It was a beautiful day when my friend got on the train in Sydney three days ago. He was heading west to the Blue Mountains, a tranquil place touched by God. He was alone. He was feeling okay. Better than he had in a while. The world passed by outside his window. I wonder if it looked any different to him.
I went down under to see him in September, 2009. It had been a while, and it was a great excuse to travel. We climbed aboard that same train, along with my wife and my wonderful son. My friend had just returned to school. Both our lives had changed dramatically since our days teaching English in adjoining classrooms, where we could listen to each other conduct class and then roll with laughter on the walk home as we criticized each other mercilessly. In the seven years since our roads had narrowed. Yet our horizons remained wide, despite the haze floating over them from time to time.
My friend got off at Katoomba Station, where people still take your tickets and trade friendly words. The crowds were light, this being a Monday; there were plenty of empty seats in the coffee shops and cafes along Katoomba Street. My friend could have stopped somewhere, to rest his legs and treat himself, to ponder the beauty of the day. But like all people with places to go, he didn’t. He walked on, with an ease in his step that had been missing for far too long. A lightness that would disappear if he decided to just go home.
There are shuttle buses that run from the station down to the visitor center at Echo Point. It would have saved us time. But time, as much as the Blue Mountains themselves, was why we were there with our friend. So we walked Katoomba Street together. My wife and I took turns with the stroller, our friend ambled along behind us, visibly amused by our indifference to, or ignorance of, the length of the walk we were undertaking. ‘I would have pulled up stumps at the first sign of a beer,’ he’d later joke to his family. But if he did at the time think the walk might be too much he never gave any indication. Or maybe I’m not too good at picking up signals. And I wish to God I were.
Katoomba Street runs straight as an arrow, down a long hill and right back up another. There Katoomba Falls Road forks off to the right, leading past Maple Grove Park to Cliff Drive, Prince Henry Cliff Walk and a hundred places to stand and look out over the canyon below and the miles and miles of Blue Mountains running off into forever. Continuing on Katoomba Road brings you to Panorama Drive and Echo Point Road, which terminates at Echo Park and more breath-taking views from the cliffs that rise hundreds of feet straight up from the canyon floor. Behind the visitor center a path through a grove of gum trees leads to the Giant Stairway, a treacherous descent for anyone let alone a guy carrying his two-year-old son in his arms. I don’t know if my friend walked out to Echo Point three days ago; if he did perhaps he would have recalled our hike down those steps.
Our days teaching together had come to an end, but my friend and I kept in touch. While he maintained an appreciable collection of video games he felt not the slightest compulsion to get a cell phone. This, upon closer scrutiny, can actually appear quite congruent. He claimed to be a strong introvert, though no one who knew my friend would ever be inclined to agree. At work, at parties and on the street, he was never one to temper his boisterous urges. Which seemed to work in his favor until he said the wrong thing to the wrong person in a nightclub in Tokyo. He came to the next afternoon, no recollection of the last 24 hours. He’d suffered damage to his brain. He’d need immediate surgery. They scoured the surveillance tapes but the culprit would never be known.
No matter where my friend stood along those cliffs, he would be able to see Federal Pass Track, the trail that took us along the floor of the canyon. The ground was too rocky and rutted for the stroller; my wife and I shared kid-carrying duty while my friend folded up the stroller and carried it by his side in one big hand. Up ahead a cable car waited, for anyone not too keen on hoofing it back up to the top of the cliffs. My friend looked at us. We looked at him. He couldn’t believe we were actually going to pass on the cable car, but he smiled and followed us up another comically long and winding staircase. We’d end up walking back along Katoomba Street, all the way to the blessed benches on the platform at the station. ‘You guys are gamers,’ he said, collapsing in his seat. ‘I’d have never done that myself.’ Then after a moment he added, ‘Thanks.’
If I could choose one thing I would want going through my friend’s head as he looked down onto Federal Pass Track, this would be it.
As we made our way toward Echo Point I listened to my friend explain how he hoped to regain the Japanese he had learned over six years and then lost in a second. He was also studying German as well as economics and was looking forward to finishing his degree and getting a steady job teaching, at a high school or maybe a university. ‘Uni,’ he called it, in the common Aussie vernacular. But the headaches just wouldn’t go away, and he couldn’t concentrate no matter how hard he tried. He had a girlfriend, though she lived clear across the far side of Sydney and he only saw her so much. Over the years his old friends had all drifted away. ‘No worries, I need to put all my energy into my studies anyway.’
And he tried.
My friend stood out on those cliffs, somewhere. And maybe he did for one moment think about our time together there. Maybe he even smiled. But the weight of the life he was trying so hard to fend off became too much to bear. And the vastness of the Blue Mountains looked so peaceful.
It was a beautiful day in Sydney.
God be with you, my friend.