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The Promise Of The Rocks, Remembering A Lost Partner

I walk toward Grandma Peabody, the first boulder we climbed all those years ago. Our friends are with me. We carry climbing shoes and crash pads, sandwiches, Baby, Josh’s ashes.


I think I see Josh at the Buttermilk boulders, where we often climbed together. I’m shrugging on my pack when I look up and glimpse a familiar figure. I almost raise my arm and shout before remembering that I’m holding his remains in an urn that feels unnaturally dense in my hands, as if the physics of the thing defy the laws of nature. It’s the reduction to dust of someone I Iove.

There was a day last October, when Josh was soldiering past his latest round of chemotherapy. Luminous, late-afternoon light bounced back and forth between white walls. Baby lay face up on her quilt pumping her legs while we watched the Presidential debate on TV. Life seemed normal. Then we got the call from the oncologist. He needed to see us.

I walk toward Grandma Peabody, the first boulder we climbed all those years ago. Our friends are with me. We carry climbing shoes and crash pads, sandwiches, Baby, Josh’s ashes.

I never noticed before how the Buttermilk sand, the varied bits of quartz monzonite, have the hue and texture of burnt bone. Rock and ashes. We all come from the earth.

The doctor averted his eyes when we arrived, reminding me that the jury never looks a condemned man in the face. Josh’s most recent scans indicated that his disease had progressed. Up to now, we had been hopeful, buoyant even, about the progress of treatment. We were fighting a battle that we thought we could win. The doctor gave Josh three to six weeks. Nothing more could be done.

I watched Josh’s face when he heard the news. I wanted to look away from what felt like too terrible and private a moment, but I couldn’t abandon him like that, leaving him alone. We huddled together, Baby and Josh embraced by my arms, the Pietà struck to life in an examination room in Los Angeles.

Rock climbers sitting on boulder at Bishop, California.
Josh and Christine at the Druid Stones outside Bishop, California. (Photo: Christine Kornylak)
Josh and Cristine at the Druid Stones, Bishop, CA.

I’d had a few other cold moments of truth, like when I fell into the spring melt of a frigid river in Maine. I asked the doctor how many of his patients had ever survived Josh’s condition. He said none. This is how they tell you, at 33, that you’re going to die. There was nothing else to say. We stumbled out into an ordinary afternoon of sunshine and L.A. traffic.

By evening, the doctor’s visit seemed like a strange bit of theater. We joked about sending e-mails to our friends: “Saw doctor. Disease progressed. Three to six weeks to live. Please come now.” We laughed together and felt better.

At the base of Grandma Boulder, we hold hands in a circle and talk about why we loved Josh. I sprinkle some ashes on the boulder, and we work our way up the hill to another favorite climb. Although all of us are feeling heavy with sadness and gravity, a few of our friends scamper to the top and release the rest of the ashes into the wind. I never noticed before how the Buttermilk sand, the varied bits of quartz monzonite, have the hue and texture of burnt bone. Rock and ashes. We all come from the earth.

Josh died in December, only eight months after receiving a diagnosis of melanoma. We started the New Year together with resolutions centered around life with our baby, due later that year. I ended the year without him, with a stranger’s life ahead of me, dizzy with vertigo as my once-familiar landscape tumbled end to end.

I’m learning to inhabit this unaccustomed life. I’ve acquired new landmarks, but I’m still caught off guard by phantom sightings of the person I used to be.

Here at the Buttermilks, I find myself thinking of the climbs Josh completed and the climbs forever left undone—all of life’s promise embodied in a world of rocks. No more chances to send. But the shared experiences and bloody scrapes from this rough stone remind me I am alive. The urn is empty. I glance around at my friends, all of us strong and fragile. Rock and ash.

Baby toddles on loose gravel. She examines each stick, each strangely shaped pebble in her path. The world is brand new. The sun dives behind the pyramid of mountains surrounding our little slope of boulders. Josh is dust on the rock and sagebrush. What endures, in the end, is his love.

Christine Kornylak is a writer and attorney in Los Angeles, California. Her tribute to her husband was first published in Ascent 2015.

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