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It is hard facing the dark after a beautiful light is so suddenly extinguished and yet Stevie Nicks’ haunting voice rises up to remind me, “there’s a heartbeat and it never really dies.” This, I remind myself as I sit at a funeral of an 18-year-old who’d died so tragically in a car accident a few days before. I can’t help but try to remember what it was like to be that age, when everything is a promise and before we find out there really are monsters hiding in the dark.
So, why Nepal and why now? I’m going to Nepal to trek to Everest Base Camp and yet that isn’t what I’m doing at all. I’m going to Nepal to listen.
Of all the things that could have come to mind at this funeral, of all the things that seemed to mean so much when i was a just a kid myself, it was Nepal that floated to the surface. After reading Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” for an English Comp class, my 18-year-old self vowed to visit Nepal one day and see the mountain that seems to enthrall people to death. So, all these years later, I wondered whatever happened to the old promises to myself. Of course, life happened. There are so many things to figure out when you’re in college and then later when you’re establishing your career and yourself. You have to pick your battles and the promises you keep.
Sitting in the church and seeing photos of this beautiful girl drift across the projector screen, I suddenly felt ready. Ready to make some of those old dreams happen. Later that day, I Google the heck out of Nepal and then came across several articles that solidified my resolve. After the earthquake in Nepal, the Nepalese people are struggling to rebuild. So many Nepalese have lost loved ones, their homes, their livelihoods, their roads, everything. While one can argue tourism is a blessing and a curse in many ways for this country, but it ultimately will feed more money into the economy quicker than any other sources of revenue. Stimulating the economy promotes rebuilding efforts and securing infrastructure that is still in shambles in many communities.
No one questions the resolve of these people and despite the need for serious, conscientious reform of financial resources and management, the most compassionate thing we as Westerners can do is visit the country. Westerners have an opportunity to promote compassionate travel and a considered approach to tourism that respects the Nepalese culture and environment rather than contribute to erosion of it.
So, why not go now? It’s mutually beneficial for both Nepal and us bucketlisters abroad to go for it. Besides, Everest is only the surface; I can’t help but think our Western compatriots who were lost in the avalanche on Everest or elsewhere when the earthquake struck knew that, too. When it cones down to it, I really want to go to Nepal to soak up the miraculousness of the indefatigable human spirit in the faces of those who have lost so much but endure nonetheless.
So, Stevie has it right. In the rubble, you can hear it if you listen. There is a heartbeat and it never really dies. Neither does the human spirit or the promises we once made to ourselves before life happened.
I’ve been crying since I was eight years old. Blame Lurlene McDaniel. I do.
In the summer of 1987, I found death on a shelf at the Lee County Library in Sanford, North Carolina. I had been looking for those pre-teen romance novels, the ones where boys didn’t have naughty intentions and girls said no to drugs even in the midst of the popular kids. I had devoured these sorts of books all summer and had finally exhausted the library’s moderate selection. So, as any other little girl would do, I began perusing books for the coolest, hippest teenage girls on the cover, the girls I wanted to be.
It was time to go and I was desperate to find something to read. By chance (or was it?), I saw a really pretty blond girl, whose hair was crimped and massive, sitting with her mother. I hastily picked up the book and ran to the check out.
Later, I examined the book more closely. The book was called Mother, Please Don’t Die. Which, of course, meant Mother was, in fact, going to die (but I wasn’t a savvy reader back then so I held out hope things would end well). The book followed a girl’s journey through her mother’s dying and her own grief as well as the difficult transition from being a little girl to being a teenager. Megan made sense of her mom’s worsening symptoms as best she could as a young girl; she told me about the terrible pressure and the anger bubbled to the surface at baseball practice, resulting in her consequent suspension. After her sister’s wedding, Megan sat with her mother and they had the first truly frank conversation about death that I had ever read; Mother was not going to be there for Megan’s wedding. She was dying.
And when she did die, my heart was shattered and I sobbed out loud. I’ve been reading and sobbing ever since. I developed a voracious appetite for the dying genre. Through my middle and high school years, I learned about living with diabetes, juvenile arthritis, kidney failure, and AIDs. I felt enlightened with each page. I groped for all the empathetic artifacts in the words that were written. I began to live with all of these hardships. I felt I knew what it was like.
The year before, 1986, had been a bad year. In January, my grandfather died of lung cancer. It was the first death I’d experienced. It was scary flying from North Carolina to Arkansas, only to see a dead body, dressed in blue and not breathing in a wooden bed. Two weeks later, I sat forward with the rest of my class, eyes glued to the television as the Challenger exploded and everyone on board was killed. They sent school counselors around to speak to us about dying and grief. I felt terrible for the teacher on the Challenger, but I cried terrible, painful tears for my grandfather.
Weeks later, I randomly asked my mother if she had had any other children before my brother and me one night before our bath. She hesitated and told us she had given birth to a little girl when she had been previously married, but the girl had died when she was a toddler from cancer. I nodded and soon forgot about it, as children will. It wasn’t long before my subconscious mind kicked in and I began to wonder if I had cancer, too, and asked my mother if I was going to die. Months I asked her and for months I must have drove a stake in her heart.
Little girls don’t understand these sorts of things. I didn’t. By the time I held a copy of Mother, Please Don’t Die in my hands, I needed to read about grief. The only problem is I never stopped grieving. The reading and the grieving is a question of insignificance; no matter if the chicken came before the egg, the chicken and the egg exist.
When I was eighteen, a very receptive former teacher gave me Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt as a graduation gift. Since then, it’s the real stories of laughter and pain that have touched me the most. Into Thin Air. Devil’s Knot. Young Men and Fire. Books about the Holocaust, 9/11, surviving freak accidents, OCD, alcoholism, depression. The stories are compelling but they are most important to me as conduits for processing my own life (and grief).
In a nutshell, I read books that are too sad for other people. A book is deemed good if I cry. It is deemed brilliant if I can still sob thinking about it a year later. There are many brilliant writers out there.
Right now, The Dark Tower: the Gunslinger is impatiently waiting on my bedside stand for me to finish it. The sojourn will be short and I will soon return to form. Stacked in the corner are my standard fair, books about the Taliban, mental illness, murder, the Mormon lifestyle…all await me. I can only think greedily of the sobs I am soon to cry.
I can’t help but think I’ve made Lurlene proud.