The 21st happened. I am still here. It was a hard and soft day. Hard in the moments when I missed Tony so much that my heart hurt. Hard when I thought back and could feel every sensation of that Friday night a year ago: the cold concrete steps under me as I sat waiting for the police to break in and find Tony’s body, the warmth of Sheri’s car as I talked to the medical examiner and crisis counselor, the harsh bright lights of Bristol Farms where Sheri took me to get something to eat and I stood helpless, unable to remember what it was to eat or to fathom what one might eat after the end of the world. Wasn’t all the food radioactive? Wouldn’t it hurt me? Wouldn’t my body reject it the way it tried to reject this horrible, horrible news?
Hard when I remember emailing Tony’s cousin to ask her to call me in the morning, because I knew I couldn’t give his sister that news over the phone.
Soft when I hugged my sisters, my mom and my nieces and nephews. Soft as my eyes took in the beauty of the drive: the tall trees, the snow softly ploshing from them onto the windshield of Stephanie’s car. Soft when I felt the love of my family and friends, who checked in throughout the day, fold around me like the warmest blanket.
And then there were the other parts, the ones that were messy and unexpected and foggy. The first place we stopped along the river, we saw no eagles. The river was breathtaking beautiful, and the cold itself somehow felt right too. We stayed a while, soaking in the beauty all around us, and then moved on to another spot near a fish hatchery. Just as we pulled in, a huge eagle soared right by us. We were still in the cars, so none of us got a picture, but it was gorgeous and so big and gone so quickly. After that our only glimpses of eagles were from a long distance and through the fog. Even that, somehow, felt right, because isn’t that what it’s like when we’re grieving? We are lost in the fog and it feels like we’ll never get out. But then, somehow, we get a quick glimpse of something beautiful. It’s far away, or maybe we get a little look at it up close, just for a minute. But the point is that now we know it’s there. We know the beauty is still there, and we just need to wait for the fog to clear to be able to enjoy it again. There’s no way for us to return to the way things were, not exactly; but the beauty is still there, waiting for us to be able to see it.
We finished up at the hatchery and went back to our first location, because I still had something to do. On my favorite television show of all time, Northern Exposure, there’s an episode that deals with grieving and closure. The character Maggie is turning thirty, and she’s sustained quite a few losses in her young life. Another character, Ed, suggests that she go camping and mail letters down the river to those she has lost. It’s a Native American ritual, as he describes it.
I wrote a letter to Tony yesterday. It was not long, and I didn’t keep a copy. It was for him alone. I wrote it, and carried it with me. We worked our way down to the river’s edge and perhaps not surprisingly, even this most simple task ended up being complicated by the presence of a socially inept adolescent boy who wouldn’t take any of our cues that we wanted to be left alone and grilled us incessantly about our mode of transportation and offered up unwanted advice about what we should do. Even that seemed like a metaphor for the grieving process. Sometimes we have to put up with a lot of unwanted advice and platitudes along the way. Finally he wandered off, and I crouched down and kissed the letter and let the water take it.
I’m not done grieving. I have a long way to go on this river. The river is carrying my message to him, and it will carry me, too, through the fog. One day, and there’s no way of knowing when, I will be able to see the river and the trees and the eagles and my own future under sunny skies. One day. In the meantime, I’ll just keep swimming.