Our paths crossed ever so briefly.
She was sitting on the beach, her feet in the water, down by the lake near our campsite. A phone in her hands, she looked up and smiled at the kids as they ran past her splashing in the water. We exchanged pleasantries and discovered we were camping neighbors. Hers was the lone tent we had seen set off in the distance, flanked by a solitary chair. We teased her that she had come looking for peace and quiet and we were the farthest thing from peace and quiet. She smiled and said she wasn’t bothered.
I laid out our beach blanket and settled down to watch the kids splash about through the eye of my camera. Several times I thought about going over and talking to her. I was curious about her story. Everyone has one. We once met a woman well into her 60s who was biking across the states, living in a tent smaller than my kids’ school table. Another time we met a dad who had taken his daughter out camping for the first time and happened to be traveling to our hometown to visit his mother. I wondered what her story was. A young lady with a beautiful smile and an easy laugh, alone in the woods.
But something wasn’t quite right.
By her side was a red tumbler. I remember noticing it because it reminded me of my grandma and her Tupperware tumbler that she filled with alcohol every evening.
The kids laughed and splashed about and soon the young woman rose, unsteadily, to her feet. She wavered into the water and made a shallow dive to submerge herself. I remember thinking how cold that must have been.
We watched intently, voicing our fears that perhaps she wouldn’t resurface. She did. She attempted to climb up upon the pier and lost her balance, falling backwards into the water. She tried again and this time she managed to make it up to the top of the pier. She walked out to the middle of the platform and took a drunken, swaying dive into the water. We held our breath until she resurfaced.
She swam back to the shore, picked up her phone and immediately began using it again.
We all let out an audible sigh of relief. She was out of the water. Safe.
Later when we were drying the kids off and loading up the car to return to our campsite, she left the beach and came up to her car. Thinking I’d see her later, I did nothing more than smile her way. She refilled her drink and then got into her car. We never heard the car start nor did we see her drive away, but we loaded up the kids and drove back to our site, assuming she was safely on shore.
We occasionally glanced her way, towards the lone tent, expecting to see her car at any moment, but the minutes passed and she didn’t return.
She was, for all intent, a stranger. And as a stranger, there were invisible boundaries I did not know existed. Boundaries I only feel now with hindsight being twenty-twenty.
I went to bed uneasy. Where was her car? Why hadn’t she returned to her campsite? I wondered if I should be more concerned. Should I be looking for her? But what could I do? She was an adult. When I had last seen her she had been safely out of the lake, far from the water. For all I knew she had driven into town and was drinking away the night at a local bar. Maybe she had met a friend in town for dinner. Maybe she had gone wandering down the trails to walk off the effects of the alcohol.
They found her the next morning, further downstream. Her death was declared an accidental drowning.
There are a lot of unsaid should-haves here. A lot of unrest and regret. I should have made sure she got back safely to her campsite. I should have alerted a park ranger. I should have talked to her there on the shore. I should have listened to that unease in the bottom of my stomach. I should have gone looking for her back at the lake.
But that would be a bit arrogant, wouldn’t it? To assume that somehow I could have twisted the hands of her fate?
Of course I don’t know her. And that makes the whole thing just seem unfair. How was it that we were given the task of being the last to see her, the last to talk to her? I have the last photograph of her trapped on my camera. Shouldn’t that mean something more than what it does? Which is essentially a tale of strangers crossing paths.
I didn’t save her. I didn’t even know she needed saving. I hardly talked to her. And maybe she needed someone to talk to. I didn’t check on her. Clearly she needed someone to check on her. I didn’t invite her over to roast s’mores and sit around the campfire. Maybe she needed to feel invited. I didn’t stop her from drinking or driving or swimming. And she needed someone to stop her.
But again, all of that assumes arrogance. To assume that one brief conversation, one invitation, one moment could change the course of fate. To assume that even if I had tried to stop her or save her or check on her that I could have done something.
I don’t accept responsibility for what happened. Any sane person could reason that I did nothing wrong. She was a grown woman, aware of the risks of drinking and swimming. Although, truth be told, it’s just as easy to reason that I did do something wrong. How could I leave a drunk woman near a body of water? How could I not do something when her car was still missing? How could I think she was any better off getting in her car? How did I allow her being out of the water to alleviate my responsibility?
Because. Because if nothing had happened, if she had shown back up late that night or even the next morning with a massive hangover and clothes still damp with lake water, I wouldn’t have thought twice about my choices the previous afternoon.
But that thought? It doesn’t make it settle any easier in my soul.
There was a reason that we were the last ones to see her. The last ones to talk, however briefly, to her. And oh how I wish I knew that reason. Not to alleviate me of some heavy guilt or to free me of my part in her last day, but to make her death make sense. To give an untimely death to a vibrant young woman a purpose.
I have to believe though that there is a reason buried somewhere in the confines of a terrible situation. A reason that it all happened exactly as it did. That’s faith interwoven desperately with hope.
I want to believe it’s about me. I’m desperately trying to figure out why I hesitated and didn’t go over to talk to her. I want to know why three times I felt something tugging at me to let her be. I want to know why I ignored that unsettled feeling when she didn’t return that night. I want to know why her smile still haunts me.
But this one isn’t about me. There was something greater at work than I can imagine. There’s a purpose there, something tucked away in that memory I now have of a stranger that will always be a part of me.
Perhaps it’s a lesson of intentionality.
A lesson to be present in this moment right now because there is no guarantee that there will be another moment after this one. A lesson to tell the ones we love that we love them right now because there might not be another moment to tell them. A lesson to talk to the lonely stranger on the beach right now because I might not get a chance to hear her story tomorrow.
This might be the only moment I get.
We were the last to see her. The last to speak to her. The last to witness some of her final moments. That can’t be an accident nor can it be forgotten and I owe it to this stranger to not let that chance meeting be in vain.
So I go on. I spend my days believing that her death had a reason. A reason I will probably never fully understand, but I trust that our paths crossed exactly as they did exactly when they did because they were meant to.
And I hope those last memories…the kids splashing and laughing, the sun shining on the lake, the breeze rustling the leaves, I hope those were the lovely thoughts she had as she passed from this life to the next.