacific Coast beaches. The hope and possibility is that her life is full of this kind of thing.
Life can be beautiful, and the ripple of Dad's death is always a reminder that it's worth the risk to try to make it so.