Keep Going

Issue 36 by Forrest Brown

Keep Going

It’s October in British Columbia and unseasonably warm. This means it’s also hot in the cabin of the twin-prop Cessna carrying me northwest, so I twist out of my sweatshirt and squirm in my seat to find a comfortable way to sit. No success.

I’m on assignment for Outdoors, going to interview Diana Li at her vacation cabin up north. This is a bit of an unusual assignment for me. I usually cover the climate crisis and other environmental issues, but when my editor told me the billionaire-environmentalist-entrepreneur requested to arrange an interview and that they wanted me to do it, I couldn’t say no. This is the biggest opportunity I’ve had as a writer, so the next week I was at JFK boarding a plane to Seattle.

The start of the rainy season could honestly be any hour at this point, but for now it’s just sticky warm, like a lollipop you forgot in the pocket of your jeans. Old growth evergreen forests and a few remaining snow-capped mountains drift below, and the cabin smells like sweaty deodorant and stale, recirculated air. The hornet-drone of the engines doesn’t permit conversation between me and the handful of Chinese and white Americans also making the trip, though they’re traveling for vacation.

Diana is the co-founder and CEO of luxury outdoor brand Capilano, and her cabin is in a remote part of British Columbia. It feels like it must be halfway to Alaska judging by the way it looks, but in reality, it’s only a couple of hours’ flight from Seattle. Before word got out that Diana was staying here, backpackers and ill-prepared hikers were the only people you’d find making this trip. But the upper-middle class can sniff out money and power like a shark can smell blood in the water. Soon this remote corner of North America will be teeming with them.

As a child growing up near the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina, I believed Diana was a goddess. I remember keeping her cover issue of National Geographic Kids on my nightstand at all times, and I begged and pleaded with my mom to buy me a Capilano fleece jacket for when we went hiking in the fall, though she always said they were too expensive.

After my mother died, Diana became even more inspiring to me. She, too, faced hardship as a young woman: her parents disowned her in college when she came out as a lesbian; she left all the diversity and opportunity in New York to move back to Vancouver and start from scratch; she, as a queer woman of color, started one of the most successful clothing brands in the world, in the affluent, white-dominated space of outdoor clothing, no less. She was famous for being a billionaire and a genius, but I loved her for never fitting in, for losing her family, and for loving nature and wanting to inspire others to love it, too.

“Ladies and gentlemen, as we’re about to make our final descent, I’d ask you to fasten your seatbelts,” the captain says over the fuzzy intercom. “Welcome to Canada.”

The Cessna touches down on a narrow airstrip by a glacial lake, and I disembark with the other passengers to file through a makeshift customs inspection. We’re only coming from Seattle, but the Canadian border agents search us thoroughly for matches, lighters, cigarettes, weed. Wildfires weren’t a major concern in this part of the country until recent years, but now, even in the rainy season, the government strictly prohibits anything that could cause a wildfire from entering the borders of British Columbia. The tourists leave me, departing on a shuttle bound for some hotel. I’m expecting Li’s personal driver, Miss Ko, but I don’t wait long before a black electric sedan—sleek and silent—pulls up to take me away.

Miss Ko steps out of the driver seat to help me with my bags. She looks to be in her mid-twenties—fragile build with shoulder-length chestnut hair, skin like porcelain except for one nickel-sized discoloration on her left cheek. She speaks in a soft accent with a twang that I can’t place, maybe Thai or Vietnamese? She introduces herself as Diana’s personal assistant. I sit in the backseat and we head to Diana’s cabin in the woods. It’s raining now, and the mist moving through the evergreens like ghosts in slow motion suggests some ethereal notion of us crossing more than national borders.

My editors are interested in Diana because her wife, Zhang, recently disappeared. The tabloids all suggest foul play, but no one is sure of anything. For weeks Diana has been holed up here in her cabin, presumably trying to escape media harassment. My editor and I were surprised last week when she reached out to us and requested an interview. She said she’s ready to open up, and I suppose I’m about to discover what that means.

As we bump up the gravel driveway that snakes through the woods, the cabin emerges through the trees just ahead. Miss Ko parks at the front door and cuts the power to help me with my luggage. Leading the way, she welcomes me inside and shows me to the room where I’ll be staying. I leave my shoes at the door and follow her down a narrow hallway with high ceilings where she leaves me to unpack.

“Mrs. Li will see you in an hour,” Miss Ko tells me. “She’s at afternoon meditation right now but wants to have tea with you at four o’clock. Is that alright?”

“Of course it is,” I say, still in disbelief that I’m really going to meet her.

Miss Ko is exceedingly polite and promises to be back to fetch me at ten till. In the meantime, I retrieve my phone charger from my suitcase and snoop around my room. It’s nice, to say the least—minimalist, of course, in the way homes of the super wealthy always are, though I thought this was supposed to be a vacation cabin. I have my own bathroom (a mosaic of hexagonal slate-colored tiles), complete with a heated towel rack, which captures my attention more than anything else in the room. It’s just like the one my father and I picked out for my mother during the final months of her life, after the chemo had leeched the warmth from her bones. I like to think she’d be proud to see me here now, refusing to just be the girl whose mom died of cancer.

I set my things down and slump onto the bed, accidentally falling asleep with my phone beside me at six percent battery. Miss Ko’s gentle knocking and sing-song voice wakes me up some time later, and I curse in a spurt of panic when I realize my phone, my go-to audio recorder for interviews, is dead. Miss Ko pays no attention to the fact that I obviously just woke up, my afro flat on one side from lying on it, my hands and forearms already ashy from the dry air.

“Mrs. Li will see you now,” she says.

I’m left to frantically put myself together before heading to the sitting room for tea. Some caffeine would be good for my muddled mind. Quickly, I dig my phone charger from my duffel bag and plug it in by the nightstand before rifling back through my bag to retrieve the old-fashioned paper notebook and pen I brought with me. My notebook promises me nothing and asks nothing in return. My phone promises everything as long as I’m willing to offer some parts of myself.

I pinch a couple of saline drops into my burning eyes and head to the sitting room. Diana is waiting for me, perched in a simple wooden chair next to a side table. I’m immediately struck by how haggard she looks—acne-dotted forehead and cheeks, puffy gray bags under her eyes, hair greasy and nest-like.

“Kina?” she says.

Her voice is louder than I expected, and my heart skips a beat at hearing my name coming from her mouth. You cannot be starstruck, I say to myself, and I put on my best professional face and try to seem unfazed by her presence.

“It’s good to meet you, Mrs. Li,” I say.

I take the seat across from her and set my notebook on the table.

“Call me Diana,” she says brusquely. She adds a “please” when she realizes she must have sounded rude.

“Diana, of course,” I say. “Named after the late British princess?”

This was a detail I actually knew from reading about her all the time as a child. I wouldn’t have known otherwise—I was born fourteen years after Princess Diana died, in 2011. But as Diana glances at the ground in irritation, I realize I shouldn’t have said this.

“How did you know,” she says.

My cheeks are burning red through my bronze skin, I’m sure. She must know how highly I think of her, how I worshipped her as a child, the countless times I begged my now-dead mother for an eighty-dollar Capilano fleece jacket.

“My parents admired Princess Diana,” she says. “They found the idea of a royal family quaint. But even princesses aren’t immune to tragedy. They were sad when she died.”

Miss Ko enters now with the tea, bowing slightly before leaving us with the blistering kettle. Diana offers me a cup and then pours one for herself. Jasmine, scent of heaven, Chinese symbol of eternal love.

“You’re from Seattle?” she says. Her face looks guarded, not stern. As we talk, her expression doesn’t change.

“New York,” I say. “By way of Asheville.”

“You moved to New York for Outdoors?”

“Yes, ironic that one of the most iconic outdoor magazines is headquartered in a concrete jungle.”

Finally, the corner of her mouth curves up in the suggestion of a smirk. The tea has cooled, so I sip it before I have another chance to say something stupid now that I’ve secured a smile.

“So let’s jump right into it, then,” Diana says. “I asked to be interviewed, after all. I want the world to hear the true story, straight from the source. And I trust Outdoors as a publisher of quality journalism.”

I’m caught off guard by how soon she wants to start, and I fumble through my notebook to find a blank page, cursing myself for falling asleep before charging my usual recording device.

“Yes, yes,” I say. “I’m ready when you are.” I am now in full journalist mode.

She tells me her story, starting with how she met Zhang, before Diana started Capilano. Like many stories of young love, Diana and Zhang’s started in college. They both studied at NYU, sat next to each other in a gen-ed class one day, and were already talking about marriage by the time the spring semester rolled around. Zhang grew up in nearby Boston, an American-born child of Chinese immigrants. She wanted to be a writer one day—Diana, an entrepreneur. It was, by that point, fifteen years after the U.S. legalized same-sex marriage, but neither of their families took well to their daughters coming out.

Diana and Zhang married anyway, and after the wedding, Diana moved back to Vancouver with her young wife. Diana’s parents and Zhang’s parents wouldn’t speak to them anymore, but they got along fine, starting Capilano out of their tiny apartment a few years later. Neither Diana nor Zhang had any idea it would grow into one of the most popular outdoor clothing brands in North America before either of them was forty.

Of course, I could have recited all this information in my sleep, but I listen politely as I sip my tea, the shake in my hands and buzz in my brain from meeting my hero beginning to wear off. The enormous expansion of Capilano fills out the rest of Diana’s story between then and now, so she skips ahead to the real reason I’m here: Zhang.

“By the time Capilano was a publicly traded corporation, she didn’t need to spend any time at the office anymore,” Diana says, referring to her absent wife. “I encouraged her to work on her writing, to attend workshops and classes. We built her an office in the loft of our home, and she spent most of her time holed up there, working on a novel.”

In fact, Zhang was up there writing when one of the worst wildfires to hit B.C. completely destroyed their community in West Vancouver.

“I remember taking her call telling me they were being evacuated and to meet her at the waterfront. I was downtown that day, and I could see the smoke from my office,” Diana says. “I felt totally helpless. She couldn’t talk for long, but she told me not to worry. Easier said than done.”

Diana says Zhang was never quite the same after the wildfire. She described scenes similar to ones I’d heard in history class about the 2018 California Camp Fire, back when such symptoms of the changing climate were becoming more common. Zhang and her neighbors fled on foot, the rubber soles of their shoes melting to the asphalt as they ran for life. The fire consumed everything—neighbors, pets, cars, houses, trees, wildlife.

“Zhang started having these horrific nightmares after it was all over,” Diana says. “She’d wake up screaming in the middle of the night, crawling down the halls and shouting commands to not breathe the smoke. She was inconsolable. She practically became manic during wildfire season, every summer worse than the last, though a wildfire hasn’t hit Vancouver again since. The old residents of West Vancouver wanted to rebuild, but she wouldn’t hear any argument for moving back. We moved to Burnaby—a good twenty-three kilometers away—but she still slept in the living room every summer with a go-bag next to the couch.”

“How did the experience affect you?” I ask.

“It was hard to see her like that and know I couldn’t do anything,” Diana says. “Something was eating her from the inside. She had PTSD, but I think the way she saw her place in the world completely changed, too. I know it did for me.”

“How do you mean?”

Diana frowns, and I can see deep forehead wrinkles stretching across the face that once looked so youthful on the cover of Nat Geo Kids. She starts slowly, choosing her words carefully.

“We both thought we could fix the world’s biggest problems before the fire. We were inspired by the Gates’ work all those years ago—the education they advanced, the diseases they fought, the clean energy they funded. We thought we could do that, too, with our charitable foundation, our money, Zhang’s writing. But after the fire, the world showed its dark complexities to us, its indifference to what we wanted and thought we could achieve. We could no more stop the wildfires and rising oceans than the dinosaurs could stop the asteroid that killed them all. But I think for Zhang, this became fact, something she knew deep in her bones. It wasn’t ever real for me the way it was for her, having narrowly escaped the flames nipping at her heels. I’ll never fully understand, but I think I sort of get it now.”

I sip my tea, thinking about when it will be appropriate to ask. Before I realize I’ve made a decision, my mouth is quietly forming the words: “Where is Zhang now?”

Diana must know I had to ask this, and I think she wanted someone to come here to ask her just as bad as my editors wanted her to tell me. She calmly sets her teacup onto its saucer.

“Dead,” she says. She seems to look through me, through the world. “After seeing doctors for months, she chose to be done. I begged and begged her, but how can you strip a person of the last thing within their control? A week later, a doctor in Vancouver wrote her a prescription for an anti-nausea medication and a poison to mix in water. She asked me to play Satie’s Gymnopédies on our record player, and she passed peacefully in our bedroom while I lay beside her.”

Diana doesn’t cry or show emotion, she just sips her tea as she recites this mantra to me—the same way my father was after my mother passed away.

So Zhang died by physician-assisted suicide, and I’m the first to know, I think. Looking at Diana now, the way she stares blankly into her empty teacup, I can’t help but wonder if she wants to join Zhang.

***

I feel guilty for thinking about it now, but I’m famished after a long day of traveling. Miss Ko has a meal of grains and roasted autumn vegetables ready for us, so we move to the dining room. Diana uncorks a bottle of wine.

“Do you drink?” she says.

I nod, and she pours me a glass of Chianti—now a very expensive Old-World blend from what used to be the verdant and fertile hills of Tuscany. We pick at our sweet potatoes and farro until Diana breaks the silence pooling around us.

“Zhang always made me drink alone,” she says. “She didn’t drink. As far as I know, she never tried any alcohol. Very devout Buddhist, said it muddled the mind.”

“She was probably healthier for it,” I say. “Were you also raised Buddhist?”

“No, my family didn’t practice religion. Neither did Zhang’s, really. They only did it for cultural reasons, you might call them ‘holiday Buddhists.’ But Zhang felt a real connection to it, she was entirely self-motivated.”

“That never rubbed off on you?” I say, thinking of earlier when I arrived during Diana’s afternoon meditation.

Diana laughs.

“I’m afraid I’m too cynical for religion, even for an agnostic one,” she says. “I do keep our meditation habits, though—for health reasons. There’s nothing religious about meditation, it’s like yoga for the mind. It reduces stress. Besides, Zhang would kill me if she knew I stopped. I keep telling myself it will make it easier now that she’s gone, but...”

I dab the red wine away from my upper lip with a cloth napkin, letting it linger while I gather my thoughts. I can’t stop thinking of how she reminded me of my father earlier, the way he almost turned to stone after the cancer won.

“You know, my mother died when I was young,” I say. “At first I didn’t know what to feel. I couldn’t believe it happened to me, that my mother was dead. You hear about that happening, but you always think it’s just something you hear about, not something that actually happens to you. It was senseless.”

The energy in the room shifts, and I feel a frenetic tension from Diana. Despite the wine, she’s completely sober. I decide to keep going, perhaps against my better judgment.

“That’s when I knew there was no God. That’s when I really felt it,” I say. “Things just happen. That time, the thing was cancer, and it happened to my mom. But knowing that didn’t make it hurt any less. Just like you said, the world was indifferent to what I wanted.”

Diana looks down at her wine and finishes the last few drops. It seems I said too much again, but this time is worse than before. It could be I’ve been unprofessional. I’m here as a journalist, after all, not an armchair therapist or friend. Diana clears her throat.

“More wine?”

“No, thank you,” I say, staring at my plate. I’ve scarcely touched what she poured me to begin with.

“I’m heading to bed. Please don’t hesitate to ring Miss Ko should you need anything.”

I nod, and Diana heads upstairs, bottle of wine tucked under her arm. Unsure of what to do now and certain Diana won’t want to talk to me tomorrow, I leave my dishes in the kitchen sink and head to bed.

That night, vivid dreams of black smoke and trees engulfed in flames deny me the sleep I crave. I toss and turn for what feels like days, and soon the sun is peeking through the blinds and it’s morning.

***

Miss Ko wakes me up, bringing in oatmeal and fresh fruit with coffee for breakfast. She leaves it on a tray at the foot of my bed while I roll around, refusing to start the day. When I do get up to eat and take a quick shower, I use the towel warming rack for the first time. This is what a billion dollars must feel like, I think to myself. Is the damp cold of the Pacific Northwest what cancer’s icy throttle felt like to my mom?

It’s small comforts like these—like a warm hug after you turn off the shower and step out into the cold—that make you consider how lucky you are to be a living thing, if only fleetingly. I think of Zhang and wonder if she could feel her body going cold as she died while the recordings of a dead French composer bounced around her bedroom. The warm towel pressed against my body smothers the deathly chill, and I go to dress myself.

I find Diana waiting for me on the back deck, just outside the kitchen. She looks much better today, and I can see she’s hidden her acne with concealer, leaving subtle, powdery bumps on her cheeks where red sores used to be. Miss Ko is loading the dishwasher as I walk through the kitchen to see Diana, and she gives me a quiet “good morning” before leaving the room to give us some privacy.

“Good morning,” Diana says as I close one of the French doors to the deck behind me. “Sleep well?”

I’m surprised she doesn’t just ask me to leave. Hesitantly, I say, “The bed was wonderful, but I kept having nightmares. I feel like I didn’t sleep at all.”

“This place does that. Supposedly there are ghosts in the mountains that give people nightmares. Once they get used to you, they leave you alone.”

“I’ve never heard that,” I say. I sit in the wooden chair next to Diana. The deck offers an unobscured view of the ocean on a clear day, though now that the rain is here, it’s impossible to see the Pacific through the fog.

“This must be a beautiful view in summer,” I say.

“You get used to it after a while,” she says. “Before you know it, it’s like the ocean isn’t even there anymore.” She sips her tea. “Mm, maybe I have more in common with the ghosts than I thought.”

I shift uncomfortably, and Diana takes notice.

“Today I thought we could go hiking,” she says. “I trust you brought a good rain jacket?”

It seems my trip won’t be cut short after all. I’ll get to write the full profile.

“Yes,” I say. “The rain—I guess it doesn’t bother you after a while, either?”

“It’s noticeable right now because we’ve just had perfect weather all summer,” Diana says. “But the best way to get used to the water is to jump right into it. That’s how I think about hiking in the rain, anyway.”

The door opens behind us, and Miss Ko is there with our raincoats and rainboots. She helps us with our coats and then goes to the garage to pull around an electric Range Rover that will take us into the mountains.

***

The difference between hiking in the rain outside of Seattle and hiking in the rain outside of Vancouver is the umbrellas. People don’t carry umbrellas in Seattle, but in Vancouver, they do. Whether or not they do this far north remains a mystery to me, but Diana, at least, carries an umbrella for us to share as we hike through the otherworldly green of the conifer forest. Water squelches up around our boots as we step, and the air smells like Christmas trees. Diana recounts childhood stories of hiking with her family, stories that remind me of my own childhood when we would take weekend trips to the Blue Ridge Mountains, before Mom’s diagnosis. Diana’s stories involve much more rain than mine.

“So why not live somewhere else where it doesn’t rain as much?” I say. “Why would you want to have to go through cycles of rainy and dry seasons year after year?”

“You’ve obviously never been up here in summer,” Diana says. “Well, don’t tell anyone, but we have the best summers on the whole planet. No humidity, not too hot, no rain, and lots of enjoying the outdoors. It’s wonderful. At least, it was before the wildfires got really bad. Thankfully they haven’t made it this far north yet.”

“Summers in North Carolina are miserable. The only way to escape the heat and humidity is to go way high up in the mountains. New York is just as bad, only there are no mountains to get away to for a few hours. And the subway in the summer is…ah, I hate even thinking about it.”

“So why do you do it year after year?” Diana says. She turns to give me a smile.

“That’s just what you do when you live in New York, I guess. And of course you want to live in New York.”

At this, Diana actually laughs as we near the end of the trail, stepping out from the watchful eyes of the trees to stand on a massive bluff. We’re up high, and though we can hardly see farther than fifteen feet in front of us, I imagine the view is stunning on a clear day. The steady rain seeps into our bones through our coats and shrouds everything in mist. All we can see in every direction is gray, gray, gray. Diana falls sullen like she was yesterday, as if suddenly visited by a sad memory.

She steps ahead of me. “Really, though. Why do you do that?” she says.

“Sorry, what?” I say.

“Keep going. Even when you know it won’t get better. When you know it’s just going to get worse.” The patter of rain is the only sound to ward off total silence, and I realize we’re no longer talking about riding the subway in summer. “I miss her every day, but Zhang was smart to leave when she did. I hate her for it. I fucking hate her. Is that wrong of me to say?”

I take a couple steps forward. I’m just a few feet behind her now.

“I remember feeling that way before, too,” I say. “And I might be overstepping my boundaries saying this, but I remember being so fucking mad when my mom died. People thought I was mad at the situation, or mad at God, but I was mad at her. I felt like she’d abandoned us.”

“Yeah, well, my wife didn’t have cancer. She killed herself.”

There’s my dad again, speaking through Diana—the numbness, the resignation. I feel myself channeling the same anger toward Diana that I had for him, but I can’t let it show.

I take a deep breath and another step forward. “But what if she did, in a way? Sure, maybe a different kind, but still cancer. Like a cancer of the spirit? You said yourself that something was eating her from the inside. That sounds like cancer to me.”

Diana whips around.

“Shut the fuck up,” she says. “You shut the fuck up right now. I didn’t invite you here for a lecture or to hear about your problems. All I wanted was to clear the air, to make sure the world heard it from me first. Zhang committed suicide. There’s your story. That’s why I’ve been holed up here for weeks, trying to find a reason why I shouldn’t kill myself, too.”

I’m startled at first, but I’m not surprised. I can remember how I used to lash out after my mother died. Now I think, fuck it, and reach to place my hand on Diana’s shoulder.

She bats it off almost immediately.

“Don’t touch me,” she spits.

But I reach out again, this time slower.

“Diana,” I say calmly. I want to say I’ve been there, that I know what she’s going through, but instead I just say it again: “Diana.”

She crumbles, practically knocking me over as she slumps into my arms, moaning loudly and breathing in bursts so hard and fast I’m afraid she’ll hyperventilate and pass out. I think this must be the first time she’s let herself feel the sting of Zhang’s absence—to really feel it. It’s tempting to offer consolation, to tell her it’ll be okay, but I know she just needs someone holding on. So I hold her until she’s done and then we hike back down the mountain to Miss Ko in the warm car, its headlights cutting through the fog like a beacon to guide the tired and the lost. Like us. Like all of us.

About the Author

Forrest Brown

Website

I wrote the first draft of “Keep Going” in the summer of 2017 as I was going through my own mental health struggles triggered by climate change, a condition called climate grief. I believe taking action is one of the best ways to cope with climate grief, and writing is one of the most helpful ways for me to take action personally. I also write and produce a podcast called Stories for Earth about works of literature that deal with climate change.