I was 20 when my stepfather died in our house in Harrisburg.
I rarely saw anyone in my family for the next six years. Even my grandmother (best described as my childhood best friend) would not speak to us. I received no cards for high school graduation. No one called me on my birthday. And since my mother and I had a very tumultuous relationship–an unfortunate side effect of teenagerdom–I frequently felt completely alone. If anything, Charles was the voice of reason in my life. He encouraged my increasingly elaborate outfits and kooky hairstyles. When I needed equipment for field hockey–something that neither my mom nor I could afford–he picked me up after school with a trunk full of shin guards, cleats, and the best hockey stick money could buy. He convinced my mom that it was only logical that I should go away to school in New York City. He had the best taste of anyone I have ever met. He taught me about the best music and movies. He showed me how to cook. And I have to admit, he was a really well-dressed guy. He had lived in NYC for several decades before moving back to Central PA to deal with his family. This lent him a particularly high level of glamour in my small town eyes.
He wasn’t sick for a long time. Or maybe he was and he didn’t tell us. But in a period of a few weeks, he transformed from a handsome charming man to a wizened shell with a cane. And then there were hospice nurses and piles of pain pills. I was summoned home to confront a situation larger than me. My mom was a mess. She had no one but me. The house was filled with Charles’ family, but a lot of them had issues with our whiteness. I smoked endless packs of cigarettes in our basement, waiting for something to happen.
And then it did. My mom asked me to make a chicken to feed the steady stream of guests coming through our front door…everyone was there to say goodbye. I remember being perplexed by the actual chicken preparation. Where did I put the stuffing? Did I actually have to pull stuff out of the inside of the chicken (the answer to this was a horrifying “yes”)? A consultation with the Betty Crocker cookbook atop our refrigerator clarified everything. I was pulling it out of the oven, admiring my handiwork, when I heard the house sigh. Or maybe it was the world sighing. The deepest, longest sigh. Thirty seconds later, the house was filled with sobbing.
Even now, I can hear that sigh, and tears form in the corner of my eyes.
One week later, I moved to Chicago. I couldn’t deal with my mother’s pain, much less my own. I needed to be as far away as possible. I wanted to surround myself with rational strangers. I required sympathy and affection from my calm, predictable boyfriend. It was easy to forget everything that I had just happened when I was busy finding a job and a place to live.
One year later, while riding a bus down Lake Shore Drive (on my way to work), a woman behind me left out the longest sigh. I could hear it over my headphones. And with that, my grief broke through the dam. I cried the entire way downtown. I took the El back up to my apartment, still crying. I was still sobbing when my boyfriend came home that night. This continued for days. I spent the weekend wrapped in a blanket, tears running down my face as I watched snow blow in over Lake Michigan.
Monday morning I woke up feeling new. A little shaky, but definitely better.
Almost three years later, two weeks before my 24th birthday, my boyfriend Ryan died. And just as fast as I had arrived, I found myself fleeing Chicago. Suddenly my mom and I had this new horrible thing in common. And we finally understood one another. I spent the next four months crying, pausing only to give birth to my daughter.
That was seven years ago. Possibly the fastest seven years of my life, so far. I have seen myself grow in so many ways. All of the things I learned from Charles, from records to history to the best way to cook carrots, have made me a better, more interesting person (and I have a really great carrot dish to impress guests). And even stranger, I feel as if I have absorbed all of Ryan’s greatest attributes…it’s like he passed them on to me in lieu of money and security: I am a master of strategy and planning (a responsibility once left to him). I am charming and outgoing (but pre-Ryan, I was shy and awkward, hiding in the corners at parties). I’m not afraid to be the person I really am (but the 23-year old me hated myself…and Ryan’s complete love for his inner self constantly amazed me).
And then there are lots of silly little things. I never use vegetable oil, because Ryan really hated it. And I avoid box wine, because Charles thought it was a travesty. I traded in my uniform of t-shirts and jeans for dresses, because Ryan always requested seeing me in more dresses. I’m partial to forest green because it was Charles’ favorite color. I force myself to eat spinach–even though I hate it–because Ryan always pushed it on me.
I am not going to lie. When faced with an important decision, I usually ask myself, “What would Ryan and Charles think of this?” The few times I have ignored their obvious opinions, I have regretted it later. It might seem weird to use the dead as advisors, but perhaps they are the only completely neutral individuals.
At least once a week, I will imagine that both of them are sitting on a cloud somewhere above, keeping an eye on my mom, Dylan, and me. I like to think that I have made them proud…not simply by surviving…not even just by muscling my way through every awful situation…but by constantly growing and trying to be a better person.
I thought about this as Janelle, JT, and I drove back from the sand lake late Saturday night. We were silent, listening to a Pygmy Lush song (one of my favorite bands right now). Previously we had been talking about ghosts, spirits, and dead loved ones. I couldn’t help but think of the two ghosts I carry with me every day. They even visit me in my dreams, offering their two cents on everyday situations. Maybe it’s merely a misguided coping mechanism, but I can’t deny my belief in spririts and ghosts and weird psychic connections…even if I am a cynic about everything else.
Magic is real only if you believe in it.