On the way home from Nairobi, on the last leg of my flight–from Newark to San Francisco–I was seated next to a young, excited, but mature young woman who had just returned from a month of traveling in Europe with her father, who was seated on the other side of her but slept the whole flight. I listened to her stories–it sounded like she’d had a great time–and talked about travel, and where I’ve been, but the whole time all I could think about was wishing I’d taken a trip like that with my own father. And now it’s too late.
The finality of a parent’s death doesn’t sink in until much, much later, months after the cards and emails of condolence that you were too raw to respond to at first, but saved in the hopes that you might at some point have the energy to respond. It isn’t until months later, when you realize that you’ll never take that trip you talked about, or discuss that book that hasn’t come out yet that you talked about maybe reading together, that it sinks in: He’s never coming back. It will never be the same again.
You don’t realize, until months later, maybe a year, maybe more, that your life has changed forever. You don’t realize how much you’re personally affected until you can look back and realize what havoc that single act–of passing–has wreaked on your life. Maybe you cried for a few days or a few weeks then went on with your life, thinking that pushing through it is the only way to go. And maybe it was, but then you look back and wish you’d taken advantage of, rather than pushed aside, all of those offers of kindness that you were still too raw, too tenacious even, to accept. And then, months later, you realize you’re finally ready to talk, except no one’s there with a ready ear.
It’s been 225 days since I lost him and in some ways I feel more raw now than I did that night when, surrounded by mostly strangers and a few friends at a professional dinner in British Columbia, I saw the two missed calls from my mother and I knew, left the room, cried on a friend’s shoulder, smoked a solitary cigarette, then composed myself and went back to the table. It was a month before I had to delete his number from my phone because some mornings, out of habit, I would dial it thinking I might blabber on about my week while walking to work like I had done for years. It was two months before I stopped instinctively buying him gifts each time I traveled (always a little box of some kind). It’s been eight months and each time I visit a new destination I still think of how, with childlike wonder, he would ask what each place was like.
I’ve tried to write about it. I have several unpublished blog posts, usually written under some level of intoxication and thank goodness I have the wherewithal not to consider publishing until morning. It’s when I’m drunk that I’m most easily triggered into tears over the smallest things: a song from childhood sung badly at karaoke, the death of a coworker’s dog.
And I have talked: with the friend who was there the night I got the call. With my mother, listening to voicemails she’s saved. In Haarlem, as I walked the same streets we’d walked six years earlier. On the boardwalk in Copacobana with the sun shining brightly on my face, a caipirinha in my hand. On a long-distance phone call from a hotel room in Madrid to a mobile phone in Japan. Every time I think I’ve talked enough, I realize, though…it’s never enough. There will never be enough words to explain how deep a loss this is.
I got a tattoo a few weeks ago for him. Ironic, really, since he never liked my tattoos, or tattooing in general. It took me awhile to think of what would mean the most; I thought of trying to design something combining a guitar and a sailboat, two of his favorite things, but in the end I went with a philosophy I’ve held since I was sixteen, something I’d tried so hard to impart on him in his final, sad years. Je ne regrette rien, “I have no regrets.” It means more now than it ever did then, as I spent hours talking to him on the phone, in the car, while we drove, about the things he wished he’d done or hadn’t done. His secrets are ours, I wouldn’t dare share them, but suffice it to say he left this world with regrets. I don’t ever want to, cannot ever do the same.
If there is one thing he saw me as most, it was a writer. And it is in his memory that I will carry on that honor. And if there’s one thing he wished for me most, it was a life without regrets. All I can do is strive for that.