Some days I catch myself thinking of her, eighteen and at her high school graduation rehearsal, learning in a sea of classmates that her father has died. Suddenly and unexpectedly.
She must have felt like her life was just beginning. And then, not anymore.
It must have felt like nothing mattered. Like her life was ending too.
Some days I think of myself learning similar news. At 8 or 13 or 22.
How grief sneaks up on you and even though the wave has already crashed, the news already broken, it can take days for the rumble of the wake to shake your legs and pull you down.
I think about those three days of disbelief in 2003. How on Day 4, the floodgates opened. How I couldn’t close them back up. How hard it was to push push push that door closed, the water streaming in.
Those are crossroads moments. Some of us catch them and some of us point as they drive past. Some of us lock them up tight and some throw them to the wind.
I was always a locker. A keeper. A carrier.
And though it might feel heavy at times, mostly I like it. Mostly it reminds me why I do what I do. Why I am who I am.
At sixteen I was messaging this guy back and forth on AIM, and I remember him saying, “you’re a very emotional person.” I don’t remember what prompted it or if anything did at all, but it’s stuck with me.
When bad news comes and the clouds roll in, it might seem harder. But then it’s the reason we feel so much for the people and things we lose.
All those moments that add up to a life well worth it. Because they mattered to someone like me. Or you. Or him or her or them.
I’ve been crafting her story for three weeks now. That’s the blogger in me: I see a date, a life moment, and it billows into a hurdle and my knees get cramped and my legs get heavy and my head gets cloudy and I cannot find words for days. So I lie in bed and say “Tomorrow. Tomorrow I will write you a story, or a song, or a poem, or a letter.” And tomorrow becomes next Monday and three Thursdays from now. So I had to stop. I had to write it best I could.
A friend of mine once said paper makes you honest. I hunkered down onto my couch with a pen and notebook and got honest for a short hour. Here goes.
I’ve been preparing to lose her for ten or fifteen or twenty years. Give or take. Maybe since the day she wrapped her pudgy fingers around her purple vinyl Pocahontas suitcase and marched to the end of the block. Maybe it was then that I knew she had an inclination, a tendency, an urge to push away from the safe harbor, our driveway and the little yellow house with dark green shutters, and wait for an uncertain future to gift her with adventure.
If she had been alive in 1912, she would have been a fierce Irish girl with poppies of freckles dotting the bridge of her nose and her cheekbones. She would have been a real Rose Dawson. Me, I would have been back in Ireland, peddling on the cobblestone streets. In the last century, nothing much has changed.
He asked me, last week. “You gonna cry?” He said it the way humans do when they fear the answer, the truth, because it’s not such a far shout into the void from a moment they once knew. Empathy spills over them then, hushing their vocal chords with the thick syrup of sadness. It’s all they can do not to say, “I’m sorry. I know. You’re allowed to be sad.”
“I might,” I said. “I just might.”
I did. Cry, I mean. At the end of a long, late night movie, with a dark theatre full of strangers, I praised God for thick blue plastic glasses shielding my face. Because sometimes God blesses you with silent tears, and as long as the world cannot see your eyes, you are fine. You are so very fine.
I saw her on that screen, falling like some Alice in Wonderland to her death. I saw her and I had to let her go. I couldn’t catch her.
We learn that lesson ad nausea – that you cannot save people from themselves, from their enemies, from their brokenness, from their final moments.
A story is circling the globe right now about a boy named Ryan, a boy who ran out into the street to retrieve a Frisbee and was hit by an oncoming car. He died. Ryan with his bright red hair and his big smile, he died. That story could have owned him, but I pray it doesn’t.
I gasped when I learned it. I imagined her, of course, a six or eight or ten-year-old girl, playing on the front lawns of our neighborhood, dashing into the center of the road where a stray Whiffle ball or hockey puck had settled.
She was a wild one, still is, and that story could have owned her, too.
Just before prom, her date admitted he had no intention of taking her. She and her friends scraped together enough funds and a touch of courage to ask a sweet underclassman if he would be so kind as to come with her. He did. I thank him for it. But it was then I started worrying about her – her heart & the real possibility that it would someday be tested.
I had to learn, in the way that Ryan’s parents will never learn, that she won’t always be ready – to have life gut her soul & test her faith, among other things.
She’s sleeping solitarily and soundly in the south now. And I’m not going to cry about it. And I’m not going to worry about her. Because I know that we leap before we are ready and the rest of us, the rest of the people who love her, will just have to follow her lead.
And maybe one day she’ll call – about a white dress and a ring on her left hand – or a job that she only could have dreamed about – or the little shack she’s secured downtown for herself – but for now, we are in different ponds.
That’s how she says it: “We are in different ponds.”
I wish, I always always wish, that someday God will give us the same pond to play in, but most days, I think we got that pond at a time when Barbie and basketball courts and balloon animals made their way into our days. And those are over. That pond is gone.
They once upon a time were diapers at the foot of their bed, thick hooded sweatshirts and elastic pants and now they’re not.
They’re in high school & college. Some are graduating in May. And since I’ve hopscotched around the East Coast enough to know that growing up is a mess, I have words for them.
Find someone who steadies you when you’re stressed about the rent check, your electric bill, the things you did wrong at work, the credit card payment you swore you scheduled but really, believe me, didn’t.
Hold them close & treat them right & tell them over & over that you are thankful & appreciative & lucky & blessed. You will need them, and you won’t ever know when.
Make decisions to carry you through today & tomorrow & next month, but know that six months from now could look a lot less like you expected. Don’t let your upsets keep you from finding something better.
Work hard. Work when you have to but even when you don’t. Be responsive. Be attentive. Be respectful. Be the kind of employee who does what’s right – not what looks good. Be lazy on Sunday when the football game comes on but on Monday morning, be ready.
Chin up & smile. You are a learner. In everything you do, you’ll learn. Over & over you’ll think that life is about messing up & making the same mistakes but one day you’ll wake up and stop making them. One day you’ll appreciate all the criticism because you grew.
Learn how to dress appropriately. There are outfits for Friday night & outfits for Casual Friday & outfits for important meetings & outfits for every other day. Be conservative. Pay attention. Learn to accessorize.
Stretch yourself. Throw a dart at your target and promise yourself you won’t let fear or anxiety or lack of resources or lack of knowledge stop you. Do things that frighten you because you’ll land somewhere new & better.
When you’re unhappy, change something. Your hair. Your outlook. Your routine. Find a place in your heart for new people. Find a place in your schedule for old friends. Find the root of your unhappiness & crush it.
Be a mentor. Teach people. Help people. Figure out what fulfills you and run like the wind toward it.
Give & give & give. Give your time & your knowledge & your heart & your love & your resources. Give people the kind of friendship that makes them feel grateful. Focus on the relationships & the efforts that make your heart soar. It’s time.
In the damp Sunday mornings when the neighbors are asleep, I sit on the deck + watch children race by in rubber flip flops and cotton shorts and make a list of all the things I want for you.
It is the kind of list you make when you love someone before they exist.
It is the kind of list you make when you spend half your life holding your breath for fear she might someday know heartbreak so real it quiets her sun and blankets her smile.
It is the kind of list you stumble over in wedding vows.
It’s in those moments, where you are sleeping soundly in some other part of the country, that I find myself happy.
That is the hardest part of living in a house you’re not ready to call home. It is not the loneliness of dinner for one or breakfast on the ash-covered fold-up chair. It is not crossword puzzles on Friday nights or bathrooms that don’t clean themselves.
It is the fear of all the things you can’t know. It is holding everyone and everything you’ve ever loved in a chain around your neck and begging it not to strain you, beginning to trust that not all bad things happen while you are somewhere else.
It is the honesty of a life well lived without you.
It is the happening of all the things on the list you make on a damp Sunday morning, and the knowing that none of those things ever happened because you dreamed them between spoonfuls of Golden Grahams but because the person they were dreamed for wanted them too.
The person they were dreamed for wanted them, too.
For days, I’ve been failing to find the right words to say something simple: it hurts when everyone you’ve ever loved is somewhere you can’t picture them and you don’t know if they’re where you expect them to be in that moment, that year.
You have whole lives picked out for them, lining them up in crisp rows like ruby red pumps and dirty green Chucks. You want them to know the heat of the driveway beneath their feet. You want them to smell the salt from the ocean and the sweat from their labor. You want them to taste homemade applesauce with a dash of cinnamon.
But you don’t know if they’ll get that. And you cannot swerve their car into the right lane with just enough time to exit this next dangerous path. You have to let them miss the turn or catapult into a gridlock. You have to let them mess up, knowing it won’t be a mistake because they’ll land somewhere altogether unexpected.
You won’t have seen it coming.
You won’t have approved it on your checklist for their future moments. Squashed between graduating college and getting married, they’ll move halfway across the world to a town you’ve never seen, so it’ll become impossible to imagine their back hunched over the kitchen sink, head ducked in concentration when they scrub that same saucepan you always used for grilled cheese.
You won’t know whether they like it there, whether they’re standing in their bathtub wishing the walls weren’t so grimy because they just want to fall against them and sob for a tomorrow that resembles yesterday.
You’ll want to ask if they’re OK, if they get by, if the rent is too high or their eyes are too tired, but you won’t because you have to let them fly.
They’ll tell you, you know.
They’ll tell you if it gets too bad.
You whisper that mantra in the moments when you fear the worst, when you stop with your cup of tea halfway to your parted lips and eke out an “oh” so hollow it reflects the newspaper clipping telling of a girl who didn’t know when to say she wasn’t OK.
You’ll hope you always taught her it was OK to say she wasn’t OK, that you would much rather spend your last dime on a plane ticket for a weekend working things out than a little black dress and a pair of black pumps and a black umbrella and a dozen red roses that always did make her eyes brighter in the rain.
You’ll have to let her fly. You know she’s got to fly.