I wake up today to find a note from Tom taped to the bathroom mirror. While I slept, curled up in blankets in the dark he was pouring his heart out to me: “Please know that I love you. And more importantly, I appreciate all that you do for me in my life and how easy you make it. It would be undoable without you. Without you, who would I love?” He comes into the bathroom to find me weeping. Bed-rumpled, unshowered, morning mouth. Feeling things. All raw and split open. I thank him for the note and cry into his shoulder. I don’t know if he specifically wrote it because he was remembering today, January 17th, or if it’s just portentous timing. Doesn’t really matter, I guess. Wrapping his arms around me he says quietly, I made my wife cry… which of course makes me laugh. We both know it’s good. I am wound tightly. Intense. Tough. I think about things long and hard and deeply, but I work hard to keep a tight grip on my feelings. Feelings have a mind of their own. They are unpredictable and messy little buggers, wreaking havoc on my preference to be in control. I don’t cry very often. I desperately need opportunities to do so and this is a good one. Happy sad tears.
I am standing at the window as the morning light begins to reveal Breadloaf Mountain while fear folds itself around me, cold fingers on the back of my neck. I am letting it. I am allowing a moment to really let myself feel how very hard I love the people in my life. Not just a thought, but a deep soul knowing. It’s big, this chest cracking white searing happy sad. And I know I am lucky to be feeling it because it’s evidence that I am a human on this beautiful planet breathing in and out and living life. And it means that I understand what it is to love — to really really let yourself love and be loved. Loving like that and then losing it has broken me a little bit. I am weirder now than I was before Zach died. It changed me. I carry with me some magical scars and odd-ball baggage.
I met Zach the summer I turned 22 — the same age my daughter is now. I had just graduated from college, flying free, and decidedly not looking to encumber myself with a serious relationship or complicate my life by falling in love. Alas, the universe has its own plans. Our lives collided and I was never the same. Diving in was not even a choice. I was 100% swept away. About 7 years later, on his 38th birthday, he was diagnosed with cancer. Hannah was 7 months old, sitting on his lap at the time. It marked the beginning of one hell of a battle. Exactly one year later, on his 39th birthday, the cancer won, Zach struggled for his last few breaths, and was gone. There is something ruinously and tragically beautiful about that exquisite perfect circle.
Today marks 21 years since his death. It feels like lifetimes have happened in the meantime. My sadness today comes from thinking about all he has missed. 21 of Hannah’s birthdays. Her first day of school. Losing her first tooth. The chicken pox. Halloween costumes. Crying over 5th grade Language Arts assignments. The awkward bangs-growing-out pre-pubescent years. The heady teen years. Practicing for her driver’s test, going to prom, graduating from high school, packing up the car on the morning she left for college. He has missed all this. 84 times the seasons have changed. The sun has risen and set 7665 times and he has missed all of them. More than 250 full moons. Fresh snowfalls. Spring peepers, barred owls, and coyote tracks. Millions of hikes in the woods. The breeze at the top of a mountain. Opening the mail. Thunderstorms. Fresh bread and good beer. Laughing, crying, waking up to another day.
For awhile I created a belief that he wasn’t missing any of it. He was experiencing it somehow in the mists nearby, getting to feel it all, his presence felt by us. I wanted this to be true. I needed it to be true so I could survive. It’s too devastatingly sad otherwise. Rock-climbing in Joshua Tree three months after he died, clinging to a sheer pitch, afraid, I suddenly saw his face in front of me, felt him nearby, giving me courage. He was right there with me on a freezing January night skiing in the woods when the ice covered branches tinkled against each other like an enormous wind chime. I could feel him smiling. On rare nights when I was able to sleep, he visited me in my dreams. It confused me. How are you here? You died, I saw it happen. And then I would ask him, What’s it like where you are? A kayaker with a rollicking sense of humor, he answered: Wet. These visitations happened for years, catching me by surprise, comforting me, confusing me. They continue even now, after so many years have passed. Even after Tom’s life collided with mine, and I surprised myself by falling in love again, opening myself to the potential for this kind of soul-wrecking anguish all over again.
The heartache of my own loss over the years morphed into more of a grieving for what Zach was missing out on. But these sorrows can't touch the impossible sadness of what Hannah has lost. Never knowing her father for herself. Her memories are all manufactured by those of us who knew him. We try to help create some sort of knowing for her, a sketch, a charcoal rendering of a man. It falls hopelessly short. None of us can begin to fill the chasm of her unknowing. All I can give Hannah are the treasures I have saved. Notebooks filled with his handwriting. A quilt made out of his shirts. His favorite books. Photos, of course. Stories and memories I hope she can carry like gems in her pocket.
And traditions. The traditions we have created around January 17th have changed as Hannah has traveled through babyhood, childhood, and now enters adulthood. We have sent messages in bottles over the falls in Middlebury and put notes in balloons to release in the big field next to Breadloaf. Lit candles. Kneaded bread. Shopped for notebooks to fill with our feelings.
Recently we have been meeting in Burlington for a chilly walk along the lake and a meal together. We write down some of our favorite quotes or sayings on little pieces of paper, roll them into tubes, tie them with string, and then stash them randomly about the city. We know that some will never be found. They will become covered with snow, later disintegrating into the March mud when spring begs. Others will fall between cracks and disappear forever or become bedding in a bird's nest. The ones that are found might be discarded or ignored. They might be laughed at. They may be revered, treasured, taped into a journal. Or maybe they are rolled back up and re-stashed for the next guy. We’ll never know. I like to imagine these little notes on a cosmic course with some future potential recipient, currently moving through life unaware. They will look up or down or over just in time to notice the tiny treasure poking out of somewhere, they’ll pick it up and read it and in this way Zach’s life will again collide with another, with any luck changing it forever.