10 Years Later

Photo by Alain Frechette on Pexels.com

It’s now been 10 years since you left us all. Does it seem that long ago? No, not really. The grief, the sorrow, still gnaws at me sometimes. It’s only the teeth that have dulled over time. It still hurts. I still ache.

I feel guilty. Was there something I could’ve done to set things on a different track? After I posted those photos of us as kids on social media, five months or so before you died, you and I chatted privately. I was visiting home in Chicago at the time, only around for a few more days, and you were in New York, the urban home for the rural you. Like many people our age, you got the taste for the big city and fell under its spell, its allure. Could I come visit you in NYC, you wanted to know, before I went back to New Zealand? But the timing was too tight. One little thing going wrong, and I’d miss my flight. A cascade of missed flights and, well, that could’ve cost me big bucks.

But, I promised, I’ll come and visit you next time I’m in the States. It’s a year away, but we’re young and carefree, right? The time will go by so quickly, and it’ll be here before you or I know it.

You died in January, a few months after a hurricane made its way up the East Coast and wrecked New York. That seemed so strange, getting that frantic text from my Mom a few days later, on that bright, sunny, summer’s day in Aotearoa New Zealand while it was so cold and awful there. I had one patio door open — the one from the living room to the side patio — to enjoy the fresh, warm air. Mom called, and we talked, and I felt my hand grip the cool metal door and tighten as any feeling I had leeched away into the metal as she told me you were dead. I gasped maybe, or even was lost for words for once, and I remember calmly telling my Mom thanks for telling me (after whatever else we talked about: how were your parents taking it, what happened, why didn’t NYC have any fucking working security cameras, how your sister was coping, how would we tell my Alzheimer’s-laden Grandma the news, and so on). Once we hung up, I cried and cried and cried. What else could I do?

So yeah, I feel guilty. It’s like that concept, the butterfly effect. If I’d thrown caution to the wind and had visited you, before you died, would that have changed something? Anything? Or is that a novel concept, like love, or God, or resurrection? I don’t know. I don’t know if I’ll ever know.

But I do regret not throwing caution to the wind and coming to visit you. Maybe you needed me. And I let you down. I really let you down.

I remember a few years later, when I was back in the States and I went to visit your parents in that small town that’s grown so much since we were kids. There’s even an interstate going by, and everything has changed so much in the many years since I’d last visited. On our way out of town and on our way back to Chicago, we stopped by your grave — Mom, Noel and me — and as I pulled in to park, anxiety gripped me tightly. My hands numbed, my breathing shallowed, and my mind shouted for me to turn around and drive away. But I persevered, and we left the cocoon the car provided to explore the graveyard.

It was a mild summer’s afternoon, the leaves on the trees drooping from the months of warm weather and sun bearing down on them, all around the cemetery. They were rattling in the wind, some of them — warning of autumn coming soon, the crackling of the lungs as pneumonia settles in — but it didn’t feel hot or close or cool or dry. It felt pleasant, as odd as that sounds.

Seeing your grave, its headstone parallel to the surface of the ground, your name carved into the marble to last for all eternity made me cry. First, this choking sensation, and then the release. Mom rubbed her hand on my back and said, “Seeing it makes it all the more real, doesn’t it?” That made me angry, though not at her. She’d merely unlocked that anger inside me. Why were you dead? Why was I feeling this way all these years later? Your headstone shouldn’t’ve said “1975 – 2013”. No, no, that last figure should have been 2075, right? You never even reached 40, and here I was in my 40s, a year older than you almost to the day, looking at your grave, an inferno within me burning away my sorrow.

There were grass clippings and pebbles on your headstone, on the marble, on the concrete surrounding it. I crouched and swept the debris away. It seemed such a small thing to do but an important thing all the same. And there it was, as pretty as it was going to look, and I kept swiping at the surface to get every last inch clean.

Something — maybe every emotion within me — drained away. That happened a lot with my depersonalization, this leeching of feelings whenever I felt stressed or overwhelmed. And I lingered too long, staring at your grave, looking at the others in the newish cemetery on the outskirts of this little town you grew up in, across from the industrial park and down the road from the new expressway. It felt like I was wasting time, standing there, feeling nothing, wanting to feel everything, wanting Mom and Noel to step away and give me time and space to properly grieve, for hours if I needed to do that.

Instead, I said we should go — the excuse I used was I was tired and we had a long drive back to Mom and Dad’s place — and we left. But, like Lot’s wife, I looked back. I always look back.

Some people think I’m weird, probably, and I don’t really care much any more, but you came to me. Years after you died, when things were getting so low in my life even I was wondering what the point of living was. It was Easter weekend, and I had been sleeping in because depression does that to you — and depression’s been my lifelong companion, so why wouldn’t it be lulling me to sleep? — and you whispered in my ear, “Life is short. Be happy.” So simple. Your voice was so raspy, like you were spending all your energy just to be able to talk to a mortal, five simple words. But I appreciated it. And, oddly enough, a few days later, I saw one of those tourist vans with “Life is short. Be happy” spray-painted on the side. Something else also mentioned this, although what, I can’t remember. But it seemed like you were doing everything in your power to let me know I needed to be alive, and I needed to be happy.

I’ve stumbled, and I’ve fallen, but I have tried. And I am trying.

Grief is a powerful thing. A snake constricting around your body, your throat, squeezing the air out of you slowly, surely, and you languish as the energy saps from your body.

But it’s also helped me write. About grief. About sorrow. About losing someone you love and living among the tsunami of loss. It’s easy to focus on the tide as it’s rushing in all around you, not knowing that if you just hold on, it will eventually return to normal, something more manageable. Those who have read parts of my writing say it is powerful. I want to keep working on it, to polish that gem so hard it shines, it reflects the sunlight so hard in different directions, that it goes out into the world and tells people about love and loss and recovery and redemption.

And some of it — maybe all of it — is because of you. Maybe you will be immortal, in a way, after all.