Five years ago, I lost a friend. And that singular moment changed my outlook on death, life, and the bonds that unite us all. I had just arrived on the small, remote island of Pohnpei to begin a year of teaching and consulting for the College of Micronesia. During our new teacher orientation, we went to one of the many waterfalls for which Pohnpei is known, a place called Liduduhniap. We were bright eyed and bushy tailed, on the brink of being sent to our permanent placements, when tragedy struck. My friend and colleague, Becky Schaffer was at the top of a waterfall when she slipped and fell. We rushed down to try and save her but it was no use. She had died on impact.
The sorrow that befell us was indescribable. We all felt for Becky’s family and wondered how this could happen to a person so ready to serve the greater good. We felt that it could have been any of us, and that, as much as anything, struck home in a very real way. Her funeral lasted many days, as is the custom here in Pohnpei, to pay respects to the soul passed on and the surviving family, until the body is laid to rest. We met and grieved again with her parents when they came to the island months later to see and feel and understand, and, I believe, for some sense of closure.
It was nearly five years ago now that that all happened, but much of it lives very vividly in my memory. I’ve lost people – close friends, family members – and it is never easy. But Becky’s passing, because of the person she was and was going to be, because of how she died and my proximity to it, and because of who and where I was at that point in time, impacted me more than any other. I was already focused on making my year on Pohnpei as relevant as possible, but losing Becky further solidified my resolve. It was as if, upon her leaving us, her spirit of service and adventure was still alive within me, pushing me to take seriously my responsibilities to the College of Micronesia and WorldTeach and the opportunities for adventure hidden all over these tiny islands. And, in the end, my time there turned out to be one of the most relevant and indelible times of my life.
People have different beliefs on life and death. And I must admit that I’m not fully confident in my own beliefs, because as I see it, they are simply theories, open to reinterpretation and revision as my experiences uncover new evidence. But because of what I experienced here, I am now of the belief that when someone passes away, instead of their spirit moving on to another place, “heaven” if you will, that their spirit lives on in the people that loved and cared about them here. Even five years after her passing, Becky is still impacting lives, like my own, in very profound ways.
It’s months off, but we will be volunteering at an orphanage in Gilgil, Kenya this winter called Restart. It’s not by accident that we chose that particular orphanage – Becky volunteered there before coming to Micronesia. And she spoke so highly of that experience, one of the best of her life, as I could tell, that I felt compelled to perform the same service to this orphanage in her name. In a way, Africa is our final stop on this journey around the world, a journey we have only just begun. If it wasn’t for her, I may not be compelled to work at this orphanage. If it wasn’t for her, I may not even have the guts to undertake the journey that lies before us.
I’m writing this now because I’m back on Pohnpei, and today I visited that same waterfall that took Becky’s life. It was an eerie moment, one fraught with overwhelming emotion, but I said a prayer in her memory and felt a presence course through me for an instant. I take this as a sign that I’m on the right path.
The people we meet on our path, whether for a single day or many years, whether at home or on the road, whether we realize it or not, help to shape that path and the perspective we take while walking it. Particularly now, with the advent of social media, we are able to connect with people and stay closely connected virtually forever. But so much of our life today is consumed by maintaining our “social media presence” that it’s really the people who are there by our sides, the ones who stand by us, walk with us, laugh with us, and mourn with us that should take precedent in influencing us. Because those are the people we chose to be with. The choice of who we spend our precious little time with is one of the most significant choices we make, for it is that choice, as much as any other, that shapes who we are. And yet, transcending this digital cloud of connections and the sphere of people with whom we surround ourselves, are those who have passed, whose spirits reside within us, offering an ethereal hand to guide us through this sometimes chaotic, sometimes splendid, always curious world.