My dad left the week after my grandmother left for real. I was not yet five, and my parents had been keeping up appearances on her behalf as she battled cancer. The day she died was sunny, and I was not allowed to see her. My dad and my aunt and mostly my awesome cousins took turns walking me around the outside of the hospital where I picked little orange berries off what I now believe were European Mountain Ash trees. Funny the things you remember. I didn’t really understand what was happening. How could I? I’d grown up with my Nanny, summers at the Jersey Shore, the smell of the boardwalk which still brings me back, pitchers of Lipton’s Iced Tea, and fresh tomatoes on a vine in her backyard. The feeling of her fingertips as she traced circles around my face to help me fall asleep. Her boyfriend, Lou, riding the Tea Cups with me ’til he threw up, because love does that to you, also. Running on the beach with my cousins, the damp of saltwater in my hair and on my skin. Sand crabs and sea gulls. How could I understand I’d never again feel the warmth of her arms around me as she crushed my face against her?
A week later I woke up one morning and my mom, still reeling and heartbroken from the loss of her own mother, told me my dad didn’t live with us anymore. I couldn’t wrap my head around that, and went to look in his dresser. Empty. No more man’s shoes in the closets, no more corduroys and denim shirts and wigs on styrofoam heads because it was the 70’s and my dad was an actor and sometimes he pretended to have hair. But he’d left his blue and red robe, the one that matched my mom’s, so he had to come back for that. I was sure of it. Funny the things you remember.
Years later, my oldest cousin and his beautiful wife enduring the worst loss possible, and a hospital room decorated with Garfield because their son loved Garfield and love does that to you, too. The very worst day of my life, which was only a drop in the ocean compared to theirs, a tiny coffin, way too small, and one thought, over and over, “No. Not this.” My cousins, who dunked me in the pool over and over again in Bermuda, even though I’d broken my thumb and had a cast all the way up my arm. My cousins who played games with me and loved on me and tickled me and taught me about family. I wanted to pick my cousin up and bring him back to that pool, before all of it and say, dunk me. Dunk me again, and throw your head back and laugh, and remember joy, somehow. Love will strip you down and leave you bare and humbled at your own arrogance and your own fragility. The arrogance of thinking you had any power in any of it, any control over anything, as if routines could stop the growth of a tumor you didn’t even know was there. Tuesdays we go to soccer. Wednesdays we go to the grocery store. As if Wednesday means anything. Love means something. The power of your heart to celebrate a person. A six year old boy, a fifty-eight year old woman, your dad who called you “Princess’ and “Angel” and lived somewhere else now. In a new apartment with a floor he painted like a jungle so you’d be delighted when you walked in. But also a little scared because what is this new life? Where did the old one go? Aren’t we always wondering that? If everything is in a constant state of change, aren’t we always letting go of something and opening to something else, something new?
Life is full of big love if you allow yourself to feel it, and if you do, you will experience profound loss at one time or another, but you will also experience joy that feels like the sun is shining from the very center of your heart. Everything living is in flux, so to love fully means to be brave and completely vulnerable. You have to be strong to love, and you have to be soft. Brave enough to be soft. You cannot control the tides of the ocean anymore than you can control the number of years you get with anyone you love. Every single day is gifted to each of us, and we receive the gift or we do not. We stay in bed with the blinds drawn and distract ourselves all day, or we celebrate the people around us and honor our own ability to do that. That’s the only power we have. Healing is not some light state in which you skip through fields and feel like singing. Healing is holding every single thing that has happened in your hands and saying yes, I accept that too. That happened and it slayed me. That happened and it terrified me. That happened and it enraged me. And I am still here and I get to choose love. It means recognizing that all people are flawed and all people will make mistakes, and most people are doing the very best they can with where they’re at and what they’ve got to work with, and it means letting go of the story. It’s just a story, they’re just details. Every single person is going to suffer, no one can save anyone from that. Some people will suffer more than others. Terrible, incomprehensible, heart-wrenching events will befall people, and everyone else will suffer the usual awful amount. Why? I don’t know and neither does anyone else for sure, but I can tell you there’s some beauty in it. There’s something about pain that opens us and gives us depth and understanding and compassion and the ability to be grateful for all the love and all the incredible beauty and all the gifts. People will leave and people will die and your heart will break one million ways, but still, this life is excruciatingly beautiful. Human beings with all their complexity and nonsense and joy are just incredibly amazing most of the time. Open to all of it. Let those things go that are not serving you. Keep saying yes to the experience of being alive and awake and able to love with your heart wide open. It’s pretty amazing, don’t you think? Sending you love, Ally