What Really Matters
It was the summer of 1990 and Linda and I were finally on the getaway that we had been looking forward to for years. Both of us were fried to a crisp from months of overwork. We had been hanging on by our fingernails, until the kids left for three weeks of overnight camp. For the first time since our move to California eight years earlier, we were finally going to get to see Yosemite, just the two of us. The idea of having a week to ourselves with nothing to do and no one to take care of seemed almost too good to be true.
We had arrived at Yosemite around dinnertime the day before, and spent the night in the Crane Flats campground just inside the western boundaries of the park. The next morning we had breakfast, left our gear in the tent, and drove to the valley floor to spend the day hiking. On the way back down the trail, we noticed that the plume of smoke from the fire in the distance that we had first seen in the late morning was much bigger and thicker. It was spreading over a large portion of the sky and it seemed to be moving downward towards the valley.
By the time we got to the Visitor’s Center it was early evening and there was already smoke in the air. A large group of people had gathered near the main entrance and a ranger was speaking to them using a microphone. He was saying something about blankets being distributed and all roads out of the valley being closed because of the fire. “What’s happening?” I asked a tall bearded man standing next to me.
“There are fourteen separate lightening fires in the park. They’ve jumped the three roads leading out of here. There’s no way for anyone to leave the valley. We’re all stuck here.”
“Until when?” I asked, realizing immediately the ridiculousness of my question.
“Until they get control of the fire. The ranger has no idea when that might be. It could be hours, maybe days.”
“Days?” I said incredulously. What if the fire keeps moving down towards the valley? It’s already pretty smoky here and this place is like a bowl.”
“I know,” he said patiently. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”
Linda and I got in line to get our blankets. We asked the woman who handed them to us if there was any way for us to find out about our gear in the campground. “It’s probably been destroyed in the fire. There’s been a lot of damage to that section of the park.”
My heart sank, not because of our lost gear, but because I was beginning to realize the reality of the situation. We were in the midst of a major disaster and helpless to do much of anything or go anywhere. I thought of our children and very briefly considered the possibility that I may not see them again. It was too much to contemplate. My rational mind kept trying to reassure me that everything would be fine but the truth was that I was scared.
We were directed to the lobby of the Ahwahnee Lodge, a beautiful old elegant hotel not far from the visitor’s center. “I’ve always wanted to stay here”, I told Linda, “but this isn’t exactly what I had in mind.”
“At least we’re together, that’s what counts”, she said, responding to my unspoken anxiety.
“I guess this is as good a place as any to die in, better than most”, I said, weakly attempting to lighten things up.
Linda grimaced and put her arm around me. We took our blankets into a large room where everyone was directed to park themselves on a spot on the floor get “comfortable” for the night, or for however long we were going to be there.
People kept coming in until the floor was literally covered with bodies. The room was stuffy, noisy, and crowded. Everyone was very friendly and we were all doing what we could to adjust to an exciting but stressful situation. Underneath the buzz of excitement was an undercurrent of tension. None of us knew what was in store for us.
At about 11 o’clock I suggested that we might be more comfortable in the car. Linda agreed. We went outdoors and looked around the lot until we found our car. There were lights on inside lots of the cars. Apparently other people had the same idea.
Inside, we reclined the driver and passenger seats, opened up the sunroof, lay back and hoping to see stars, looked up into the night sky. But smoke had clouded the air and no stars were in sight. The cool air touched with the scent of smoke drifted into the car. For a long time we both just lay back with our eyes open, listening to the stillness within us and between us.
“You know”, Linda said, finally breaking the silence, this could be our last night together. It could be our last night on earth.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. We’re not going to die here tonight. They’ll probably get at least one of the roads open by morning.”
“Probably, but what if it was? What if this were our last night together? What if we only had a few more hours before it was all over? What would you want to do? How would you want to spend the time that we had left?”
I thought for a moment then turned on my side and looked at her. “I’d want to spend it where I am right now, doing what I’m doing right now for the rest of the night, looking into your eyes, holding your hand, feeling how much I love you and how connected we are right now. I think that we’ll probably make it through the night, but if we don’t there’s worse ways to go.”
“I feel so close to you right now. In some ways closer than we’ve been before,” Linda said.
“I’ve got an idea”. Let’s spend tonight as though it really IS our last night together. We’ll do and say whatever it is that we would do and say if we only had a few hours more to be together.”
“Well one thing I know I would not do is sleep,” Linda said. “I wouldn’t want to miss an instant of the brief time that we had left. I don’t know that there’s much I would really want to do though. Just staying here together would be enough.”
And that’s what we did. We stayed up all night just being together, sometimes in conversation and sometimes in the space between words.
We shared what needed to be shared in order to feel complete with each other. We forgave each other for what needed forgiveness. We expressed the gratitude and acknowledgement that had been unspoken. We connected through our words, through touch, through feelings, even through the stillness that came when there was nothing left to say.
We managed to stay awake for most of the night, but we dozed off briefly from time to time. We were awake when the sun started to come up, though the magic of the night was beginning to fade. I was feeling complete, emotionally full, overflowing. The sound of car engines starting brought me back to the so-called “real world”. There was a tap on the driver’s side window. I looked up to see a ranger at the window. “Highway 120 is open. We need to get everybody out of here right away. It might close up again at any time.”
“Say no more.” I said. “We’re outta here.”
He didn’t and we were.
If someone asked me to think of the most deeply intimate experience that I’d ever had, it would be that night twenty-three years ago in Yosemite. In those hours of incredible closeness, nothing mattered except the pure joy of being together with whatever presented itself to us. It was magical in the sense that it seemed that we had transcended the kind of thinking that usually dominated our awareness, opening us not only to an experience of profound connection, but one that left us both changed, with a deep understanding of what really matters in life.
When we are mindful of the power of intimate connection it becomes easier to prioritize our time in a way that allows us to savor our connections with our loved ones more fully. And any circumstance that bring us back to this awareness is indeed a great blessing.
Don’t wait for a life-threatening situation to remind you of what really matters in life. Seize the moment. You never know how many more you’ll have.