With all these stories coming out about what happened in 2013 and what we'll remember -- in sum, the Pope and Jennifer Lawrence are awesome, Syria is a mess and Congress got totally pwned by the gun lobby -- it got me thinking about what the hell happened in my little world over the past year.
A few things stand out. I went to Greece for two weeks with my girlfriend and imagined a life of feta cheese and wine instead of Washington politics. Over the summer, my friend and I speed-walked, strolled and finally limped for 18 miles overnight to help raise money for suicide prevention programs. And miracle of all miracles, my ex and I sold our condo, a plan that was years in the making and executed with remarkable grace. We walked away from that chapter of our lives with a clink of glasses, a small chunk of change and a sense of closure.
Some other stuff happened, too. I wrote stories I was proud of. Joe Biden called my dad at a holiday party. I lost days of my life watching back-to-back episodes of Homeland. Carrie and Brody will live forever in our hearts, America.
But all those things were overshadowed by the loss of my friend Kristin, who died in January 2013 after battling bladder cancer. She was only 42.
I never thought she'd actually lose to stupidcancer, as she called it, always keeping the two words together. She was the healthiest person you'd ever meet, eating salmon and blueberries all the time, swimming insanely long races to Alcatraz or in between islands in Alaska. She had so many friends, and she was so kind, so adventurous. I always thought if anyone could kick cancer it would be her.
When I really think about 2013, I realize I spent most of the year looking for her. We once had a pact: If one of us died, you'd have to send the other one a sign that you were okay, that you weren't reeeeeally gone but just in a different place. Because we felt pretty connected to each other, we figured our bond was strong enough to break through this afterlife business and transmit a message about what it was like. We thought, How cool would that be?
So when she actually passed away, I began searching for signs from her everywhere. In my dreams. In a flickering light. In the glances of strangers who maybe, sort of resembled Kristin. So many nights, when I was lying in bed and thought I'd heard something in the room, I'd nervously open my eyes to see if it was Kristin standing there smiling, saying something like, "See? We did it!" I even stood alone in my kitchen once and, feeling a bit nuts, said out loud to nobody, "Okay Kristin, I'm ready. Give me a sign!" And I waited. And waited. But nothing happened.
As the months rolled by, I started to worry that maybe Kristin had sent me a message and I'd missed it. What if that woman at the Metro station who'd smiled and stared at me knowingly had been her, somehow? What if Kristin had stood next to my bed one night but it had been the one time I'd chosen not to open my eyes? How lame would it be if she'd managed, against all odds, to send a signal and I overlooked it?
This anxiety over finding Kristin's message had subsided somewhat by the fall, when my girlfriend and I headed to Greece and checked out for awhile. One day, as we were putzing around in Crete, we started talking to this woman who was raving about having just hiked Samaria Gorge, the longest gorge in Europe. It happened to be a couple hours away from where we were. We decided we should probably check it out, so we bought bus tickets to go the next day.
That night, I had a dream about Kristin. I don't remember much about it, except that I could see her vividly and I woke up feeling good. I kept thinking about it on the bus ride the next morning. I told my girlfriend about it too, and said how surprised I was to finally see Kristin in my dreams as we rolled around in Greece, so far from home.
Samaria Gorge is a wild scene. You're in a remote part of an island with hardly anybody around, just ambling your way down a mountain and through a rocky valley for 10 miles. It's six hours of breathtaking scenery and concentrating on where you step so you don't bite it on loose pebbles.
That's where my mind was when, a few miles in, we turned a corner and came across a couple of cairns. They're little piles of rocks that people stack up and leave behind as a form of art or as a marker that someone was there. Kristin had absolutely loved these things. Whenever we'd go on walks, she'd always stop and stack one up, and I'd leave one, too. It didn't matter where we were; she was always leaving behind little rock piles. So when I spotted them on our trail that day, we decided to leave one in honor of Kristin. We took a picture of our rock stack and kept moving.
Even seeing a handful of cairns on the trail was a surprise. This place felt so far from anything, with nobody passing by and few signs that people had been here before us, that we might as well have been on the moon. Which is why when we turned another corner and saw what was in front of us, my jaw dropped and, quite literally, I had to catch my breath.
Hundreds of cairns surrounded us. Hundreds. Balanced in rows on the ground, on fallen trees, on boulders, along the trail and further out into the woods, even delicately arranged in the branches of the trees above us. Like nothing I've ever seen. Just everywhere.
I was paralyzed. It was one of the most magical things I've ever seen. A gift, it seemed, just for us, in the stillness and the privacy of these woods. As my eyes teared up, for the first time since January, I felt Kristin again. I mean I really felt her presence. It was overpowering. I realized if I was ever going to get a sign, it would be like this -- one that demonstrated beauty, creativity and cleverness. It was Kristin, at her best.
The rest of the hike was a blur. I was wiping my eyes for the last couple of miles, wondering if what we'd seen was real, and unable to shake the feeling I'd just been with Kristin. We made it out of the gorge and into town, and caught our rickety bus back to where we were staying. Soon, we were on a plane to D.C. and back at work, falling into our regular lives again.
I never really told anyone about looking for Kristin over the last year. Death isn't an easy subject to begin with. How do you casually mention you're keeping an eye out for signs that your friend who died is doing great in the afterlife? But as the year winds down and everyone takes stock of what mattered and what didn't, it's that sprawling scene of little rock piles in the middle of nowhere -- Kristin's message delivered, and received -- that mattered the most to me.
Rest in peace, my friend.
This story appears in Issue 83 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, available Friday, Jan. 10 in the iTunes App store.