When I was a kid I imagined my dad’s death a lot. It was always one of two scenarios: either I would watch him shrink in my vision as the lifeboat I sat in lowered slowly into the cold water, leaving my father to await certain death on the foundering Titanic, or I would watch from the safety of the underground tornado shelter as, gripping the flimsy door to keep it latched and me safe, he was sucked up into the maw of the roaring funnel. The influence of history and pop culture on those scenes is obvious, and certainly I was a morbid child by nature anyway, but as I lay here in the midnight dark I wonder if there is more to them than overactive imagination. I wonder if my younger self sensed on some instinctive level that her father would be taken from her without warning and sought to prevent this looming disaster by compulsively imagining worst case scenarios. Or maybe she was simply attempting to blunt the inevitable future pain of his loss by repetition. Either way it didn’t work, perhaps because in those scenarios he was always sacrificing himself to save me when in the end there was no danger, no moment of swift choice between his life or his daughter’s. I was only a child, after all; back then I understood the threat disasters posed, but not that human ineptitude could just as easily shatter my fragile world.
No exes in my graveyard, instead I’m dogged by the ghosts of friendships abandoned, bodies left to rot where they fell in the undergrowth because neither of us bothered to give them a proper burial (can’t honestly say I even checked for a pulse before I ran, fearful of either outcome) and while watching yet another love begin its slow anemic decline I feel your specter sit beside me and I rest my head on her shoulder like it’s the most natural thing in the world.
After a night spent tossing and turning, grieving the endless noise of humanity and the oppressive heat of summer, the pale September dawn extends a peace offering of thin fog hovering over dewy fields dotted by stands of evergreens and clusters of sleepy cows. This isn’t quite reconciliation – evening traffic will still clog the city’s arteries with exhaust fumes and once white-capped mountains are still disturbingly barren – but perhaps it can serve a noble purpose anyway. Whether it’s a true promise of approaching autumn or only the last vestiges of that dying liminal season, soon to go the way of Tahoma’s dwindling glaciers, I take the gift for what it’s worth and tuck it behind my sternum for safe keeping. Some future night when I’m half mad with mourning all we’ve ruined in the name of progress I’ll pull this memory out and wrap it ’round myself like a blanket, breathing in the scent of damp soil until I finally fall asleep.
I dream that I have failed. The tiny, struggling cat rescue I’ve spent years trying to help keep afloat has finally gone under. Where will all the cats go? I think. Where will they go, who will feed them, who will bind their wounds and shelter them against the cruelty of the world? As I walk numbly through a grassy field toward rows of kennels, perhaps to say goodbye to the cats inside for the last time, I whisper the names of those already lost so that I won’t forget them. Yet when I reach the kennels I find their doors all open and the cats streaming through the grass past me. They run eagerly, all in the same direction, as if toward some destination I cannot see. Even the littlest day-old kittens with their ears still buttoned down and their eyes still squeezed shut try to stumble through the tall grass after mothers and older siblings. I have to stop walking or I’ll step on someone by accident, so I kneel down in the grass and begin gathering babies up in my arms to keep them safe. Some older kittens climb into my lap as well, or up onto my shoulders, and soon I’m weighed down in a blanket of warm, squirming bodies. Their purring vibrates through me so loudly it drowns out my thoughts, my frantic heartbeat, a glorious pean washing over me in a crescendo of wordless voices. Within its embrace I finally break; I bury my face into sweet silken fur and add my own wordless, animal howling to the hymn-turned-lament. I let grief wrack my body in violent sobs as if I am a bean sí crying out the world’s doom. By the time my exhausted body has no tears left to shed nor sound to utter and I lift my head once more, everything around me has burned to ash and I am alone.
I dream about you often enough now that my heart lives in a perpetual state of confusion, convinced this surreal oroboros of childhood homes and reinvented memories is somehow the correct reality until the moment I wake and the narrative fragments. Yet even fifteen years later I still haven’t the nerve to scold my heart too sternly for its naivety; what if by breaking it just that much more it loses the ability to dream of you at all?
look into my eyes;
how can you not see I am
Alexandria’s charred skeleton
Delphi’s discard, Pompeii’s corpse-hollows
a husk of a revenant vomiting
endless bean sí grief-wail?
HOW CAN YOU NOT SEE I AM
A THING ALREADY DEAD?
It’s beyond salvage
Ashfall shrouding charred ruins
No one’s noticed yet
You can’t publicly mourn anymore. Not really. You can’t claw at your skin or tear out your hair. You can’t howl and beat your breast. Polite society demands we tame our grief into dry-eyed stoicism or silent, stately tears. Lacking an outlet, I settle for picking at scabs that never heal and pulling out my eyebrows until my fingers ache, but it’s never enough. They call it dermatillomania and trichotillomania because if you do this to yourself there must be something clinically wrong with your mind. I think a more accurate term, if one is so necessary, would be obsessive compulsive mourning. Can we be blamed, though, given the state of the world? We’re drowning in grief and our bodies long for the catharsis of mindless animal exertion. Some sorrow you can only release in screams so loud they leave you voiceless. Some rage you can only set free by clawing it out of your flesh with your own fingernails. Some mourning only heals when you are surrounded by others who wail and rend with you. There’s solace to be found in the ugly, violent mourning of our ancestors – but instead we cage the misery inside ourselves, where it rots us slowly from within.
Come, spirit, sit beside me.
We do not need to speak.
We do not need to strive for or against.
We can sit quietly,
and just be in the moment,
you and I.
And when you are ready
you may go on your way.
The first day after I swore an oath to Wepwawet to take up deathwork, I found a desiccated vole on the front porch. I have no idea how a mummified rodent would appear there, out of range of any overhang one might potentially have fallen from. It didn’t appear to have been snacked on much, though enough skin was missing on its face that my wife was able to rescue the skull fairly easily. It’s so small and fragile I’m afraid to touch it with my clumsy fingers. Was it a gift? A confirmation? I’m not sure.
The second day after I swore an oath to Wepwawet to take up deathwork, I drove past a dead cat in the middle of the road. It was just a few blocks from work and early enough in the morning that the road wasn’t too busy. I pulled over and gently lifted the poor thing – stiff, but not overly so; he hadn’t been dead long – and set him on the grassy sidewalk. He had thick gray-white fur and the healthy roundness of a well-fed pet. Someone will be looking for him (I hope), so I left him there for his family to find. Instead I just lay my hand on his soft fur and said a prayer over him, then went on with my day. But I can’t get his blood-splattered paws out of my mind, or his shattered hard palate. I hope it was quick. I hope it was painless. It probably wasn’t.
I never imagined I would walk this path. I can’t imagine where it might lead. I hope I’m strong enough.
I thought you would feel more… lacking. Emptier somehow, almost incorporeal. But no, you were as solid in death as you were in life. As I lifted you from the road I felt the weight of your body in my hands, fat and muscle and bone under soft fur. When I laid my hand on your side you might have been just asleep, save for the stillness of your chest. That’s where I lay my hand on my own cat as he sleeps at my side, feeling with every rise and fall the life pumping within him. Is there someone tonight whose own hand gropes in the dark for the comfort of your presence yet touches only your vacant space? I wonder, when they find you will you feel as heavy to them as you felt to me? Or will their hands register the absence of your soul as an unbearable lightness?
I remember you in the summer:
the heady scent of fresh cut grass
wild blackberries warmed by the sun
eagles soaring high in a clear blue sky
I remember you in the fall:
the trumpet call of geese flying south
white fog tangled in evergreen trees
leaves and pine cones crunching underfoot
I remember you in the winter:
the gleam of bare branches encased in ice
wood smoke drifting on the chill wind
snowflakes falling in lazy circles
I remember you in the spring:
the chirp of baby swallows in their nests
footprints through the dewy grass
daffodil faces lifted toward the sun
I never had a chance to play the role of ex-girlfriend, let alone crazy ex-girlfriend, so it’s kind of you to afford me the opportunity now. I know the label’s not entirely accurate but bear with me, will you? It’s what I feel like, after all. I feel dumped. Ditched. Ghosted. It’s like I came home one day and your shit was just gone, my number blocked, and I was alone for the first time in fifteen years. Do you think it’s that easy, though? Do you think I can’t find you again, that I won’t track you down to a new apartment and hack all your social media accounts? Oh honey, no. I’m not so easy to get rid of and I’m definitely not someone you ghost. I’m walking past your new building at midnight; I’m digging through your trash at dawn; I’m shoving chopped up Polaroids of your new girl through your mail slot while you’re at work. I flirted with the doorman and he gave me your last three Amazon orders. I’m holding onto the hairs from that comb you left in case I need to fake my death and plant a little DNA evidence at the scene. Boy, you’ve made a real bad mistake here because I’ve always wanted to play the crazy ex and now’s my chance to take the starring role. I know this is just a metaphor and all, but metaphorically speaking I am ready to fucking ruin you. Are you excited to get the game started? I sure am.
in these dark days I am grateful for sages and oracles, Greek choruses and seers, for I am bereft of the hope necessary to play such roles anymore, no, now I am too weary, too full of mindless rage to provide good counsel, now I am a banshee and all I can do is wail we are dying, we are dying, we are dying
It has become such a trite phrase, an excuse for bad tattoos and wild partying. But what does it mean beyond those trivialities, beyond the shallowness of YOLO culture? What does it mean to truly live a regret-free life?
It means forgiving.
It means forgiving the past for taking you to this present. It means forgiving yourself for not understanding what was happening at the time, for not clinging to those final moments with tooth and nail. It means forgiving those who may have hastened that end through their carelessness or the flaws in a broken system. It means forgiving every person their lack of omniscience – yet especially yourself. It means forgiving yourself for the things you did and the things you did not do and how that closed all the doors on every possible future but one.
And it means accepting.
It means accepting that you can neither change the past nor predict how it will affect the future. It means accepting that we are only human and that we all make mistakes, every one of us every day, and nothing can change that either. It means accepting endings and embracing beginnings, always. It means accepting a new normal. It means accepting that new normals are not inherently bad, only different.
And it means being able to one day look upon a gravestone without flinching. It means knowing in your heart you did all you could and continue to do all you can. It is not an easy philosophy. It is not a philosophy of misspelled tattoos and drunken selfies. It is a philosophy of hope tempered with the weight of experience. It is a constant striving to do what you think is right in the moment and a constant forgiving of yourself and others once the moment has passed. It is closing the door on the past, yet never locking it.
and in doing so to dismantle the prison tower of my own creation
and to build in its place a watchtower to stand against the darkness.
I offer my determination if You offer your strength.
I offer my sincerity if you offer Your guidance.
I offer my faith if you offer Your goodwill.
And by this oath for a year and a day are we bound.
This is how I think it went down. After Anubis finished weighing my father’s heart on Ma’at’s grand scales – lighter than any feather, magic or otherwise, of course – he was met by Wepwawet to guide him through the underworld. Along the way they got to talking, bonding over a mutual appreciation for travel in all its forms by land, by air, and by sea. It is rare to meet another as knowledgeable as yourself in the more obscure aspects of your passion and they became fast friends.They probably shared about the classic cars they had owned and old motorcycles that had carried them faithfully down hot roads beneath a desert sun. Maybe they discussed the aircraft and ships which had shaped the course of human warfare or reminisced about the modes of travel long outdated by technological evolution.
(This is where the story gets hard for me to write. I keep deleting it. Ignoring it. Pretending I can’t see the scene so clearly. I can, though. And I want to tell it, I do, but it’s like my hands just… stop working. Revert back to heavy, lifeless clay. Not this time, though. Come on, just get it out!)
At the threshold to the Field of Reeds my father asked a favor from Wepwawet. He had left behind a teenage daughter, you see, and he worried for her safety. She wasn’t a very good driver, for one, and was often scatterbrained or easily distracted. Would Wepwawet look out for her as she moved through the world, just to make sure she got home each night in one piece? He gave my name and Wepwawet must have smiled, maybe even said something like, “She’s already known to us,” and assured my father He would keep an eye on me. And He has ever since, though He’s probably had to save my butt more times than I can count and I’m sure it’s a stressful promise to keep. But they’re kindred souls, I can feel it, and every time I feel Wepwawet’s presence I feel my father’s as well and know I am doubly blessed.
[ Hey, I added a “dad stuff” tag if anyone’s interested ]
Everyone says the Morrigan tears your life apart in order to rebuild you from the ground up, so that’s what I expected: rapid, inescapable destruction. I worried over when the hammer would drop and what part of my life it would utterly wreck. Would I see it coming? Would I have any agency in the matter? Would I even survive the breaking? No subtle goddess, She; surely Her lightning would strike without warning and send my carefully constructed tower crumbling to the ground.
Lightning did strike, though of course not in the way I expected. It was a flash of illumination, not destruction, and it revealed my tower in all its fearful glory. I knew then that the Morrigan had no intention of tearing down that tower – she intends me to do it. Brick by brick, inch by inch, I will dig at the mortar until my nails are cracked and bleeding. I have been building this tower all my life, though my work began in earnest when my father died eleven years ago. To dismantle my tower I will need to deal with the grief I locked away inside. And that is correct and right, I know it in my heart. After all, what do you learn from someone else doing the heavy lifting?
Still, part of me longs for the quick, crushing swing of the wrecking ball.
Bleeding heart is a good label for me right now; my heart certainly feels like it’s been bleeding for a while. Actually, it feels like it’s hemorrhaging so much I’m leaking red out my eyes and mouth and leaving a trail wherever I linger. I don’t know how to stop it. I try ignoring it but then I slip in the unexpected puddles. I try staunching it with prayers and spells and good deeds but they soak through too quickly. There’s no change I could effect in the world big enough to fill this hole so I just keep bleeding and bleeding and bleeding. Is there a source to this fount? Will I ever run out? Or will I just keep overflowing with sorrow?
I go through the five stages of grief every time you leave; by now I’m such an expert I can pass through them in record time. Denial – I search for you in music, in books, in dreams, in words, but you are nowhere to be found. Anger – I think how dare you how dare you how dare you how dare you how dare you how dare you how dare you? Bargaining – I apologize profusely for imaginary slights and consider leaving you offerings of whiskey and cigarettes to curry your favor. Depression – everything goes gray and silent and meaningless, and I stop writing completely. Acceptance – I realize this is it, this is the end, there’s nothing more to fear because the worst has actually happened and there’s nothing I can do about it. And then without warning you return, acting as if you’d never left me to fend for myself, and I am expected to play along. And I do, because the alternative is to risk you never returning and I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.
He returns to the alley too often. It is not a gravestone, after all, but close enough and all he has. Sometimes he sits on the cold concrete, recalling the night they met – though he sits on the far side, never beneath the darkened streetlight. Most times he just paces back and forth as he lights, smokes, and discards cigarette after cigarette. Their burnt ends litter the cement, are ground beneath his shoes and grow soggy in rain puddles. He hopes some shred of fate still lingers here. He hopes he will catch his lover’s tragedy, be infected with whatever curse or punishment took the man from him so he can experience the same pain, the same misery, the same slow death. In this place where everything started, he seeks the beginning of the end. It is the only way left for him to feel close to his beloved. He hopes he will die here; living is a betrayal he cannot bear much longer.
It’s been ten years. Three thousand six hundred and fifty-two days. In that time, three years of college; three of Americorps; three with a ‘real’ job. Two degrees and one diploma. Four years with the woman I love, who you will never meet. Forty-two foster kittens. Some hundred thousand miles on my car. One car accident, zero broken bones. Two trips to Washington DC, one to Yosemite, one to Switzerland. One new Jurassic Park movie, which you’ll never watch with me, and too many Tremors sequels. Three tattoos, going on four. One wedding to plan and one to attend. Three times a bridesmaid and once a bride. Zero fathers to walk me down the aisle. Zero dads to dance with. Zero you but countless dreams and too many things I’ll never get to share with you.
“You Would Have Been 70”
In 2007, I missed telling you about my history classes.
In 2008, I missed you helping me buy gear for my fieldwork on Mount Rainier.
In 2009, I missed showing you the rock samples I collected in New Mexico.
In 2010, I missed seeing you at my college graduation.
In 2011, I missed introducing you to my new favorite band.
In 2012, I missed hiking in Yosemite with you.
In 2013, I missed introducing you to my girlfriend.
In 2014, I missed you helping me move into my first official apartment.
In 2015, I missed discussing Ray Bradbury with you.
In 2016, I missed showing you my engagement ring.
In 2017, I will miss you walking me down the aisle.
amid a small town
a rusting iron fence;
amid fading gravestones
dried flowers and pine needles;
amid a broken wind chime
a porcelain unicorn;
amid the red carnations
a date range carved in marble;
amid the living’s thoughts
a little girl long lost
(rest in peace, little one, whoever you were)
“Aren’t you going to tell me not to do anything drastic when you’re gone?”, I asked him once. He had shrugged and said, “I won’t give a shit what you do then.” I wonder if that’s true, though. Do you give a shit now? Can you, wherever you are? And if so, are you disappointed in me? I know I am. I used to wonder what I’d do after you were gone, whether I’d pick something flashy like jumping from the roof or something classic like hanging. Turns out I just went back to what I did best before I met you: killing myself slowly with alcohol and painkillers. Not really flashy or classic, I guess, so much as just pathetic. There’s no urge to do anything else, though, you know? I don’t have the energy to climb up to the roof. I don’t have the desire to decide which tie would make the best noose. I don’t even feel moved enough to take the whole bottle of pills and wash them down with a tumbler of Crown. I just keep getting drunk, getting high, getting lost, waiting for the morning I finally don’t wake up. Does that disappoint you? Were you secretly hoping I’d make some grand final gesture, or at least that I’d find it impossible to slip back into my old life so easily? Or do you still, even now, not give a shit what I do or how I do it?
When will the dawning break? Oh endless night
Sleepless I dream of the day when you were by my side
Guiding my path; Father, I can’t find the way
You promised you’d be there whenever I needed you
Whenever I call your name you’re not anywhere
I’m trying to hold on, just waiting to hear your voice
One word, just a word will do to end this nightmare
Sometimes I feel like I’m overflowing with all the things I want to tell you. They’ve accumulated over the years, you know? Eight years of stories, questions, secrets, interesting facts and finds. I want to tell you about Rose’s Pawn Shop; I think you’d get a kick out of the fact that my favorite band is a bluegrass band. I want to tell you I ended up majoring in Geoscience and History, not English; would that surprise you, or not? I want to tell you about this Roger Zelazny short story I read – it has the Mary Celeste and the Flying Dutchman in it! I want to tell you about field work in New Mexico, climbing to the base of the Nisqually glacier, studying Japanese biological warfare, and the crazy, wonderful professors who made that all possible. I want to tell you about trying to explain recycling to immigrants from Sudan, Vietnam, Ukraine; I want to tell you about teaching emergency preparedness to children and teenagers and adults. I want to make you see Jurassic World with me, even though we both know it will be awful. I want us to go see Jaws in theaters for its 40th anniversary. I want to tell you I remember the first time we watched that movie, and every movie you ever showed me. I want to tell you I discovered the magic and power of Bradbury too late to discuss him with you, and I’ll always regret that. I want to tell you I’ve finally fallen in love, and I know you’d like her, and I know you’d be happy for us. I want to tell you I look at time differently now, and relationships, and life. I want to tell you we’re okay, but we miss you terribly, and things can’t ever be the same.
I know that the night must end
And that the sun will rise, and that the sun will rise
I know that the clouds must clear
And that the sun will shine, and that the sun will shine
I know that the night must end
I know that the sun will rise
And I’ll hear your voice deep inside
There’s a part of me that will never accept there isn’t a spell to bring you back. That part of me will always wonder at the words, the ingredients, the timing. Maybe it’s possible, it will argue. Maybe you just need the right combination of Bradbury and Zelazny, Irish Rovers and Bob Seger, a circle of beach sand sprinkled with Guinness and in the center an eagle feather laid atop a Harley Davidson t-shirt; maybe if you just keep searching you’ll find enough little memories to place at the foot of that weathered stone until one day “No Regrets” won’t make your heart twist to read. And I hate that part of me, but I can’t stand to snuff it out, because what if it’s right?
Some days I want to glean meaning from your death. Other days I know it was just some random shit thing that happened. In my dreams society has crumbled, humanity reduced to warring factions and desperate survival, and still what I miss most as I stand by the ocean is hearing songs on the radio that remind me of you. Upon waking I struggle for a moment, wondering why my mother is dating someone, until I remember (over and over and over) – you’re gone.
[ My arch nemesis and I provided each other with some writing prompts. This is the first she gave me. The limitations are it must be serious and canon to the story in which both our characters appear. Her prompt is below:
If my fragments for The Lodestar’s Lament are canon, (which I might make them) without the alternate ending – Mage has successfully totaled the island by using the Hook’s piercing tip to scratch open the rift at the bottom of the sea. Its pieces are either being crushed in a black hole or scattered to the edges of the universe in all cardinal directions. Her reaction? ]
It is a strangely silent Armageddon. The captain is uncertain whether this pleases or disappoints her. She is tired of feeling anything at all, honestly.
Mage watches from the deck of the Jolly Roger as the ruined island is subsumed back into the universe which birthed it, fragments drifting into a sky the color of burst galaxies and firework graveyards, and the heart of the island sinking down into a darkness that devours everything it touches. Only Mage’s power keeps the hungry nothingness from sucking in the floating pirate ship – and this, too, she will finally gift back to the world in which it belongs, and must stay, when she no longer needs its statement.
As the last of the island succumbs to the black hole’s pull, Mage turns and asks, “Is it enough?”
Behind her Tanim and Daren stand like motionless sentinels on either side of a stranger, one who has never before set foot in this world. She seems somehow a child of seven and thirteen at the same time, pudgy and pale, her long black hair a tangle of snarls and her blue-gray eyes filled with tears. She clings to a worn stuffed calico cat, so out of place on the black deck of the infamous ship.
“It was supposed to be,” the girl replies, “but…it’s not. Why isn’t it?”
Mage smiles sadly and comes to kneel before the little girl. She smooths her hair with a hand no longer twisted and blackened by the Hook; already she is returning to the one she was Before. “Nothing brings back lost family, my dear,” the captain tells her charge. “But fear not. We are your family, and we cannot be taken from you.” Glancing briefly up, Mage exchanges a look with the two men that seems to add though you can be taken from us.
“Captain, it’s over,” Mage straightens and follows Tanim’s gaze to the bruised darkness which once contained a place she might, given time, given grace, have called home. For a moment she does not speak, only stares at the reclaimed emptiness of space, then bows her head and utters something beneath her breath in a language none alive still speak.
With a sigh that forces itself into a pale smile, Mage turns back to the girl and lays a hand on her shoulder. “Come along, little one, let us leave this place. It is time for me to become The Wanderer again.”