He usually came with friends. This time, he climbed by himself. As he looked around, he saw eager tourists and locals chatting in small groups, taking pictures and eating sugary and salty snacks. Several languages drifted through the air amidst a cacophony of laughter, bargaining and infantile wailing. The sun was setting and the sky dimming – the once bright yellow of the day dissolving into murky lavenders, blues, oranges, and pinks. The twinkling of the night’s lights below him grew ever steadier, as if welcoming the stars above. He loved this place, loved it for how unnaturally peaceful it always seemed, for the beauty that enveloped it and extended from it endlessly. A wisp of doubt surfaced and edged towards the cognitive structure that was his decision. It gathered thickness, spawned new tendrils and neared ever closer, momentarily threatening to cloud his thinking, and then it was gone.
Cerro San Cristóbal rises gently to a height of over 800 meters within the heart of Santiago, Chile. The hill is quilted in sparse foliage and towering trees and offers several paths to reach the summit where the Virgin Mary awaits. She stands solemnly, majestically, expectantly. The smooth, flowing white stone that is her hair kisses the wind sixty feet above her robed feet. With her arms slightly raised and outstretched, she looks out over the city, watching it, loving it. Hernán sat on the steps near the base of the holy colossus. Surrounding the statue is a leveled surface with rails on the edges, where people often stand to look out at the snow-capped mountains, the glossy skyscrapers and the miniaturized versions of everyday forms of life. On days like this, Hernán is usually helplessly transfixed by the dance of unearthly hues upon the horizon. He walked over to the rail, but instead of looking out, he could not help but look down.
He could see where he lived. On the far side of the city was a collection of modest single-family homes, one of which was his. It was an old neighborhood, and most people knew each other. Friends his age, their much younger kids, and their even younger grandkids would often drop by, asking to hear one of his stories, to seek advice or just to try a bite of what he had baked that afternoon. A weak smile wiggled into his lips, and he chuckled lightly to himself. A deep sigh followed. It was not enough. He rested both of his wrinkly, worn hands on the partially rusted metal; it felt colder than usual.
Almost everyone Hernán knew was Catholic. Yet, he realized long ago that he met many more ‘religious’ people than he did ‘faithful’ people. It is easy to be religious, he mused; others write the rules for you. Putting faith in something requires thought, patience and confidence. Keeping faith requires making the same decision over and over again, even when blindfolded by uncertainty and crippled by suffering. You must choose, and you can only hope you choose right. Hernán embraced life in all its forms, put faith in love and lived to learn. Ever the student, he was not one to shy away from disagreement. The Catholic Church promoted the sanctity of life for its own sake. Happiness was assumed to be a natural and unyielding byproduct of our existences. Hernán was not so sure. He was spiritual and brimming with passion, but he was never very religious. Perhaps that was why he felt strangely at ease as he breathed in the cool of the oncoming darkness.
The night was steadily approaching, its celestial blanket being carefully pulled over the world by Helios and his chariot. The chill nestled into his bones, joining the ache that he had harbored in his heart for the last twenty-nine years. There was not much left of her anymore. The crookedness of her smile, the melody of her laughter, the deepness of her eyes, the smooth of her skin and the feel of her hand intertwined with his – time had stolen almost everything. He was left with fragments, a sad, tattered patchwork of her essence. And the pain. Time left that, too. He devoted himself to the happiness of others, thinking it would suffice. The restlessness, nevertheless, continued to noiselessly burn, the intensity of the heat stubbornly growing one year at a time, one ember at a time. He would not let it consume him. He tried to be good to himself and to those around him; he tried to love truly and deeply; he tried to seek beauty, even after she was gone. Now, he was just tired.
It was dark. Quietness replaced the sounds of life. He glanced back at the Virgin Mary, now illuminated by the lights at the base of her feet. It was beautiful. It was time. His best friend had been waiting far too long. He turned and began his descent.