The date took me by surprise today.
I was scribbling down my schedule–I travel so much these days, it’s hard to keep the days straight–when I realized I’d forgotten what the day was.
Grief is funny like that. It’s taken seven months, but here I am, finally at the point where it’s no longer piercing my prefrontal cortex. It’s sneaky, hidden in muscle memory, and when I thought “oh, oh, that’s why I’ve been so upset,” the pen fell out of my hand.
Last month, you hid me a message in a fortune cookie. And because this is how grief works, I knew, like, deep-down, gut-deep knew. Something was coming. I hoped it was good, and it was.
The car eats up a lot of miles these days. I traverse a circuit between Greenville and Asheville, and the only time I stop moving is when I’m asleep. I work, I write, I struggle, ineptly, to build new connections in a new city, and work toward the idea of living the life I want to live.
It’s hard, without you.
There’s that stretch of 25 through Flat Rock and Fletcher, right after the NC border, where you and I first talked about moving up there. We were on our way to a book signing, to meet authors who were the exact sort of people we wanted to be. It was a time when I believed without a single doubt we’d get there together.
Seven months now of struggling toward that without you. It still doesn’t feel right, but I’m doing it anyway.
Listen, I know you were worried, but the advice you gave me last year about staying soft was solid.
You’re the armor around my heart, now. And I’m doing just like you said. It isn’t easy. I’m not the person I was. Everything is new. Everything is awkward. I feel helpless at times.
But this softness isn’t helplessness. It’s a conscious choice to not be anything other than exactly what I am. To stop hiding, and own this thing that bleeds in plain sight.
I have always been this thing, I just…
I couldn’t be honest about it.
That was the first lesson, and the hardest one.
Every defense I had was useless. Everything I’d ever used to keep myself safe didn’t work.
I’ve been helpless in various ways in my life, but it never felt as awful as it did to stand and hold your hand and know I couldn’t do a goddamned thing to save your life. The only thing I had control over was how I chose to let you go.
I tried, good buddy. But I’ve lost so much. I have lost so many people. So many things.
Loss doesn’t make you better at losing things. It makes you worse at it. Because you can logically know exactly how it works, but the heart doesn’t get it. It never gets it.
You held my hand as long as you could, because you knew losing you was gonna smash me to bits. And it did. Exactly as much as it had to, exactly as much as was necessary.
Losing you could have destroyed me.
But here I am, trying to build. Continuing forward despite the unknowns.
I’ve always been intimately acquainted with death; it’s always passed me by. It always chooses someone else. It brushes past me, and every time, every single time it’s like I go running after you. All of you. In my heart, I’m still that seven-year-old kid, returning to the same back porch night after night, hoping that maybe, just maybe you’ll come back.
But I can’t do that anymore.
I got that offer you told me about.
This fall, I’m going to move. Me! Agoraphobic me, who’s never been able to move away from Simpsonville, who’s always been afraid. Who never had faith that I could take care of myself, that I could take chances.
I sure have taken on a lot of them since you left. Ugh. I know you had a cackle or two. I’ve got some scrapes, yeah. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. But I never did this when I was supposed to. I’m stunted. All those years of bowing over, braced for the wrong death.
God, I never thought it would be you.
And I never should have stopped living the way I did, but I thought I wouldn’t be able to survive the pain.
You were a shelter through the worst of those years. You understood, you knew why I couldn’t leave. Maybe you know my heart a little better, now. All the times I wanted to tell you just what that meant, but choked on it.
You were part of my purpose, you know?
You were a reason I was here. Why I stayed here. Alive. You know it, now. I know you do. Whatever you are now, however you exist. You’ve seen my insides. You saw the full map. You know.
You know why I can’t stop moving, these days. Why it’s so hard to lay down and sleep.
It’s hard. I don’t know what I’m doing, exactly, but I’m doing it, based on a dream I refuse to let go of, even if you’re not here anymore.
Listen, I couldn’t tell you this while you were alive, but you don’t have to worry anymore.
I will not let you down again.
I’m sorry I walled myself off the way I did.
I was in so much pain. No one could touch it. It was just this agonized knot of wrongness in the middle of my chest. Walking away took every ounce of willpower I had, and it just kept sapping me of everything. Every dream. Every hope. Everything I’d believed in. I crumpled in a way I never had before, and no one, absolutely no one could truly get inside my heart.
You tore one hell of an exit hole through me. It completely destroyed all of that. All the parts of me that felt wrong. All the parts of me that felt unlovable.
How could I be the thing I thought I was, when you held my hand like that at the end?
Thank you for still taking care of me.
Thank you for helping me protect this heart.
I thought I’d lost it, but you took me straight to it, you know?
Yeah, the fighter still remains.
And now I’m gonna move to a new city, read my work to strangers. Be an extraordinarily small fish in a big pond. I’ll work a lot, and write a lot, and keep at it till I get to see “For Pru” in print, in a physical book I can hold in my hands.
These days, I imagine my heart as an open cage, a ship in my chest. Door hanging open, so all the people I’ve loved can traverse freely. But when I think of you, I imagine you small, sitting in the doorway, your legs swinging cheerfully as I walk, as I continue, as I keep going.
For you, I’ll stay soft.
For Papa, I’ll keep trying my best to be “Miss Super Fantastic,” who could take one more step.
For Rosanne, who taught me kindness, and Mary Lou, who taught me how to laugh.
For Zeppy, Miles, Tober, and Pitiful. I’m trying to be the human you saw me as. For Tiffany, who should have had more time. For Gramma, who I think of every time I bake. For Big John, who sat me down so many times and told me to keep at it. For Eddie, who told me I had a bookstore with my name on it, and so much money I’d never be able to count it.
This list will grow longer. That’s just how this is.
I don’t know how much time will pass before I see you again.
But I hope when I do, I’ll have learned to love the way you did.
I hope I leave the world better than it was.
Asheville is going to be different than anything else I’ve ever done before.
I wish we were doing this together, on the same timeline. Maybe in another life.
Thank you for still being here inside me.
Thank you for the heads up about where I was going and what I’d be doing next.
Did you see Good Omens?
If you haven’t, I’ll tell you about it when I see you again. It’s gonna be a while, I think, but I know you’ll be there waiting, so I’m gonna keep trying to become the person you had faith I could be.
I miss you.
I love you.
I love you.
I love you.
I love you.
I love you.
I love you.
I love you.