In July, before I got sick, Dolly, Duncan, and I spent two weeks in the Stanislaus National Forest outside of Yosemite. One day we hiked to a swimming hole in the Clavey River called God’s Bath, a beautiful spot in the river where a waterfall flows into a deep pool surrounded by tall cliffs. The place is usually filled with local teens from Sonora, who go there to drink and jump off the cliffs. This year we had the spot to ourselves. There was a towel and someone’s socks on the flat part of the rock, but no one in sight. The water level was much higher due to all of the rain, and the current of the river was flowing much faster. There was a strange energy, too. Duncan’s dog Bo refused to go in the water, even though he had been swimming downstream.
After we went swimming, we walked up to the flat part of the rock to have lunch. At the top, there is a hole through which we’ve seen people jump and then swim through an underwater tunnel to the main pool. It was there we noticed that the towel we’d spotted earlier had been torn into strips and tied together into a makeshift rope. Duncan pointed and told me to turn around. On the cliff wall behind me, someone had spray-painted “R.I.P.” Had someone jumped into the hole and not made it back out? Did he jump into the main pool by the waterfall and get pulled under? A few years ago we watched in terror as two guys jump off the highest spot of the cliff. People probably drown there all the time, are here appeared to be the remnants of some stranger’s death. We reported what we saw to a forest ranger later that day. One of the forest workers told us there had been a search party looking for a missing person near God’s Bath just the week before.
The following week we hiked along a branch of the Tuolumne River to another swimming hole called Early Intake. Coincidentally, this was also the day my meningitis symptoms began. While the rest of the group hiked ahead to Early Intake, Duncan stayed behind to fish along the river. At one point he walked into the river and stood on a big rock to get a better spot to fish. All of a sudden the current swept him under the rock. He struggled to get out but was stuck. He took a breath, thinking he’d made it to the surface, but his mouth filled with water. He said he was seconds away from the end. I do not know what happened in those last seconds that made the difference, allowing him to be alive to tell us about it. One of our friends with us that day summed it up by saying, “It wasn’t his time.”
Was it Mike’s time? Was it time for the stranger who died at God’s Bath? The obvious answer is yes, because otherwise they would still be here. To say it was Mike’s time is to find relief in the idea that there is an order of things. The idea that even though you don’t understand it, things are happening just as they should.
Where does suicide fit into this idea? Was it Mike’s time on December 5, 2009 when his life ended, or was his time actually supposed to be in 2039 or 2059, but for the suicide?
The closest I come to acceptance is to believe for just a moment that it was Mike’s time, and that nothing Mike or anyone else could have done differently would have prevented it. Some people believe that our fates are predetermined. Others believe that we control our own destinies by the choices we make. I believe in a combination of the two, that our fates can change with our choices, and that although we sometimes control our choices, we do not control the outcome. When we escape death, is that luck, or is that God? And if we choose death, like Mike did, is it really a choice? And when death finally comes for us, we have no more control. Death is the ultimate surrender.
For the two weeks I was near Yosemite, a butterfly followed me everywhere I went. I first saw it when we were camping by Cherry Lake, and it followed me on the hike to God’s Bath, and on our various hikes along the Tuolumne. I felt Mike’s presence in this butterfly. I felt like he was finally free.