It’s rare to be given a book, these days. My world is populated by Library books that are sometimes so overdue that the Library sends me ominous missives from collections agencies and then I have to pay for replacing those books at the Library the next time I’m there. My personal expense spreadsheet has a stand-alone category for Library book fees. Some people feel compelled to get right with God. I routinely find myself compelled to do my very best to get right with the Library. I’m not proud.
But to be given a book is a precious thing, a true gift. Recently, my dear, dear cousin gave me a book. I don’t know what strand of connection between us compelled her to do this, but it is one of the most precious gifts I’ve received in a very long time.
Here’s a snippet from the first chapter:
“Because everyone loves someone, and anyone who loves someone has had those desperate nights where we lie awake trying to figure out how we can afford to carry on being human beings.”
It’s one of those books that reaches in and grabs you by the shirt-collar and says, ‘Hey! I see you. And I know you. And I know it’s fucking hard. And you’re OK, even if your shit sucks, even if you inhabit emotional fall-out shelters that protect you and hide you away at the same time. You’re a person and that’s a goddamn amazing thing to be.’
I have many things to be grateful for, I know I do. I wake up every morning free of pain, having slept more or less the whole night. I have strange, but not unpleasant dreams. I live in a place that, while it suffers from gross ideology sometimes, isn’t wracked by war or scarcity. I have good work, with good people. I have a wonderful cat, marvelous friends, a beautiful house, a lovely family, and most especially, I have incredible children. I am lucky. I know I am lucky.
But this book acknowledges the also true thing – that being a person is hard.
There’s no way around it, loving other people is hard. In this chapter of my life there are twin poles of lost love swirling and swirling and swirling. These two people cover most of my life. In fact, the last two years without them are the first time in my life that at least one of them isn’t present. They are my father, and the mother of my children.
My father is still with us, but has entered the last waiting of hospice. The mother of my children is so remarkably estranged from me that she will not sit two seats away from me at a school meeting for one of the kids.
I remember summer nights when it stayed light enough to play outside with my dad after dinner. He’d throw grounders or pop flies in the side yard. The sideways light played havoc with those grounders. I got hit in the nose and knocked out by one at shortstop in a game when I was very little – Pee-Wee minors. So I was always a little scared of the grounders. I remember the sweaty, leathery feel of the old glove that was handed down to me. I remember throwing the ball back to him as hard as I could, knowing it never phased him. He would have been about my current age. I wonder if the seeds of the disease he’s dying from now were present, even then.
I remember the yellow streetlight of languorous evenings, drunk from multiple pitchers of Michelob, riding bicycles side by side home from the bars. The air, softened by evening, but still heavy with mid-western humidity flowing around and through us like we were made of the same stuff as the wind and the night.
The loss is an ocean. It is dark and long and deathly quiet.
These two wounds circle in a tight orbit around my heart. One is piercing, white hot with blue and green aches woven throughout. It is a pain drenched in buckets of sadness, wrapped in the sweetness of nostalgia: pure, tellable, and re-tellable memories of A&W root beer and step-start waterskiing. The other is hard red and the deep black of empty space. It is an inexplicable loss that only invites one internal recapitulation after another without hope of resolution or even peace. Shame hangs like coal dust suspended around all the sides of it. One is spoken of often with loud voices of sympathy and condolences. The other is spoken of never.
I have so many regrets around both. I regret not spending more time getting to know the man my dad was. By the time I really got around to it, he was already struggling just to stay present. We’d ride together to the green boxes with both my trash and his and I would wonder why we couldn’t have deeper, more vulnerable conversation. We could talk about classic rock. We could talk about road repair or the vigorousness of windbreak hedges. Now I know he was just trying to stay in the present moment, just trying not to let the gaps overtake him.
I regret not being able to stop the long slow descent from joy to estrangement with my ex-wife. I regret the ways I am broken that hurt her. I regret not advocating for myself better when the ways she is broken hurt me.
Love and grief are mirrors of each other. A dear friend says, of his parents, that grief for their loss, present every day, though now many years passed, is a tribute to their memory and the importance of their role in his life. I find this immensely beautiful. I loved my dad. I loved my ex-wife, too. Those loves played important roles in my life. Losing them hurts. I know I should honor that somehow, but I’m a fucking person, and it’s hard to be a person.
And so, beginning with chapter one, the pages get all wrinkly. The thin, clay-heavy, paperback paper of the beautiful book my beautiful cousin gave me isn’t up to absorbing even one tear, and there are many, many tears. ‘It’s OK,’ the book says.
“It’s idiotically difficult, being a human. Our hearts are bars of soap that we keep losing hold of; the moment we relax, they drift off and fall in love and get broken, all in the wink of an eye.”