Eighteen years ago today, I was hiking Cornell University's campus in Ithaca, New York and its nearby trails with my uncle Eric and one of his friends. I had both turned eighteen and graduated from high school the month before and was spending six weeks of the summer living with my Ithaca family. Eric, who has always been "Eric" and never "Uncle Eric"--a story for another day--and his friend were twenty-nine at the time, a fact that for some reason was shared in the seconds right before or right after this picture was taken. I remember laughing ("You're not twenty-nine! Stop!") before doing the math and realizing they weren't kidding. This was the first time we'd seen each other since the early 1980s. Here we are, then, at eighteen and twenty-nine, all sunburnt and nostalgic, on Cornell's Suspension Bridge in the summer of 1995.
My maternal grandmother had invited both me and my best friend Sommer to stay with her after our graduation. Sommer died on March 1st that year, though, and in the picture above and every other one from the last ten months of 1995, I still look shell-shocked to myself, every smile tentative since happiness had become something I was afraid to feel, let alone show, for fear of having it abruptly snatched away from me as Sommer had been. She was supposed to have been with me in all that summer's pictures and scrapbook pages, the two of us tanned and teasing and blissfully eighteen. Instead, six mornings after Eric and I hiked around Cornell, I woke up from the first dream I'd had after Som's death in which I'd heard her voice--her voice again! Sommer's voice!--and raced downstairs to find my family and breathlessly tell them about it. And then the searing pain of her loss ripped through me again, because--Really? This is what it had come to? Being thrilled to have a dream in which I heard my best friend's voice? This was the way life was for me now? This was what was left for me? Other eighteen-year-olds were spending their summer hanging out with their friends--in real life! not in their dreams!--and shopping for their first college dorm room. I felt like I was eighteen going on a hundred that summer.
June 5th of 1995, though, was when I began to find my footing, both literally and figuratively, as Eric and I walked through Ithaca's gorges and hiked up and down its hills. It was the hardest I'd laughed and the most fun I'd had in months. Not pictured above are the high-heel espadrilles I was wearing that day. I'm not a "shoe person," but I loved those shoes. They had long ballerina-like laces that wrapped around my ankles, and they looked like cream crochet. "Can you walk in those?" Eric asked as we set off on our hike that day, and I confidently said yes in that stupid way you confidently say yes when you know you're wearing beloved but utterly impractical footwear. And then he and his friend had to walk down all the slopes ahead of me in order to form a sort of wall with their bodies that would stop my momentum as I laughingly tumbled my way down in the silly things. To all our credit, I stumbled, but I never fell.
Looking back, the day was clearly a turning point for me. When we returned to Grammy's house late that afternoon, my cut-off shorts and once-cream shoes now muddy and my face red from the sun, she greeted us by noting that it looked like I had had a good time. I had. And if I had had one good time after Sommer's death, I now realized, that meant there were still good times to be had. And if I had had one, then the odds were good that I would have another. And if I would have more good times, especially with people I loved and who loved me, then this life business must still be a pretty good deal. Eric and his friend had mentioned as we crossed the suspension bridge that day that it had been the site of more than a few suicide attempts. I can't help but remember that whenever I remember this photo and day, and it is not lost on me that the point where others gave up is the point where I myself started to come back to life. There but for the grace of God. . . . And today it's been exactly eighteen years since our hike, and I am seven years older now than Eric and his friend were then. Doing the math always drives the point home, doesn't it: Life goes on. And we are blessed as we go along with it, shell-shocked and sunburnt and silly-shoed as we all sometimes find ourselves, laughing despite our losses and fumbling our way forward.