The night after Annie died, we built a bonfire at a janky campsite outside of the hotel property.
We were living in close quarters that summer, 4 or 6 or 9 or even 15 people to a dorm room in the mountains in Montana. We hiked and swam and drank and smoked and colored in coloring books and woke up in each other’s bunk beds, a huge dysfunctional family of bartenders and bellhops and housekeepers and baristas at the hotel in Glacier National Park. We all knew each other’s business. We knew who got fired and sent home to Europe, who was cheating on their fiance back East, who got written up for cussing out the Sous Chef, who was a terrible hiking buddy because they got too high and ate all the snacks early, who was a terrible hiking buddy because they were so In Shape that they ran ahead and left the rest of us behind.
I can’t think of a group of people more unprepared to deal with anything heavier than our annoyance that the only reoccurring vegan meal in the cafeteria was polenta, and figuring out who we could bum a ride into town with to buy socks.
When Annie died, the hotel shook.
Annie had been one of us – one of the young, beautiful, competent bartenders, so beautiful and competent that it felt like she would never die. Someone started a rumor that she had been drunk behind the wheel when the car crashed. It wasn’t true but it spread fast. It was a shitty, terrible rumor, but how else do you make sense of something so senseless? If such a young, joyful, funny, active woman died while working and living and loving in the mountains of Montana, it has to be because she did something wrong. Things like that don’t happen to people who haven’t made a mistake, do they? There aren’t accidents in our world that are so big that people die, are there?
The night after Annie died, we all went out to the bonfire. It was huge, throwing heat and spitting embers out to singe hiking boots and leave speckled burns on our bare feet. Everyone was draped over each other, taking shots from the lids of thermoses, flopped on each other’s laps, shotgunning PBR and kicking the cans out of the circle. Some people were making out, some people on top of each other. Some people were crying while they were making out.
Jamal rounded us up. He poured everyone shots of terrible whiskey and pulled us into a huge circle around the bonfire, our arms over each others shoulders, draping and barely standing.
“We are here for ANNIE,” Jamal bellowed with his thick Jamaican accent. “We are here for ANNIE!” everyone yelled back at him, sweaty arms draped over sunburnt damp shoulders. “FOR ANNIE!” Someone fell backwards out of the circle and we swallowed up the hole they left.
“THIS IS FOR ANNIE!” Jamal bellowed again, and someone started chanting her name. ANNIE. ANNIE. ANNIE. “TO ANNIE!” Jamal yelled and started pouring more whiskey. Plastic cups and metal hiking mugs and Nalgenes, cheap harsh whiskey down throats that were hoarse from breathing in hot dry air. Someone started yelling, not her name, just yelling, like you yell at the top of a roller coaster right before you fall over the edge. The circle got closer and closer and we stomped and yelled and howled at the moon and the fire.
I walked back to the hotel with the Philosophy Boy, my confidant and best friend that summer. We were quiet.
“It was really terrible,” I finally said. “What the fuck was that.”
“It’s just their way of making sense out of it,” the Boy says quietly.
“That’s ridiculous.” I’m self-righteous in the face of disagreement. “That’s not how to deal with death. It’s really tragic that everyone is so hopeless.”
I am very Evangelical still, and I don’t let myself think about my doubts. I’m leaning into judgment because that’s all I know what to do with uncertainty. I’m preparing a sermon in my mind about how fruitless death, and life, is without Jesus.
“They’re just sorting through it,” the Boy said again. We walked the rest of the way home silently.
The next day, everyone working in the hotel, walking through the halls, looks like shit. Hanging on to cups of black coffee, stragglers trickling in from the campsite. Everyone is snappy and hungover and bleary-eyed.
That night, the next night, is the official memorial service. The one with bulletins, a Scripture verse, and girls wearing heels.
I’m on the ministry team at Glacier, the bedraggled kids in college and seminary that put on makeshift worship services every Sunday for the park. It’s the ministry teams’ job to do memorial services when a staff member passes away. We were told this in orientation. I didn’t really take that seriously. How do you take things like that seriously on a dewy morning on your first day up in the mountains of Glacier National Park, watching mist rise on the lake and planning your first trek into grizzly country to see the glaciers?
The memorial service starts at 7pm. The staff gathers downstairs, in the room with the piano, the heavy carpeting, the pine wood walls. It’s one of those Event Rooms that hotels always have. Rows of metal chairs with cushioned backs and seats, a brown clunky piano pushed up against the side of the wall. There was a podium.
There are more people there than I thought would be there. Everyone is cleaned up. The whole crew of international students, especially the Catholic ones, showed up, as well as most of the bonfire folks, looking out of place.
Our clean cut seminarian stands up to lead. He’s nervous. He’s such a kind, thoughtful person. At the time, I remember thinking that he was incredibly older than me and knew so much more than I did. After all, he was in seminary. Now that I’ve gone through grad school, and I remember what it was like to be one year into seminary, it hits me just how young the Seminarian must have been, too.
We sang a couple of hymns. People mostly knew them, and the people that didn’t awkwardly tried to sing along anyway. The Seminarian gave a sermon. It was a pretty classic Christian memorial service sermon. Jesus is the answer. Death is terrible. There may have been a faint alter call, the kind that someone gives when they feel like they should give an altar call but are starting to feel their gut wrench when they open their mouths to say it out loud.
I remember talking with the Seminarian afterwards. I didn’t know what to say, he said, sad and worried. I don’t think she was a Christian.
I don’t think she was a Christian.
We sat over the folding plastic table in the employee cafeteria and the Seminarian talked a lot about Grace and the Justice of God, and Wrath and Redemption and I felt so overwhelmed because the memorial service hadn’t helped me make sense of anything, after all, even a little bit.
It’s just their way of making sense of it.
The sunset that night, over the lake and the mountains, was much more beautiful than it should have been. I finished a Fat Tire out on a rock watching light change colors on jagged young mountains. People trickled over to the lake in little packs, hugging, checking in with each other, settling in on the rocks while the sun went down. People were already starting to laugh and tell stories, and some of them were about Annie but some were just everyday stories, getting back to mountain life stories.
The sun rose again the next day, and the day after that, and a week later, everyone was back to dancing and climbing and coloring and getting high and lying on the metal stairs of the emergency exit counting clouds and making plans for the rest of our lives.
When I think about grief, and memory, and mourning these days, though – I think about the bonfire, passing cups of cheap whiskey around a circle, touching each other and holding each other up, saying her name.
It didn’t make sense of anything at all. But I remember how hot the fire was on my face, and the circle that we held together.