Some of our richest lessons in life are those learned outside of the classroom...
My old friend almost died this summer. He told me the story in a letter I received last Tuesday. He was traveling in India when it happened. At the beginning he wrote,
“What would you write in this letter?”
He wanted me to remember the time we were there together.
He’s sentimental like that.
We climbed the mountain with racing hearts. The air in Munnar was breezy and cool—a fantastic change from the city air where heat and dirt pulsate, working their way into the pores of clothes and skin. The mountain air took me back to rainy days in Pennsylvania, wandering the mountain of my childhood with bare feet and big dreams. Dreams like India.
He was ahead of me as we climbed—turning back only to make sure I was still behind him and still in one piece. If he was close enough, he might take my hand, but not for long. Never for long.
“I think it’s going to rain soon,” he called over his shoulder.
The slow shift of dark clouds overhead told me he was right. It had already rained earlier in the day. Over steaming cups of hot tea we had watched drops pound the earth from the window of the Hotel Mountainside restaurant.
“No wonder everything is so green here,” I had noted.
“Maybe we shouldn’t go hiking today,” was his reply.
“A little rain never hurt anyone,” I told him.
And that settled it. We were going to hike.
Later, as we climbed and clouds drifted in, I reminded him, “It’s all part of the fun!”
He glanced back and smiled that big smile, forgiving me everything. He looked like a cartoon most of the time. Occasionally, in certain lighting, I thought he was endlessly handsome. But that was only occasionally. In Munnar that day, wrapped carelessly in his white lungi, he looked very much like a drawing done up for amusement.
We reached a fold of the mountainside where thick grass gave way to uniform rows of tea plants. The fragrance of tea leaves hung in the air.
Ahead of me, he stopped.
“Let’s cut through here,” he suggested, indicating the way with a quick tilt of the chin, his eyes never leaving mine. This is one of his many unique mannerisms that I hope I never forget.
Following the gesture, I looked up the side of the mountain into the tea orchard that stretched before us. The branches of the plants, dark brown and wet from the rain, looked like arms beneath a cap of green leaves. The arms protruded like the elbows of gentlemen, eager to help us make the climb.
His gaze was still on me when I looked back at him.
“Shall we?” he asked.
I nodded my agreement.
Using the arms of the tea trees, we pulled ourselves upward toward the sky. A white blanket of mist rolled down from the mountaintop and closed in around us. Drops of rainwater slid from the leaves and ran down the length of my arms. He reached the top of the slope before I did. His fingers closed around mine, and he pulled me the rest of the way up.
“Now which way?” he asked.
Looking around, the first thing I saw was that I couldn’t see much of anything. The mist had matured into a thick fog, and all I could make out was a grassy trail that wound around the mountain before us. Standing still, the world was cloaked in wind swept silence. I looked briefly in both directions, thinking about which way to go. Uphill or down? Reach for the stars or keep both feet on the ground? I exhaled deeply. My breath, ever so faintly, spread out in the air before my eyes.
“I guess we have nowhere to go but up,” I said at last, and with him still holding my hand, we turned toward “up” and headed off.
The path twisted around the mountain toward the summit. As we walked, we marveled at the way everything had disappeared below and above us—clenched in the greedy fist of fog.
We moved higher. Closer to the stars. And finally, we reached the summit.
At the mountain’s highest point, grass exploded into a cluster of tall trees. All around us, the landscape was obscured—sheathed in that thick white cloud. I wondered, and still wonder, what amazing sights might have unfolded before us had the day been sunny and clear. As if to punctuate the reality that I would never know, rain began to fall. The drops gathered strength and speed, and within minutes we were thoroughly soaked.
“It’s all part of the fun!” he mocked me.
“We’ll never make it back before dark,” I predicted.
“Let’s try,” he said, and smiled that cartoon smile.
We descended the slope hand in hand, walking quickly against the rain’s chill. After a while, our fingers slipped apart. I rubbed my arms vigorously, hoping to rekindle some warmth.
“You’re cold,” he said, and stopped to pull his long-sleeved shirt over his head. He handed it to me, but I didn’t take it.
“You’re cold, too,” I protested.
Then, catching me by surprise, he put his arms around me and pulled me close. I was right. He was as cold as I was. But together, we found warmth.
“What would you write in this letter?” he asked softly into my hair.
It was the perfect rhetorical question, but I allowed myself the luxury of a moment’s reflection. Indeed, what would I write? After all, I knew that eventually I would write something to someone. Would I write about the chilled Munnar air that divorces the tangible heat of South India? Would I mention the raw beauty of this place? The way you can suck it inside of you with every breath? Would I write about the slope of the land and the shades of green and the white mist to get lost in?
Maybe, to the right person, I would write about my friend and the false romance of being near him at that moment when both of us knew we were all wrong for each other. No—I would not write that the romance was false. Only the implications.
“We better get back,” he said after a while, drawing away. “Before it gets dark.”
We began walking again. It didn’t take long for us to realize that nothing looked the same on the way down as it had going up. We were lost. Blue-eyed Americans, lost in the tea fields of South India. Holding hands in the rain. We did not worry about where we would end up or what we would do when we got there. If it wasn’t the village of Munnar we reached, it would be a fresh and promising new adventure. In the absence of fear, we laughed at our predicament and ourselves. The laughter was like India as we had thus far come to know her—strange and happy music woven into a tapestry of chaos.
As I had predicted, it was dark when we finally happened upon Munnar. In the darkness, the lights of the village spread before us like a sea of fireflies. Along the path we followed, rainwater had pooled. The water spilled over the edge of the path and down the side of the mountain, creating an accidental waterfall that sang softly in a rhythmic splash.
I turned to him, and he smiled. Could any symbolism be derived from our climbing the mountain together? Would there be other mountains for us to climb?
Then I thought of how inevitably fleeting our time together would be, and the water rolled endlessly down the mountainside until its song had died and I could see it no more.
My old friend almost died this summer, but he didn’t. In the letter, he said he wasn’t sure what saved him. God. Meditation. Modern medicine. His mother’s will from thousands of miles away. He said he didn’t care.
“I am alive,” he wrote, “and it’s good to be alive. If I was dead, I would never climb another mountain. So be thankful for me. Be thankful with me. And praise whatever god you turn to that all poets don’t die young.”