Seventeen years ago today my son, Chris, died rock climbing in Yosemite National Park, his favorite place on Earth. In the days leading up to the fall, Chris told a climbing buddy that from the moment he discovered rock climbing at the age of fourteen, he always knew what he was going to do. He was going to rock climb until the day he died. “It was the most comforting thing,” Chris had said, “to know that’s what I love and that’s what I’m going to do.”
That his death was imminent has never struck me as tragic, but as a beautiful miracle, wrought with the grace of God’s calling.
In the years that followed, I wrote the book, Freedom to Fall, as a tribute to Christopher. I would like to share a quote from the book in which I imagine him telling me what I need to know, in the way he had lived and died.
In matters of God, proof has no place. It does not matter, I hear Chris say.
It doesn’t matter if I knew or not. No knowledge of future events can stand up to living in the present. I stood in the center of possibility—embracing this moment, reaching for the next, not knowing where it would take me. I was thankful for each day, and when I was dying I was thankful for all that I had been given.
There is no compromise when you live on this pinpoint in time. When you are fully alive, each day is a gift, as much composed of essence as the next. You only need one.
It was never for me to say when I might die. I am grateful for the life I was given. I am grateful for the freedom I have now. This is home, where I am close to God.
In this day of remembrance, I also would like to share a new foreword for the book. I could never find the right words, but at last they came—to orient readers not only towards Chris’s story but also mine, in learning to live without him and to redeem my life.
One day in September 2003, I received a message from my sister Diana saying she had something exciting to tell me. I couldn’t imagine. What could be exciting when my son, Chris, had died in an accident only three months before?
When we talked, Diana said she had been visiting old friends in St. Louis when there was a knock on the door. One of the people who walked in heard Diana talking about Chris.
“Are you talking about Chris who fell rock climbing?” the young woman asked. She herself was not a climber, but she knew about Chris. “People are writing back and forth on the internet about his death and what an awesome climber he was,” she said.
I was stunned. News and talk of Chris was spreading around the country, not only in climbing circles but beyond.
In the spring of that year, the shattering news had come in the night. Then on the wings of autumn, through my sister crossing paths with a stranger, I saw what I had to do.
I had to write this book—not to preserve Chris’s memory as a rock climber but to bring to life and to share his character as a human being.
Over the next two years, in the course of writing, I ventured out to gather stories from Chris’s friends. Many spoke of ways in which Chris had touched and even changed their lives. I especially sought the perceptions of his climbing partners. Through those contributions and my own insights, this vital portrait emerged.
Woven into the book’s fabric is the story of my grief. Interiorly, it was a time of upheaval, fraught with fragility and uncertainty, yet I trusted the process. Grieving, so very real, has sweetness and beauty; within the pain there is joy that illuminates our true nature.
The loss of my son led to a pivotal connection to reality and to God. That was the beginning of a journey into a truer life: an appreciation of this inherent gift, a willingness to rise above the clasp of adversity, a simplifying—to be attuned to and surprised by everyday garden-variety miracles.
Thus this is the story of two climbers intimately tied by fate, their paths crisscrossing in separate times and on vastly different terrain.
Through the pages flows an undercurrent of the understanding that came in the wake of my son’s passing: Only good can come from love. I sensed then that one day not only could I return to a life worth living, but I would be able to pass on to others that sacred truth. We may lose the physical presence of a dearly loved one, but we do not lose the essence of our relationship with them. Love rings eternal, and in loss, love is the saving grace.
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