News stories about my friend’s tragic 300 hundred foot fall in the Grand Canyon fill my facebook news feed. Here is the ABC video. The key point is that she was incredibly experienced and not to blame for her fall-the best I can guess is that she probably stepped on an errant rock that started her sliding towards the edge. She wasn’t in a particularly difficult place or right by the edge when she fell. There were places she walked I was too scared to follow, but this hike wasn’t one of them.
Romanian newspapers have picked up the stories of their fallen ex patriot and posted videos and photos. Who knows what they wrote about her. Ioana was the one who could read in four languages.
Ioana-if everyone is curious about you they need to read something closer to the real story. I can’t claim to know all of you- I know you expressed your love for your friends in many different ways- but I’m going to try to see if I can capture more than the images of your smile on the sides of the Grand Canyon.
The newspaper stories share that you were to be the youngest person to ever walk the entire length of the Grand Canyon. They say that you double majored in math and biology, tutored, and perhaps that you did ultra marathons.
People might imagine these feats in the abstract but can they envision the day to day decisions you made to achieve your dreams? Would they have judged you unreasonable if they had heard your plans? Can they imagine the spirit of the women who accomplished these feats?
Ioana wanted to take more classes than she had time for, run more miles than her knees and ankles would allow, go on more coffee dates than a conscientious user of caffeine might recommend. I didn’t always know how to respond to her enthusiasm-she wanted to hike the grand canyon with me, climb half-dome(something well beyond our abilities at the time), travel to Patagonia with me, study math in her tree house when we were in combinatorics together. When I’d say no, I need to sleep or do my homework, Ioana was kind about it. But she didn’t often make excuses for herself about needing to rest or study. She ran an ultra marathon before a Real Analysis test. And still passed. And she always expected to be able to do everything.
She loved everything so much that these accomplishments were a natural consequence of her enthusiasm for life.
What do all of these accomplishments look like in practice? Ioana tried to run 50 miles at the Havalina midnight run. She wanted me to wake up at 2 am and pace her for the last 15 miles and I wish I hadn’t decided it would be too exhausting to trash my body when I was so busy with school. She ended up not being able to finish. Not because she gave up but because she threw up all of her liquid when she wasn’t by an aid station and literally couldn’t continue. She made it 30 miles and still placed in that category.
I remember when she told me that she twisted her ankle on mile two of a rim to rim to rim Grand Canyon hike. (For the uninformed that is a one day 50 mile hike that is all up or down the steep walls of the canyon and crosses the Colorado and Phantom ranch). She still completed it in 16 hours. She posted pictures to facebook of her swollen ankle. I thought that she was insane for walking downhill for 10 miles on a strained ankle without camping gear in case she couldn’t make it out. In hindsight, I’m glad that she did it. I would have turned around.
At her death I’m left asking myself some questions. Is there anything in life that I’m too afraid to take on because I worry I won’t have the energy? Is there a project I’m leaving undone because I’d rather watch a movie or relax? Do I let the minor aches and pains of my body keep me from going on the adventures that Ioana and I dreamed up together?
Ioana’s physical and mental strength were just one part of her essence. She loved her husband with reckless abandon. She met him when she was only 18 years old. He was twice her age. It didn’t matter. She believed in their love and she was right. She didn’t second-guess her love when others wondered how someone so young could know who to marry. They shared a deep love for adventure in the canyon. She cooked him amazing Romanian food and homemade yogurt. She enthusiastically shared how physically attracted she was to Andrew even in venues where people might have turned and stared. They raised kittens together in their sock drawer and cried when her first cat died. They took their friends and families on adventures.
His heart is breaking for her:
“My light, my fire, and my love: I am so broken and lost. I say “my” but I could only hold you like a butterfly. I will find the poem I wrote you, when we met. I hope you knew the exultant joy and perfect love I felt merely being in your presence. Watching you do… everything… with zeal and passion. Please come to me in my dreams. Yes, YES, YES, (you asked me so often), I DO know the depth of your love for me. It is my honor and salvation. Everyone saw it, how we found truth and happiness with each other.
To those whose lives Ioana touched: Love each other. Now. Deeply. With abandon. You will not regret it.. I promise you.”
The day I found out she died I spent an hour or two sending messages to friends and calling my grandparents to tell them I loved them. Nobody knew why I’d picked that day to skip school and tell them why I appreciated them. I hadn’t told Ioana about the ways she inspired me and how much I appreciated her texts, her invitations, going on her wedding trip across the Grand Canyon. Whenever I showed up to her house, to the ASU pool, to her wedding she lit up and told me how glad she was to see me. She was never afraid to shout out the truth. She was kind, honest and lived as if she had nothing to hide. She didn’t.
When I spent time with Ioana there were times I couldn’t believe what she was doing even though I delighted in fantasizing about adventures with her. After her graduation party she woke up at three in the morning to drive the Grand Canyon. And she was sick. I was too quick to judge her. Too quick to stay home when I thought a trip might wear me out. And too likely to miss out on love and beauty because of the effort it takes to get packed and leave town. She never would have completed what she did in 24 years if she had waited for all of her bruises and blisters to heal.
I’m not sad for Ioana’s sake because I knew that if she looked back on her life she will never wonder if she could have done more. She wouldn’t ask, Could I have taken more than 22 credits in a semester? Could I have triple majored in French, math and biology? Could I have walked farther than 50 miles in one day? Could I have kept running after I vomited up all my food and liquid at mile 30? Could I have put more energy into my friends? Could I have taken more time for adventure? Could I have led more than 17 people into the Grand Canyon on my honeymoon? Could I have carried more than two overnight backpacks up thousands of steps if another guest had been ill? Could I have loved Andrew more deeply?
The answers would all be no. She did as much as anyone could. Her life was short, but wonderful. She wasn’t waiting to graduate, to get older, to have more money, to be less busy, to start living. She won’t have regrets. I’m not crying for her life-I’m crying for all of the people who don’t have her anymore. We have her stories and memories and many people will be inspired to pour themselves into their passion in her name. People are donating her her scholarship fund for female mathematicians.
My heart breaks for Andrew. I tucked him in last night and held his hand and told him everything I could remember Ioana had ever said about him. I was thankful all I could remember was Ioana talking about loving Andrew. I could look Andrew in the eyes and share everything I remembered she’d said about him and know that it would make him secure in her love for him. She wanted his body. She was always sure about her wedding. She was proud of his book. She loved going to the canyon with him.
Ioana, I love your spirit and I’ll carry it with me when I climb mountains, ride my bike for 10 hours in a row and try to change math education.
What dream will Ioana’s strength inspire you to attack with no fear of failure?