Last week I was in one of the most beautiful places in the world, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But instead of days filled with hiking, I spent a good chunk of my time there in a windowless, concrete-floored room the size of an airplane hanger, surrounded by enough bridge players to populate a good-sized town. Yes, it was time again for the world’s largest regional bridge tournament, in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. But as much of a bridge-geek as I am, the real reason I make the trip is to get back to one of my favorite spots in the world, and I snuck out as often as I could and got into the woods. (Shh! Don’t tell my partners!)
I’ve written before about my love for the Smoky Mountains, and how special they were to my father. In November of 2016, the town of Gatlinburg and the surrounding forests were seriously damaged by wildfires and 14 people died. Last April, when I played in the tournament, the destruction was still fresh, with burned out homes and vast, blackened swaths of forest. This year I was heartened to see spring coming to the mountains with a vengeance, new growth sprouting up even amidst burned out trees and scorched soil. This triumph over destruction, this rebirth and renewal was a visible promise of the Easter season—and in a way, it felt to me like a sign of hope during a bittersweet time.
As much as my friends and I loved playing in this tournament (and getting in a bit of hiking) this year it felt like a fire had torn through our little bridge world, too. Our friend Claire, probably the most enthusiastic among us about competitive bridge tournaments, couldn’t be with us this time. While we were at the bridge table, she was in the hospital 650 miles away, facing severe health complications from her stage-IV cancer treatments and the progression of her disease.
We’ve loved having Claire as part of our group in Gatlinburg these past years. She is French, and it the sight of our stylish, worldly friend amid the town’s ticky-tacky t-shirt shops and moonshine bars always made me smile. This year, she was never far from our thoughts, as we texted her pictures of hysterically-dressed bridge players (bridge tournaments are not for the sartorially faint of heart) to boost her spirits. But we were acutely aware that she won’t be with us in Gatlinburg again.
We understand what lies ahead, and we all ache for Claire and her family. But I also take heart in the new trees sprouting amid the ashes on those Tennessee hillsides. Death and destruction came to the mountains, but so did the promise of new life. On that Friday afternoon 2000 years ago, the disciples experienced a death that seemed so final, too, but in three days, the world changed—for me, for Claire, for all mankind. Life conquered death so that this world will not be the end. And when the inevitable happens, through my tears, I’ll take heart in the life I saw rising from the Tennessee ashes, remember our times there, and know that death comes, but it doesn’t triumph.