Wayne County Wanderings: "Searching for Aril in the Northern Lights"
Every once in a great while, a person comes along who makes an indelible impression on your life.
For me in my role as a writer here at The Wayne Independent, Aril Bryant was one of those people.
Over the course of 25 years covering sports in Northeastern Pennsylvania, Bryant remains one of my all-time favorite student/athletes.
Aril was a bona fide superstar on the basketball court for Honesdale. From a personal perspective, she was my kind of player: fearless and relentless, diving into the stands after a loose ball or attacking a girl twice her size.
Aril thrived in high pressure situations. You definitely wanted the ball in her hands with a game on the line.
She led the Lady Hornets to many electrifying wins during her varsity career, then took her talents to the NCAA level and four more years of headlines at Muhlenberg.
After graduating with a Bachelors degree in photography, Aril set out to see the world.
Following several years of travel and professional achievements, she returned home to start up her own business.
Sadly, just as she was hitting her stride with “Freedlove,” tragedy struck. Aril was diagnosed with breast cancer. She put up a courageous fight, but finally succumbed to the insidious disease.
Aril passed away on July 23, 2013 surrounded by her loving family.
She was a wonderful young woman, taken from us far too soon.
This week’s column recounts a remarkable journey undertaken by three of Aril’s closest friends.
It’s a tale that begins here in Honesdale, but ends on the edge of a glacial lake in Iceland ... under the Northern Lights.
Elizabeth Aril Bryant was born February 24, 1983, the daughter of Arthur A. Bryant and Jane A. Case, Honesdale.
According to her Dad, Aril was an old soul.
“She wasn’t hyper-intellectual, but she was definitely a deep thinker and very intuitive,” Art said.
“Aril loved people, but nature really resonated with her, too. Especially toward the end, she became kind of mystical. She found transcendence in natural things.”
Despite her bitter battle with the disease that eventually took her life, Aril remained active and competitive.
She used her athletic skills to raise funds and awareness for cancer research at every opportunity.
In fact, mere months before her death, she and Art completed a three-day bike tour that covered 225 miles.
“To this day, I still don’t know how she did it,” he said. “She was exhausted, but she refused to quit. She dug down deep and gutted it out. I was incredibly proud of her.”
Aril never turned down a chance to spread the word about cancer.
She was tireless in her pursuit of a cure, not just for herself, but for all those in similar situations.
It’s that type of passion which attracted a close-knit group of friends ... three of whom recently embarked on an incredible pilgrimage in Aril’s memory.
Cortney (Adams) McNelley, Orley (White) Templeton and Abby (Henderson) Pittenger banded together for an epic quest to honor one of Aril’s last wishes.
“She always wanted to go to Iceland and see the Northern Lights,” Art explained. “It was on her bucket list. In fact, we’d already started making plans when she just got too weak.”
And so, five years later ... on what would have been Aril’s 35th birthday ... the three friends flew into the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik.
Cortney and Aril met in fifth grade at the Wayne Highlands Middle School.
They were both in Mr. Field’s homeroom and ran against one another for Student Council representative.
It was a close race, but in the end Cortney lost.
After the votes were tallied and the winner announced, she went over to Aril, stuck out her hand and offered congratulations.
“I called her Elizabeth,” she chuckled. “I don’t think I ever called her that again.”
For Cortney, this trip to Iceland to chase the Northern Lights became more about the grieving process than anything else.
Though Aril’s death occurred five years ago, Cortney never really dealt head-on with her loss.
“I avoided thinking about it because it hurt so much,” she said.
“Then life happened. I moved far away and started a family. I guess I tried to bury it.”
The trip to Iceland was Cortney’s idea. She made the initial phone calls and got the ball rolling.
The entire planning process took three months; but, in the end, they made it happen for their late lamented friend.
“Aril loved hard,” Cortney said, a catch in her throat.
“She always looked for the best in everyone. Aril could really see the person sitting next her. That seems like such a simple thing, but it isn’t. It’s rare.”
As with Cortney, Orley’s relationship with Aril dates back to middle school.
“We really got to know each other in fifth and sixth grade,” she said.
“Basketball played a big part. We were together all the time and our friendship just kind of blossomed.”
As can sometimes happen in early adulthood, Orley lost track of many friends after high school graduation.
It wasn’t until about five years after college that she and Aril really reconnected.
“She was such a passionate person,” Orley said. “Anytime Aril did something, she was all-in. I loved that about her.”
Orley has a picture of Aril in her office, one that she looks at everyday. It’s a photo that evokes happy memories and never fails to make her smile.
“Aril loved adventures,” she said.
“So, when Cortney came up with the idea of going to Iceland and seeing the Northern Lights, I knew we had to do it.”
Abby didn’t hesitate. From the moment Cortney suggested the trip, she started making plans.
“There was no way I wasn’t going,” she said. “I have two kids and we all lead busy lives, but we were going to make it work.”
Abby loved the idea of honoring the memory of her dear friend on what would have been her 35th birthday.
“In a lot of ways, Aril brought us all together,” she said. “She had such an amazing personality. This is something Aril always wanted to do and I’m so glad we made it happen.”
Abby and Aril shared many adventures on the basketball court and off.
Even now, all these years later and thousands of miles from where they said their last farewell, the two remain inextricably connected.
“I think about Aril every day,” she said, her voice a whisper. “I felt her the entire trip. I felt her with us.”
Cortney, Orley and Abby got their first glimpse of the Northern Lights from the plane as it descended into Reykjavik.
From the moment the pilot came on the intercom to alert his passengers, they could sense something special.
“That’s the first time I really felt Aril’s presence,” Abby said.
“It was three a.m. and we were pretty exhausted, but they were beautiful and I could sense her with us.”
Since all three were on a tight schedule, the visit was something of a whirlwind, lasting from Saturday to Monday.
Nevertheless, they made the best of it and came away with the experience of a lifetime.
“We saw waterfalls and volcanoes and the Blue Lagoon,” Abby said. “The whole thing was amazing and beautiful.”
Orley was quick to agree.
“We had a fantastic time,” she said.
“Aril would have loved it. Reykjavik is such a vibrant city. It really made me think of her from the moment we arrived. She was so passionate, just like the city.”
Cortney concurred, but also found a bit of humor in the situation.
“Anyone who knew Aril knows that she was always cold,” she said with a laugh.
“I think she absolutely would’ve loved Iceland, but I definitely think she would have preferred to go in July instead of February.”
The culmination of this epic journey came at the end of a long bus ride out of the city.
Cortney, Orley and Abby stood on the edge of a glacial lake in the middle of the Icelandic night.
They gazed upward, scanning the skies until...
“It was pretty incredible,” Abby said.
“The lights were this brilliant green. They were really bright for about 15 minutes.
“It wasn’t quite like we imagined it would be, but it was an amazing experience. We all felt Aril’s presence pretty intensely.”
Heaven & Earth
The picture that accompanies this story shows the three friends, arm-in-arm on the shoreline of a glittering glacial lake.
There are mountains towering in the background, surging up through the clouds toward Heaven.
It’s a magical, mystical sight ... one that conjures an image of Aril smiling and laughing.
For Cortney, Orley and Abby, this journey was all about honoring Aril’s memory.
In the process, they shared an unforgettable adventure and reinvigorated their friendship.
“We’ll never forget her,” Cortney said.
“Even though Aril’s gone, she’s still a big part of our lives. And, she always will be.”
At the time of Aril’s passing, the Bryant Family made a heartfelt request ... one that still resonates: “To honor Aril's life and memory, everyone is encouraged to extend an act of kindness to someone today.”
It’s a perfect way to end this column.
Not everyone can fly to the ends of the earth in search of the Northern Lights.
However, each of us can certainly take a moment to be patient and kind and loving.
And, every time we do so, beautiful souls like Aril Bryant ... taken from us far too soon ... will live on in our hearts.