It was early in the morning on a December day in Seoul that I got the news.
I called his house when he wasn’t on Skype at the time we’d agree upon, and his father picked up, heard my voice and, crestfallen, murmured the words, “he’s gone.”
In my small apartment that morning in 2011, my world came crashing down. Kiel had been my best friend since grade one, and I had expected we’d still be best friends in a nursing home, having wheelchair races for the ages.
I sat on my couch in my living room, and I called my friends one by one to give them the news then, in a blurred state, I went to work as an ESL teacher at a local Korean private school.
As I entered the building, one of my favourite students, a girl around the age of 7, came up to me and handed me a little penguin she’d folded out of coloured paper. I hugged her, and I went to my office to wipe the tears from my eyes.
I was halfway across the world and, all of a sudden, it felt that way. My school wouldn’t let me go back to Canada without losing my job, so I called Kiel’s parents to say that I was quitting my job and coming home. His Dad told me to stay in Korea and live my dream for Kiel.
It was the hardest decision I’ve ever made, and few decisions have had a greater impact on my life.
Finding strength from displacement
I was broken, and in many senses this left me more vulnerable, but it also made it easier for me to receive and accept the unfamiliar.
I didn’t have the strength to puff up my chest and be all that I thought a young male from Canada was supposed to be – I just was.
I began to see that though I was in a foreign land, there’s a common thread across the world. Regardless of nationality, sexuality, race, or creed, we all experience loss in a similar way. The hole that I felt in my heart was real and true, but it wasn’t something that I could only come to terms with on Canadian soil. Pain, for better or worse, is universal.
Kiel was like a brother to me, and I knew that endless grief and despair would never do justice to his life.
My life in Korea allowed me to turn that grief into empathy and understanding for humanity at large. The love and kindness I was shown by people all over the world, both Koreans and foreigners alike, during that time was a reminder that though circumstances can be cruel and defeating, most people are inherently good.
Finding identity from uncertainty
In the days that followed Kiel’s passing, I learned more about him than I thought I ever could. I was flooded with messages from people who knew that we were closer than close.
A theme emerged, and one that I didn’t expect. Everyone talked about how proud Kiel was of me for chasing my dreams and exploring the world. Apparently, especially after a beer or two, he would talk at length about me having lived in Oslo, and teaching English in Korea. He would talk about how much he missed me, but how he felt like it was where I should be. I never knew any of that, and it touched me profoundly.
He never did get to visit me in Korea, but I took solace from the notion that he knew why I was there, and exactly what I was doing and hoping to achieve. Nobody knew me better, so this comforted me to no end.
As more and more messaged flooded in which mentioned this over and over again, it emboldened my resolve to keep exploring. Briana, my now beautiful wife, and I began planning a 4-month trip across Southeast Asia once our year in Korea was up. If Kiel was watching over me, then I knew this more than anything else would put a smile on his face.
On the left side of my body, the following words are tattooed on my ribs, “man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.” Courage, in this instance, was using our memories to fuel my journey across the world, and to find some semblance of emotional peace.
It wasn’t always easy. On New Years Eve I was in Busan, and, at one point, I needed to get away, so I wandered down to the beach which overlooked the main bridge. I burst into tears as the waves lapped into the shore but, as if on cue, fireworks began bursting over top of the bridge. I felt like that was confirmation that, as always, Kiel still had my back.
I knew that I needed to see more bridges, more cities, and more fireworks in more places. And I knew that Kiel would always be there with me.
Finding purpose in exploration
During the summer after Korea, Bri and I visited about 10 countries in Southeast Asia. We must have given a cheers to Kiel with two dozen different beers throughout our time there, and it’s likely that we butchered the pronunciation of most of them.
I felt strangely at peace. Every mountain top and island we visited gave me a different perspective on life, and the way that we might be able to live our lives in the future.
Up until then, I thought of travel as something you did when you were young with some semblance of reckless abandon, but that all changed. With each fresh roadside meal, and each smile from a tuk-tuk driver I became more convinced that travel wasn’t an escape from normal life, but an embrace of what life is all about.
When I was a child, I could play for hours on end with nothing more than a few objects and my imagination. Travel, for me, was bringing back that childlike curiosity with the world. It was the strangest phenomenon – at a time when I was battling depression for this loss, travel was breathing new vigor into my existence.
Travel, I understood, was an enormous book, and life was worth living so I could keep turning the pages.
Yesterday, today and tomorrow
Kiel’s loss doesn’t hurt any less, but travel has been my vehicle for peace and acceptance. Living my best life, filled with travel, was the best way to commemorate his life, and for me to keep him close.
Since he passed, I’ve lived for periods in places like Ecuador, Nicaragua, and other places I thought I’d never visit let alone live. Most recently, from 2014 to 2017, I lived in Istanbul, Turkey, and Kiel’s parents even came to visit. I’ve volunteered in rural India, and I’ve written for magazines across Europe. Now, I’ve been to nearly 80 countries and over a thousand cities.
Travel gave me strength when I was weakest, and gave me a reason to get up when all I wanted to do was sleep. It gave me light when I was begging for dark.
Every time I get on a plane, I’m thankful that my journey continues, but I never forget that I’m not alone. I see him in the sunsets on the horizon, the dramatic clouds atop the hills, and that one star which seems to twinkle just a second longer than the rest.
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(All images courtesy of Chris Mitchell.)