Author's note: I didn't edit this; didn't even proofread it, because this is not an essay; these are simply words that needed to be put to paper, that needed to escape my mind.
You died sixteen years ago today. What I felt that day I can only liken to someone reaching into my chest and rearranging the things that I consist of. My heart, my lungs, the air I breathe, felt as if they weren’t in the right place, as if they were trying to escape me somehow. It physically hurt, and I kept clutching at my chest all day, as if I was trying to keep in the things that so desperately wanted out.
Each hour, day, month, year since, that pain has evolved. I’m no longer terrified of it, nor have I tamed it. I’ve simply acknowledged its existence, its place in the natural order of things.
For years, I blamed the pain. Still, I think, I have a right to do so, but I long ago realized the futility of that blame. When you died, I lost myself. I stopped doing schoolwork, and when the time came to apply for college, I didn’t even try, didn’t fill out a single college application. It took some time to realize how great that mistake was, but when I did, I tried to correct it by enlisting, foregoing the enlistment bonus in favor of the college fund. That plus the G.I. Bill would’ve given me $90,000 for school. I started classes while I was still enlisted to get a headstart.
Then I screwed up again, and I was kicked out. I lost every last cent of the tuition money, and became a new father at the same time. I found what work I could (which wasn’t much), and have been fighting an uphill battle ever since.
While all this was happening, while all this life was passing me by, refusing to take me along with it, I carried the pain. I used it, even, as a reminder that I could trace everything back to the day you died, that my demise began that day.
As I said, though, the pain evolved. I watched it grow, as a parent watches a child grow. That cold November morning, it was an infant: kicking and screaming and raging against the world we’d placed it in. Soon, it began to develop its features. It softened, matured. Today, I no longer carry the pain as I did in its infancy. Instead, it walks beside me, neither weighing me down, nor holding me back. It is my equal—a friend, even—that I can turn to in times of need. It comforts me, reminding me that it is not all I have left of you.
Do you remember the time she carved your initials in the bridge on Front Street?
Do you remember her words after you kissed her for the first time?
Do you remember how she got upset when she couldn’t make you jealous?
Remember the Browns T-shirt she bought you for your fifteenth birthday?
Remember the bemused look on her face when you told her you didn’t like the way she dressed?
I remember, I say, and I smile.
I’ve no idea what you would think of who I’ve become. Certainly, I’m no longer the boy you knew, but I wonder if you’d recognize how much you, nearly two decades later, have shaped the man I am. Your life and your death played equal parts in my growth, and for that, I can’t thank you enough.
You taught me what love was, though you could hardly recognize it yourself. You taught me that it enveloped everything, that love became the atmosphere in the midst of which everything else lived. It made important things trivial, and it made unimportant things crucial. You taught me that the tightness in my chest that came out of nowhere every time I saw your face was life itself, or at least was what life aspires to be.
You taught me how excruciating pain can be, how a harsh word from someone you love can cut. You taught me the unimaginable frustration of having to inhabit two separate bodies, when clearly we were meant to be closer than physical reality allows. You taught me the value of the self- of yours, of mine, of the child on the swing in the park, of the hungry man on the corner, of the nemesis you’re supposed to hate.
Some of these things you taught me before you left me, and some you taught me by leaving pieces of yourself behind for me to find along the way. It’s been sixteen years, and I still carry pieces of you with me.