Often on Mondays I write about memoirs that I have recently read, but today, I am using this as a space to share some thoughts and a personal essay of my own. Some readers may know that I have been working on a book length memoir for the last year; in addition to that, I have–almost by accident–assembled a series of essays on loss.
This was not an intentional thematic exercise—rather, I found that I kept writing these short essays that I felt compelled to write, but inexplicably so. Considered individually, they were about some moments that I hadn’t thought about in years and some that were much more recent: the loss of a dear friend to colon cancer; miscarriage; the death of a beloved uncle just a few days after Christmas.
When I was out walking last week, I had a realization: all of these short essays were about loss of some sort. And upon further reflection, I suppose I felt so compelled to write about them because I am not one to share those things willingly.
Once I finish my full-length memoir manuscript, I intend to return to these pieces to put them together into some sort of format—an essay collection, most likely. I will share some in this space from time to time as well.
Today I will share the first of these pieces which I started writing a year ago this week. First, however, a bit of context: a year ago, I woke to the news that someone I dated years ago had died unexpectedly. Though we hadn’t seen each other in years and years, I felt a profound sense of loss that I couldn’t easily explain. And in addition, I felt really weird about it–as if I didn’t have a right to be sad. Because really, who was I in that moment? But I did feel sad–for many reasons. For the tragedy of the death itself, but also for feeling like I had lost a piece of my history. I know that probably isn’t a satisfying explanation, but maybe part of the reason that is the case is that there isn’t a place for mourners that fall outside of the expected framework.
Culturally, there seems to be categories of what I would call “acceptable mourners”: spouses, children, immediate family, close friends, etc. But sometimes others of us who are no longer part of the “inner circle” can still feel such sadness when confronted by the loss of people from our distant past. I witnessed this firsthand last week when a cousin’s ex-husband sobbed at my uncle’s funeral and in his grief, recognized some of my own. It is almost like grieving for the immediate loss of the person and the loss of the person in your day-to-day life in the first place, if that makes sense.
Here is my essay.
“You Must Remember This”
Since you first met me, I moved 14 times (can’t commit), got married (well, maybe I can), had two kids, and finished three degrees. I made lots of bad choices and a handful of good ones. I have been working on a book while teaching freshmen how to write but my own inner critic still gets in the way. You’d definitely find the irony there. I still crack up at Eddie Murphy movies. Occasionally sneak a cigarette though I quit before Y2K. Still count down until summers on Cape Cod.
And I have always held on to a piece of you.
It is tucked away in a box; the opening parenthesis to my adult life. (Of course the writer in me would think in metaphorical terms.) In a closet or an attic, you are always there—part of a physical time capsule from two long-ago years. Filled with photos and movie tickets and a beer tab or two, every few years I discover it and am filled with nostalgia for my younger self with lots to learn.
Two months ago you lost your wife to cancer. We hadn’t seen each other for years, but I sent you a note. My heart broke for you, the young man I once knew. Then last week, I woke up to a flurry of texts and the horrible news that you had died too. You weren’t even 40.
I canceled my classes on Friday to attend your funeral. I considered mascara, but then judged it “too much” and smoothed down the seams of my black wool dress. An old friend that knew you picked me up. We’d lost touch too, but she reached out as soon as she heard, remembering our connected past. It is funny how that works. We sat arm in arm in the pew, sharing a packet of tissues to dab the corners of our eyes. Your baby brother, now a man, gave a eulogy that brought laughter to an otherwise somber affair. One of the stories he told was one that I knew and I laughed out loud thirty seconds too late, because I was remembering you tell it the first time.
Afterward I went to lunch with the friend. After telling the waiter that I wasn’t “a day drinker in real life” he winked and brought me two glasses of white wine in succession. We reminisced on your presence in our lives, dusting cobwebs off old details.
I pulled out pictures from my purse that I fanned out on the table like a cliché. You—tall and so handsome. Me—young and carefree. Us—arms entwined. A declaration: I once knew you best.
“Remind me how you first met,” the friend said, and I told her our story.
It was two days after my high school graduation and a welcome warm night. A fitting backdrop for the Main Street, Hyannis crawl: a teenage rite of passage on Cape Cod. Throngs of flip-flopped teens cruised up and down the street on foot, as was the custom, but only you caught my glance. Freckled and sunburned with coppery curls, twinkling eyes. After a few passes you stopped and said hello. I took in your Sambas and untucked button down as personality cues: soccer player (check), casually stylish (check check). You were with a posse of longtime buddies that hung back, me with a neighborhood friend that did the same.
You were staying at a friend’s cottage and invited me to come back. I must have called my parents from a payphone—not sure what I said except to know that it wasn’t the truth. Long after the others were asleep, we sat on a jetty under the canopy of moonlight and talked about our plans. Which didn’t go much further than the summer at that time. A shame, now that I think back. But in that moment we had our whole lives laid out in front of us. And the beauty was that it was there for the taking.
You enthusiastically agreed to babysit with me the next day. “Are you sure?” I wondered aloud, “It won’t be fun.” “But you’ll be there,” you said. And I swooned. We took the boys, 2 and 4, to a botanical garden with a café and a carousel. You paid with a fist full of singles—your tips from selling Cokes at Fenway Park. The boys clambered over me with sticky hands and faces, eyeing you skeptically. “I feel like the absentee dad,” you said, “with these kids that don’t know me.” I said, “Just wait, they will love you.” I already did.
And so began my first romance that bloomed outside the confines of my small Cape Cod town. You were from “off-Cape,” from “over the Bridge.” With a life and a family and friends that soon took me in and made me feel like someone new.
On 4th of July weekend, we went to see a late night screening of Casablanca, rereleased for its 50th anniversary, at the now defunct Airport Cinema in Hyannis. You patted my arm with recognition when “It Had To Be You,” was played in Rick’s Bar—remembering its place in When Harry Met Sally. I struggled to keep my eyes open as you nudged me awake whispering, “You can’t miss this, it’s a classic!” The black and white feature became part of our vocabulary. An inside joke. “Here’s looking at you, kid,” you would toast for the rest of the summer.
Do you remember the night I drove from the Cape just to see you at work? We sat in the empty seats, after the ballpark cleared out watching the grounds crew clear the field until the lights went out and the Citgo sign peeked out from behind the Green Monster. At eighteen, everything is magic.
You were the first and last guy to break my heart.
I sobbed in the shower over our first breakup, two weeks before I went to college for the first time. I didn’t want to go. Couldn’t believe that it was over.
By October, we had reconnected—thanks to your older sister, a senior at my college, who facilitated the exchange of our newly acquired dorm phone numbers at your request. But not before scribbling “The Jerk” in parentheses beneath your name.
I ignored her penciled warning and we soon fell into a pattern of togetherness and misunderstandings that spanned two summers. “I am DONE!” I wrote in my journal on March 10, 1993. But a few pages later, I had changed my mind.
There were hours we spent lying on the floor with stacks of CDs—where we would play each other our favorite songs, dissecting their lyrics. And the night I called you after class to ask you to come to a Valentine’s Day dance as my date and you seemed surprised that I had any doubt. At the dance, my roommate took our photo. You have your arm around me while telling a story and I am looking up at you, clearly enthralled. You were wearing a tie but forgot your jacket. Something that would bother me now but I didn’t care then. I was just happy to be on your arm. You said I looked beautiful.
But then there were silences. Silly fights and late night calls. Each of us dealing with our own disappointments, but lacking the know-how to figure things out. We were playing adults but without any roadmap. Eventually we called it quits for good. And neither of us had to say it out loud.
I missed you like crazy, but was too stubborn to say it. Instead I kissed your best friend. Called you a jerk.
“You know that you are the female version of me, right?” you once said. Maybe that is what destined us to failure. Though for many years I would think that we would find each other again and laugh over the time we spent apart.
During the decade we lost touch we grew up—into the adults we were meant to be. Educated, employed, responsible. When you married, your sister sent me a photo of you and your bride. “That’s kind of weird,” said my sister. But I didn’t think so. It was closing the door. Your wise sister, she knew.
Not long ago, you sent me a Facebook message that said simply, “hi. driving down (or being) down the cape always brings back the good memories.” Your words stayed with me for days. Which memories, I wondered. But I never asked. Were they the same as mine?
One night—were we juniors by then?—your sister had a party and I arrived late. I recognized you first by the back of your head. Standing by the keg, making everyone laugh. We hadn’t spoken for almost a year. My nerves made me defensive. I acted like someone else. You told me that night that I was cold and sarcastic. (I was only afraid of you calling my bluff.)
I never got to tell you the truth. But if I could, I would tell you this: my heart—it is my most vulnerable part. And it once loved you. I still have the box to prove it.
If I close my eyes it comes back. The sound of your voice. The curve of your smile. The pitch of your laugh. And if I had the chance, I would say, “Play it again, Sam.”