Today is a hard day. It’s a day that I can feel coming each year, like a mark on the horizon that always comes around, one way or another. Part of me dreads it, and part of me looks forward to it, as it gives me a chance to remember. And though the remembering is hard, it also keeps me in touch with myself, my friends, and my family. This piece is one I have shared several times throughout my life, having written it in Grade 12 writer’s class, which was eleven years ago now. Some days this all seems so much longer ago, some days it feels like yesterday. Today it feels like yesterday. Thank you for reading.
Frozen in Time
I can almost physically step back in time and feel the warmth of the sun wash over my body as I bask in each summer of my childhood, at the one place I loved more than anything; my cottage. The memories are so thick and rich that I can almost touch them, taste them, feel them. I can taste the barbecued chicken that became just a little too crispy on the outside when the chef of the day was distracted by the endless conversation of the non-stop visiting neighbours, guests, and friends. I can feel the sand under my feet and between my toes as we would laugh and play at the Sandy Beach in the hot afternoon sun. I can feel the warm summer air being drawn into my lungs and tasting its freshness; a comforting change from the polluted city air. I hear the happy sounds of laughter as my friends giggle over the silliest things, the types of jokes that only the best of friends can revel in together. I can still feel the happiness of spending an entire summer at the cottage; it is a warmth that never leaves me, even in the darkest and coldest of winters.
I can remember every single day spent there. Growing up at the cottage each summer since I was four years old, the core group of friends has always been the kids of our three families; the Aratos, Tom and Dan; the Wights, Brad and Paul; and our family, my sister Suzanne and myself. 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 would collect sticks and branches, even push over small dead trees in the forest, dragging them from the far reaches of the property to the central four small trees we had chosen as the supports for our fort. We assigned each other jobs and titles, making a mini industry out of our project. We would feel like important members of the team as we would labour to drag a huge log to the fort all by ourselves as a proud contribution.
Day by day our fort grew in size as we added rooms, windows, entrances, beds, curtains, and chairs to our masterpiece, feeling richer than kings in the castle we had created. We named it, “The Broken Arrow”, after a mysterious broken arrow we had found next to one of our four base trees.
In truth, The Broken Arrow wasn’t much to look at; the curtains were made of slightly dirt-stained, white material with holes in it, discarded by one of our parents, and each wall was made up of a long skinny tree trunk nailed up horizontally with sticks leaning against it support. Some of these sticks still had stray branches protruding in odd directions, creating an appearance of being thrown together in just a few days. The chairs and beds were old logs propped up against each other and you would be lucky if you didn’t topple over the moment you put weight on them. But in our eyes, it was a masterpiece that we had slaved over for hours and days on end, and we couldn’t be more proud. It looked like a castle in our eyes.
It was our pride and joy, and in the summer months, when young minds wander to greater adventures, we created the perfect adventure for ourselves. We somehow imagined that the five boys down the street were out to get us, so we prepared for war. We armed ourselves with spears we whittled to blunt points and we added a training centre to our fort. We hung old pop bottles from the branches by strings, and we would practice kicking and hitting them with our sticks in every way imaginable. We became masters of war, prepared for anything, with code names and army rankings, attack plans and defensive strategies. We were always talking about what we would do in battle one day, never fully acknowledging the simple fact that we all knew to be true; that these boys barely knew our names and had no intention of ever coming after us. We lived in our own world, and in this world, we formed the bonds of friendship that could never be broken.
We would run around the forest, playing tag or manhunt, or any game that involved the release of excessive energy you always found you had as a child in the summer. It was either boys against girls, or the older kids against the younger kids. Either way, I would always end up on the losing team because I was both female and one of the younger kids; I was at a constant disadvantage. At some point I became old enough that I could run just as fast as the boys could, and that day was a beautiful moment to finally experience. The strength and the freedom I found as my body finally caught up to what my mind had always been trying to get it to produce was exhilarating. I knew the days of longing to be just a little taller and just a little faster were finally behind me.
Thinking back even now, I can still remember the thrilling feel of adrenaline rushing through me as I would run at top speed towards a terrifying gap in the rocks. I can see it looming closer and closer in front of me with each stride I took, with one of the boys close on my heels and my heart pounding in my throat. I can feel the wind through my hair as I would be flying through the air with no fear at all of my capabilities to make the leap across the rocks and then I would land smoothly on the other side, taking off at full speed once again. I remember the keen sense of invincibility that those days at the cottage would bring, when my muscles would feel stronger and more willing, when my ears would pick up sounds that were almost silent, and when my eyes could catch movement that was nearly imperceptible. Something would come alive within me, brought out as I rose to the challenges posed by my friends, allowing me to keep up and fit into a world where normally I might not.
Eventually, at the end of another brilliant, long day at the cottage, the heat of the sun would wear us out, taxing our bodies until the fatigue of our play would finally convince us it was time to take a break. We would tear off down the hill towards the water, racing at top speed, and then we would fling ourselves off the end of the dock into the refreshingly cold lake water. At the time, it always seemed like a good idea to jump in like that, while running at full-tilt; I couldn’t wait to feel the cold water swallow up my overheated body. But after I hit the water, I would undoubtedly always come up from the water screaming and then laughing from the cold, as the chill would seep right through me until my body finally adjusted to the temperature. Once I got used to it, however, I could barely be dragged away from the water. I would swim like a fish; we all would, for hours on end, until our fingers and toes would get all wrinkly like little shrivelled raisins.
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 couldn’t bear to be apart from each other at the end of the night, and in the morning, as soon as we would scarf down breakfast, we would run over to each others’ 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 together, and discovered ourselves together. Things changed as we grew up, as they should, but it was always for the better. 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 share with each other how we were changing.
Dan Arato became my best friend at the cottage. We were inseparable. 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. He asked me to marry him when we were about seven years old, and I said yes, and since then it had always been an inside joke that we were going to get married one day and have a Hawaiian wedding. I can’t quite remember why it was going to be Hawaiian, but I was going to throw a pineapple into the crowd instead of a bouquet.
There was a feeling of utter 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 was 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. A friendship such as ours was as rare and as precious as they come.
As we all grew up, 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. I can still taste the horrible tang of the bug spray when I would breathe in just a little too soon after spraying myself, choking as I would run away from the hanging cloud before collapsing in laughter in front of my friends at my own unfortunate forgetfulness. Even with all that bug spray, I still remember the ultimate test of crouching my hiding spot, on the brink of reaching “home-free,” desperate not to move even though the whine of a mosquito was inching closer and closer to my ear, challenging me to swat at it and give away my hiding spot.
As the games would start, we would all disappear into the night, straining to hear the countdown of the person who was “it” as their voice would blend in with the rhythm of our footsteps and eventually be swallowed up by the surrounding darkness. Dan and I would always hide together, finally free to talk about anything and everything, away from the eavesdropping ears of the others. He would tell me about his girl problems, and I would tell him of my boy issues, and we would talk about everything that might be on our minds. Looking up at the stars one night, as my head rested on his arm as it encircled me in an intimate friendly embrace, 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 always felt the same way about him, and suddenly that night the stars seemed clearer, the crickets sounded more beautiful, 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 as we breathed in unison.
Each year we would come back to the cottage, changed by new experiences we went through over 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. It was a treasure to be reunited with him, and it was a comfort to find nothing ever changed between us. The worry leading up to each new summer that we might have drifted too far into new and different people during the school year and that our relationship wouldn’t be the same was always unnecessary to worry about. There was something real, true, and honest that just clicked between us that would never change, regardless of where life took us. There’s not a memory I have that doesn’t include him, and I always wondered where the two of us might end up one day. The cottage was my safe haven, the one place where I had no worries, where things were exciting and challenging but never dangerous or frightening.
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, those dreams shattered into pieces and tore my soul apart as they were ripped from my heart. In February, 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 other 15-year old students died that day of asphyxiation from the weight of the snow.
One phone call changed everything. I remember standing there, stunned, thinking this was a joke, that it couldn’t be true. I started saying “no, no, no, no, no,” over and over again, somehow feeling that this plea could turn back time and undo what just happened. How could someone so young die? How could my best friend be gone? What was I supposed to do? I remember crumpling to the floor, stunned, and then starting to cry because I knew I was supposed to cry, but feeling so numb. I didn’t even realise at the time I wasn’t really crying; in a few days I would realise the difference as I would start to cry in true suffocating agony, gripped by horrible life-shattering despair, and the tears would be ripped from my body as I lay curled upon myself convulsing in a pain I never knew could exist. I understood at the ripe age of 15 what torture must feel like, what darkness and emptiness felt like, helpless to do anything as this tidal wave of life’s dark unfairness took over, all the while knowing through these fruitless spells of overwhelming grief that no amount of crying would ever heal this pain.
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 the cottage would always remind me of him, the times we spent there together, and now, how he was never coming back. There was so much he never got a chance to experience, so much he never got a chance to do, and now I had to go on without him, facing each summer alone without my best friend by my side. I miss him every day.
There is only one thought that comforts these wounds that will never fully heal; that I will always have those summers. They are frozen in time. They are perfect and untouchable, and Dan will always live on in my memories.