–by Mary Helen Darah
PUBLICATION DATE: July 16, 2019
Somewhere my Irish grandmother is smiling for once again being proven right. She firmly believed that things in life come in threes. In the past month, I have said goodbye to the kind patriarch of the family I lived with as a student in Italy, a maternal figure I’ve known since childhood from my Canadian home and, now Zach. Unlike the first two, who departed after living decades, one almost a century of life, Zach left us far too soon at the young age of 25.
I had the pleasure of first meeting this quiet (so I thought), intelligent, pensive young man with an infectious smile through my daughter. Zach and Maria attended Southview High School together. At first, I only knew him at surface level. He was one of the pack of “grasshopper” teenagers that would come, eat and leave as they buzzed through my kitchen. But that was soon to change when my youngest extended an invitation to Zachary to come to our Canadian “camp.”
I don’t know when or how it began, but somehow my daughters and I decided it would be a good idea to invite their friends for a wilderness experience at our home in northern Ontario. We took multiple kids to an environment without WiFi, cell phone coverage, and a temperamental toilet to what we consider our slice of heaven on earth. As I was busy loading an overstuffed car with pubescent teens, an alpha Corgi and enough food to feed a small village, Zach approached me and wanted to talk. I asked him if everything was OK. He looked me straight in the eye with serious intent and stated, “I’m a Jew.” I quickly told him I was aware of this fact and that our band of characters were all over the spectrum in regards to religion. I also reassured him that I grew up in a predominantly Jewish community. I could provide Kosher items if he was concerned about dietary restrictions. It was then he informed me with great certainty that “Jews don’t camp.” I blatantly disagreed. I told him that his people walked the desert for 40 years. If they could survive, so could he.
I kept a close eye on our Zach. We had faced other concerned campers in the past and always managed to have an amazing experience. One of my daughter’s friends from Nigeria practically slept in his life jacket. Most recently, with a group of young adults in their late 20s, one of our campers jumped in for a night swim with the others thinking that everyone had decided to go skinny-dipping–they had NOT. I stopped worrying about Zach roughly an hour after arriving at our destination. He wanted to do it all. He kayaked, swam, built us a campfire and was so excited to hike around the waterfalls. “Camp” quickly morphed into Zach’s happy place.
Often, the kids we take up do what I call the “Noah’s Ark.” They take off in twos leaving the mom, like a lost unicorn, to fend for herself until they need to be fed. Zach was different. He would always check to see if I needed any help or if I would like to join
his posse. I rarely took him up on his kind
offer to join in, but when I did, I
got a glimpse into his sweet, thoughtful soul. I was used to kayaking with my driven, focused dad. We would name a destination, paddle forth, arrive and head back. With Zach, a trip that would normally take 45 minutes took two hours. Because of him, I will never look at a tree growing out of rock the same way again. “Isn’t it amazing how something so beautiful has survived in such harsh conditions?” he would ask. He also accompanied me on an exploratory mission to see where our loons were hiding. I was concerned because I hadn’t seen them in days. I yelled to the front of the pontoon boat asking if he could see any loons to which he replied, “No just a couple of these big black and white birds.”
I always smile at the fact that our “non camper” ended up returning to Canada with us. He also became a member of the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army. It also breaks a smile and my heart to see that his most recent cover photo on Facebook was a photo of him on the bluffs of Maple Lake.
I returned to Canada after his death. Zach is around every corner and in every flora trying to survive a rocky terrain. My daughters do not want to do our traditional friend trip this year. They want some time. I’m certain healing from the loss of such a charismatic, caring young man is a huge factor in this decision. Helena has created a small oil painting that is going to hang in his memory in the bunkie (a small outside dwelling sans indoor plumbing that can fit anywhere from 5-9 kids uncomfortably). Maria will be collecting stones to make him an inukshuk, a figure made of piled stones originally constructed by the Inuit. I find that extremely meaningful. In traditional Jewish cemeteries you will rarely see flowers. Similar to an inukshuk, you will see stones piled without pattern on the grave. Flowers whither away but stones symbolize solidity and the permanence of memory. Losing Zach reminded us all of the fragility of life. Stones remind us, like his memory, that while some things in life fade and grow dim, our love for him will endure.