Today was my first day back to work after ten weeks of vacation; a summer spent traveling around the West in search of beauty and adventure. Climbing road trips are my definition of heaven, a time when my mind and body feel the most carefree and inspired. Meaning lies everywhere on the road: reaching the anchors on a rock climb near my limit, swimming in cold rivers with good friends, collecting rocks on the wild and scenic beaches of the Olympic coast. The world feels like a big, happy playground built just for me.
Going back to work after an amazing road trip is always an adjustment.
The adjustment really stings when I learn that one of our former mentees has died at the age of 15.
It was the first half hour of work for the 2013 school year. I was making plans for our annual mentoring rafting trip while Dan sifted through a backlog of e-mails.
“Chris Tanner died,” Dan suddenly announced in a voice of disbelief. Together we re-read the email informing school staff of Chris’s viewing at six o’clock. We sat in silence for a moment. Wrapping my brain around death is impossible, but it’s even more confusing when a young person dies. Chris is our second mentee to pass away, and I’m learning the shock comes down like a fist. Shock first, then the sadness.
I had seen Chris walking around town shortly before summer break. He looked healthy and content. Now in high school, he’d shot up to 6 foot, 2 inches and slimmed down. He had joined the football team and seemed to be finding his niche in life. His coach reports that he’d recently taken over the leader board in the weight room after bench-pressing 225. I’d never thought of Chris as an athlete in his younger years, but some boys come into their own in high school.
For four years Chris had been part of Grand Area Mentoring in elementary and middle school. He’d never been in much trouble, but his teachers wanted to make sure he didn’t feel lonely. They believed a mentor might make school a friendly place for Chris. And even though Chris graduated from the program, he always gave me a smile and a wave when I’d pass him on our small town’s bike path.
I got in touch with his former mentor, a close personal friend, to give her the news. She was heartbroken. Traveling in Alaska, she had no idea Chris had passed away and wouldn’t be able to attend the viewing or the funeral. Chris had grown up with a caring single mother and grandmother, and as he moved into middle school, we’d switch him to a male mentor. I spoke with Kevin as well, another conversation filled with disbelief and melancholy.
There’s not much comfort to give a mother of a recently deceased son, but I wanted to go to the viewing to offer Chris’s mom and grandma a hug and pass along the condolences of his former mentor.
His mom gripped me tight, and when she pulled away she told me, “When Chris didn’t have a friend in the world, he had his mentor. Thank you.”
His grandma, eyes puffy, conveyed relief that I had been in touch with his first mentor, “I’ve been thinking about her and wondering if she knew. Tell her we’re doing okay, tell her that please.” And as we embraced, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
It was a really heavy first day.
A big-hearted friend of mine recently joked that he wouldn’t want my job because I have to work with people I care about. And there’s some truth to his observation; it can be tough to work with kids like Chris, to see bad things happen to the vulnerable children we serve. Social work isn’t always easy to leave at the office. But on a very sad day, Chris’s mom and grandma reminded me of the beauty of this work.
Chris had a good friend through some of the toughest times in his short life. And that makes this mentoring endeavor so valuable.
There’s a different kind of meaning that comes along with the work we do in Moab. And while my time in this desert town isn’t always the carefree adventure of a climbing road trip, perhaps I need both types of meaning in this crazy life. Play and work, personal endeavors and helping others, happiness and sadness, love and loss.
And it’s not to be taken for granted.