John Mullally is one of the first people I met when I moved to Seattle, through the Monday night pool group at The Garage. I don’t remember hitting it off in any particularly special way at first, but we kept on hanging out, drinking, chatting, and playing pool every week. My affection and respect for him steadily grew, and as time went by he became one of my closest friends. Our lives have converged and diverged over the years, as lives tend to do, but as I think back over the fourteen years of our friendship, it’s hard to remember very many weeks in which we didn’t talk or spend at least a bit of time together.
I went through thousands of photos of John over the past week, preparing a slideshow for this memorial service. It’s been interesting to see all these other parts of his life – extended family, other circles of friends, his career, all of his various adventures. What struck me most is just how consistent these photos are with my own memories of John. He’s always smiling, always spending time with people he cares about, always exploring remote and beautiful places. Whether he’s spiffed up and looking sharp, or goofing off in some ridiculous costume, he always seems like he is completely at home in his own skin.
John was loved by a huge array of friends, old and new. He worked hard, built an excellent career, and earned the full respect of his peers. He adored his family and was fortunate enough to be able to spend lots of quality time with his daughters. His wife loved him with all her heart, and made sure he knew it. He had outlets for his creative impulses. He was one of the steadiest, happiest people I have ever known. He lived a really good life.
I rode my motorcycle over to John & Holly’s place last October for an evening of smoking and drinking and cards. Someone waiting at a cross street didn’t see me coming and pulled out into the road, directly across my path. I reacted quickly and managed not to hit the car, but I lost control in the process and went tumbling down the road. So much for cards and whiskey – I spent most of the night in the ER. I’m okay, and I’ll make a full recovery, but six months later the broken bones in my hand are still healing. If any element of the timing that night had changed even slightly, the outcome might have been very different. I could have been paralyzed, or crippled, or killed – or I might not have been injured at all, and wouldn’t have this story to tell.
John and Holly put me up in their spare room that night, and drove me home the next day. It was good to have friends ready to take care of me.
A couple of people asked, while I was recuperating, whether this meant I was done riding. The question surprised me, but it got me thinking about risk, and about how I’ve chosen to manage risk in my life. “Now that you’ve come this close to disaster,” the question implied, “does that change the way you feel about the risk you’re taking?”
I always knew there was a chance that I might be injured or even killed in a motorcycle crash. I chose to accept the risk, because I get so much joy from riding. I feel alive, my mind feels clear, I feel light and free; it’s hard to put this into words without sounding a bit ridiculous, but I’m always happier when I’ve been riding.
I do whatever I can to mitigate the risk I’m taking. I got professional rider training, I bought high-quality safety gear and I always wear it, I keep my bike maintained in good working order, and when I’m riding I pay constant attention to my surroundings. Regardless, I am choosing to accept the possibility of injury or death every time I get on the bike. I was unlucky that day a few months ago, but that event doesn’t change the nature of the risk involved or the fundamental values informing my choice. I will keep on riding because it’s part of the life I want to live. I accept the risk as part of the price of the good fulfilling life I want to have.
John and I talked about mountaineering often. I never had his dedication, or anything like his level of skill, but I’ve been hiking and climbing my whole life, and I understood where he was coming from when he talked about high altitudes and dangerous glaciers. He knew exactly what he was doing. He knew how dangerous it could be, and he knew what he was risking by doing it. But he also approached mountaineering with the utmost care and responsibility. He was constantly learning, practicing, and training. He hired the best guides he could find and he had great respect for their advice. He employed all the resources he had to mitigate the risks he was taking; he was the most skillful, responsible, clear-headed mountaineer I’ve ever met.
Still, he chose to accept the risk, because it was part of the price of living his good life. It was part of being true to himself and to the dreams that drove him forward. As I looked through all the pictures in the slideshow, I saw photo after photo of John out in high, wild, beautiful places, pushing himself hard, seeing amazing sights, sharing intense experiences with people he respected and trusted. In these pictures, he’s always smiling; over and over, he’s smiling and happy. He loved this experience. It is utterly clear that climbing was a key piece of that rich, fulfilled, happy life he lived.
It’s tragic that he is gone. I wish it were otherwise. But honestly, if I could go back in time, would I tell him not to go climb Liberty Ridge? I couldn’t. He didn’t make that climb on a whim. It was no flight of fancy. It was an inevitable part of the long arc of his life, a choice he made with eyes wide open, one in a long line of similar choices he had been making over and over throughout his life. Climbing was a fundamental piece of the brilliant, joyful, loving, rich life he was fortunate enough to live, and we, his friends and family, were fortunate enough to share. John wouldn’t have been John without it.
So here we are: I wish he could have had decades more of joy and love, more mountains, more glaciers, more time with his family, more time with his friends. I’m going to miss sitting around the campfire with him, talking about whatever. I’m going to miss trash-talking over our games of cards. I’m going to miss his goofball sincerity, his constant undercurrent of happiness. And wow, am I going to miss his amazing cooking. But I am glad that he got to have that life. I am glad that he lived a life that was true to himself and to everyone around him. I am glad that he was exactly who he was. And I am glad that I had the chance to call him my friend.