I am posting this story right now for many reasons. For one, it's spring time here, and that means cottage season is coming up. That means, as usual, Dan has been on my mind. As a second reason, this came up this week in a conversation with a client who had read my blog. This client had also lost someone in their life. My previous blog post that they had read, Frozen in Time, came up in our session. There were a lot of similarities in our experiences of loss. And I realised, as much as I love the Frozen in Time piece, and as much as that piece means to me, I wanted to finish the story now, here, on this blog. The Frozen in Time story was written from a different part of the grief process that I was in at that time - which was shock, numbness, and a lot of pain and hurt and intense emotion. I love that piece because I feel it captures just what my heart was going through at the time. I believe it really helps anyone who reads it to understand not only the love and connection I felt with Dan, but the abruptness of the loss and the wrenching experience, so they can understand me, my heart, and some of what has shaped me.
But while grief never goes away completely, there is a shift over time. I wanted to post this other piece, which builds on the Frozen in Time piece, as it talks about some of the shift. I wrote for the 10th anniversary and it was published in our cottage yearbook in 2013.
So thank you, to this client, for bringing this back up to me and reminding me that the second half of the story is important to share as well. And thank you, now, for reading it.
Summer. The time of year every child looks forward to – freedom from school, homework, teachers, snow, and cold. The time of year I counted down the days to, because I knew I would soon be reunited with the other half of my life; the other half of my friends.
Growing up at the cottage was a privilege in so many ways; reuniting with nature, living for hours solely in imagination, and having the freedom to concentrate on friends, family, and relationships without the buzz of the city. As a cottager since the age of four, I’ve grown in so many ways that wouldn’t have been possible without Chandos. From my first friendships, crushes, kisses, and first loves, to learning about life, death, and the resilience of love through it all.
Growing up at the cottage every summer, the core group of friends had always been the six children from our three families; the Arato’s, the Wight’s, and the Cnoop-Koopmans’s. More cherished friends would join us as the years moved forward.
From the day we all first met, we became best friends, and did just about everything we could together. We soon formed our own little club and built a home-base as our first fort. It was a constant project for the first half of summer. We assigned each other jobs and titles, making a mini industry out of our project, feeling important as we would labour to drag a huge log to the fort, all by ourselves, as a proud contribution. In truth, it wasn’t much to look at, but it was our pride and joy for those summer months when young minds wander to greater adventures. We lived in our own world, and in this world, we formed the bonds of a friendship that could never be broken.
We would run around the forest, playing tag or manhunt - anything that involved the use of the excessive energy that summer created. I remember the keen sense of invincibility that those days at the cottage would bring; something different from life with friends in the city, where we could just exist without deadlines or expectations.
During the nights of summer, we would all gather at someone’s cottage, playing cards and board-games long into the night. We would stay up until we were delirious with exhaustion after a long day in the sun, always saying, “Just one more game, just one more!” We hated to leave at the end of the night, and in the morning, as soon as we would wolf down breakfast, we would run over to each other’s cottages to get the day started. Each day was like gold, no matter the weather. No matter what we did, it was always fun. We grew up together, discovered what life was about and discovered ourselves together. Each school year we would learn more about the world, and when we would come back to the cottage, we would find ways of sharing what we had learned, and we would show how we were changing.
Dan Arato became my best friend at the cottage. He had an energy around him that just made people gravitate towards him. He could make any situation fun and he could make anyone feel at home, accepted, and welcomed. There was a feeling of complete acceptance between us; we could be exactly who we really were together, and every quirk was simply embraced. No one in the world made me feel as comfortable and at home as Dan did. When I was with him, nothing else seemed quite as consequential, no problem seemed too big to face, no issue insurmountable. He gave me a feeling of love and acceptance so strong that to try to recreate the feeling with simple words would never fully do our friendship justice. It was as rare and as precious as they come, and so was he.
As we all grew up together, our interests changed regarding how we would spend our nights. When we were older and able to stay out longer, we would play games like Sardines, Fox and Rabbit, and Forty-Forty outside in the dark. We would dress in black to blend in with the night, and douse ourselves in bug spray to protect ourselves from the tiny nuisances that the summer months would bring.
Dan and I would always hide together, finally free to talk about anything and everything. Looking up at the stars one night, as my head rested on his arm, he told me that I was his best friend in the world, even though we only got to see each other in the summer. I had always felt the same way about him, and suddenly that night the stars seemed clearer, and the rest of the world melted away as we lay there, more comfortable than anywhere else in the world - regardless of the pine needles gently prickling our backs.
Each year we would come back to the cottage, changed by new experiences through the school year. But when I saw Dan again, it was like nothing had changed at all. It was the same kind of feeling that you get when you reach into an obscure pocket and find a twenty dollar bill, or when you find your favourite shirt you thought you had lost. There’s not a memory I have from those years at the cottage that doesn’t include him.
Then the night came that changed everything. Suddenly my world fell apart with one simple phone call. The dreams I had in my head, of where next summer and each one after that might take me, shattered. On February 1st, 2003, Dan was killed in an avalanche in B.C.. His school was on the second day of a four-day outdoor education field trip that was part of a year-long course in mountain leadership, and they were cross-country skiing on a back trail. He was caught in a kilometre-wide avalanche, and he and six others died that day. As the news hit me, it changed me instantly - changing the future, the dreams, and the imaginings - everything shifted. I would never see him again. I would never watch the stars with him again. I would never hear him laugh again, and I would never see him grow into the man he was becoming. Summer would never be the same, and now I had to go on without him, facing each summer alone without my best friend by my side.
This year will mark the 10th anniversary of Daniel’s passing. So much has happened since that time. Life lessons learned at the cottage have taken on a whole new meaning, and the growth I had thought I would encounter at the cottage shifted and changed and took me in a completely different direction. From shaping what I now see life to be, to valuing and cherishing the relationships in my life in a different and deeper way, to appreciating each person and each day and each experience in a way I may never have learned to do if I had never had Dan in my life. I learned about resilience and love as I watched his family and friends find the strength to rise from the day everything was broken; as they slowly began to build new memories and love in new ways. We used the lessons Dan taught us about how to live life to its fullest. We learned from Dan how to embrace ourselves and each other’s uniqueness, and how to value and accept people completely. We slowly learned how to carry on with our lives. From these roots we learned how to grow, held together by his memories.
The cottage. From new friendships, first crushes, and first loves, to learning about life and even about death, growing up at the cottage has been a testament to every facet of humanity. Being surrounded by nature and by friends, each one of us was stripped down to the commonalities and vulnerabilities that make us all human. The cottage provided the opportunity to get back to the real meaning of life and to what is truly important. There are things that a cottage life and a cottage upbringing can create that no other place can.
Cherish these days; let the magic of long summer days drag out and slow down and allow you to take the time to reprioritise and re-evaluate. Take the time out and let the cottage bring you closer to the ones that you love in a way that no other place can. Cherish each other, the neighbours and friends, in the way that, only at the cottage, you can feel that connection that brings us all together on Chandos. Revel in the roots that connect you back down to the most important things in your life, and let the cottage life ground you as you are given an opportunity to reconnect to nature, to family, to friends, and to life.
– In loving memory of Daniel Arato (1987 – 2003).
This image below is one I often share with clients about grief and loss. I felt that it had a place here on this post as well. As far as I know regarding the origins, this was adopted from someone who answered a question on Reddit about how to survive the loss of their child, and how to survive the overwhelming grief. This was his response to help the woman who was seeking answers, and support. I hope it helps you as much as it has helped me.