With all these articles being written about 2013 and what we're supposed to remember -- apparently it's Jennifer Lawrence winning at everything, Syria unraveling and Congress getting owned by the gun lobby -- I got to thinking about what mattered in my little world over the past year.
There was some great stuff. I went to Greece with my girlfriend and imagined a life of milking goats and living off of homemade feta cheese instead of the daily slog of D.C. politics. Joe Biden called my dad at a holiday party. Miracle of all miracles, my ex and I sold our condo, a plan that was years in the making and executed with remarkable grace. We walked away from that chapter of our lives with a clink of glasses, a small chunk of change and a sense of closure.
But all of that was overshadowed by the loss of my friend Kristin, who died in January from bladder cancer. She was 42.
I never thought she'd actually lose to stupidcancer, as she called it, always saying the two words together like they were one word. She was the healthiest person I knew. Every time I saw her she was eating fresh salmon and blueberries. Dark chocolate was always lying around. She had some rather poorly thought through ideas about launching an organic granola-making business, because she made her own and it was delicious (but expensive! bad business model!). The woman swam to freaking Alcatraz, for fun, and then swam in between islands in Alaska. She had so many friends, and she was so kind, so adventurous. I always thought if anyone could kick cancer, it would be her.
Before she got sick, we'd made a plan once that whoever died first had to send the other one a sign that you were okay, that you weren't reeeeeally gone but just chilling out in a different place. We were pretty tight, so we figured our connection was strong enough to break through this afterlife business and transmit a message about "the other side." We thought, how cool would that be?
So when she passed away, I started looking for signs from her everywhere. In my dreams. In a flickering light. In the glances of strangers who maybe, sort of, resembled Kristin. I'm embarrassed to say how many nights I spent lying in bed, thinking I'd heard something in the room, and then nervously opening my eyes to see if Kristin was standing there giddy, like, "See? We did it!" I even stood alone in my kitchen once and, bracing for whatever otherworldliness could happen, said out loud to nobody, "Okay Kristin, I'm ready. Give me the sign." And I waited. And waited. But nothing happened.
Months rolled by, and I started to worry that maybe she'd paid me a visit and I'd missed it. What if that woman at the Metro station who'd smiled at me knowingly had been Kristin, somehow? What if she stood next to my bed that one night I'd chosen not to open my eyes? It sounds crazy, but I was convinced I'd get a sign from her and devastated that it hadn't happened.
I decided to give my head a rest about it when I left for that Greece trip. My girlfriend and I were doing the tourist thing in Crete one day when we met a woman raving about this amazing hike she'd just done at Samaria Gorge, the longest gorge in Europe. It was a couple hours away from where we were, so we decided to check it out. We bought bus tickets to go the next day.
That night, I dreamt about Kristin. I didn't remember much about it, except that I could see her clearly and I woke up feeling great. I kept thinking about it on the bus ride the next morning. I even told my girlfriend about it, and said how surprised I was to see my old friend in a dream while we were in Greece, so far from home.
We spent all day hiking Samara Gorge. It's remote and rocky, and it goes for 10 miles. We didn't see a single person for hours, and it was easy to imagine that nobody had been there before. But a few miles in, there was a sign of human existence: a couple of rock cairns. These are the little piles of rocks that people stack up as a form of art, or as a trail marker. Kristin absolutely loved rock cairns. Whenever we'd go on walks, she'd stop and stack one up. It didn't matter if we were by a river or going to a grocery store, she was always piling up whatever damn rocks she could find. So when I saw those two little piles on the trail, I built a third one for Kristin. We took a picture and kept moving.
And then we turned the corner and I felt like I got hit by truck. Hundreds of rock cairns surrounded us. Balanced in rows on the ground. On fallen trees. On boulders. Along the trail and further out into the woods. They were even delicately arranged in the tree branches above us. It was a gift, it seemed, just for us, in the stillness of this empty valley.
I was paralyzed. My eyes teared up. For the first time in nearly a year, I felt Kristin again. It was like a wave of her washed over me. I realized if I was ever going to get a sign, it would be like this -- something beautiful and crafty and clever. Just like her. It felt like Kristin, at her best.
The rest of that hike was shaky. I wasn't sure if what we'd just seen was real, and I couldn't let go of this feeling I'd just been with Kristin one last time. We made it out of the gorge and back onto the rickety bus headed to our hotel. Soon, we were on a plane to D.C. and back at work, falling into our regular lives again.
I didn't talk about Kristin much in 2013. Death isn't an easy subject as it is, and there's no casual way to mention you're looking for signs that your friend is doing great in the afterlife. But as we take stock of what happened over the past year, it's a sprawling scene of little rock piles in the middle of nowhere that mattered the most to me.
Rest in peace, my friend.
This story appears in Issue 83 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, available Friday, Jan. 10 in the iTunes App store.