Owning a bike in Chicago required two locks. I learned this the hard way after emerging from a long, harrowing volunteer shift at the animal shelter to discover that both of my wheels were missing. Tears scalded my cheeks as I lifted my trusty steed’s skeleton into a cab and sailed off to the bike store in Wicker Park. The mechanic-on-duty chastised me for my foolishness. “It’s dog-eat-dog in this windy city!” From that point on, I fortified my standard u-lock with a cable lock. When I had to choose a four digit combination for this new purchase, I didn’t even question that it would be “0-6-2-6.” That was the birthday of the person I loved most, the person that occupied so many of my thoughts, that I frequently found myself literally driven to distraction: Ryan Skidmore.
For years I continued to use this lock, even after I moved to the considerably gentler (and virtually windless) city of Portland, Oregon. My friends laughed at my seemingly excessive security measures. I would sputter something falsely cynical along the lines of “I trust no one.” I was too embarrassed to admit that I found a certain level of comfort in spinning the numbers 0-6-2-6 into place. I was proving to someone unseen that I had not, no matter how great my life was, forgotten about Ryan. Somehow forgetting about him seemed like a real possibility. And that would mean losing him forever. I had found that my memories of him were getting blurrier. I had to close my eyes just a little bit harder to fully see his face. And our endless list of inside jokes were slipping into the darkest corners of my brain, crevices that were difficult to access. The first time I slept with someone else, a year after his death, I found myself crying on the stoop mere minutes afterward. I hated myself for erasing his imprint on my body.
This past June 26 would mark Ryan’s 39th birthday, a landmark that I cannot even imagine. He is twenty-seven forever, a feat that seems enviable only in theory. As my 25th and 26th birthdays creeped by, I felt my sense of dread simultaneously growing and diminishing. I was convinced that my life would also end very shortly after I turned twenty-seven. Who more than me–with my reckless ways and tendency toward impulsive decisions–would experience an early death? And so I waited. There is an almost luxurious feeling to being resigned to one’s early demise. I didn’t have to worry about responsible notions like a career and financial security. I could drink and fuck around and be a general fool. Even better, I didn’t have to deal with the suffocating cloud of grief that had enveloped me since Ryan’s death. My days were numbered, after all. But the years marched forward…28, 29, and then I was in my thirties.
I am aware that it is incredibly cliche to quote Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide“* in this sort of story, but as I heard Stevie Nicks sing these lyrics last night here in Portland, thousands of miles and 12 years away from Ryan’s last days, they seemed to capture the quandary I faced as I turned thirty:
“Can the child within my heart rise above?
Can I sail through the changing ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?”
Because suddenly and surprisingly, I was a fucking adult. Life was going on and I had spent the past seven years avoiding the very difficult process of healing and growing up. I had found that the two most effective methods of coping with my grief were denial and anger. The denial aspect was pretending that nothing mattered because it would all be ending soon anyway. This was best achieved by burying myself in a rigorous routine of work, work, and more work. Alcohol helped during the rare bits of down time.
Still, there were large stretches of time when even that strategy failed me. That was where anger became my closest ally. Every year, in mid-June, I would begin to feel a tiny ache in my chest. And by June 26, the pain was virtually paralyzing. Getting out of bed felt virtually impossible. I relied on a constant flow of coffee and booze to get me through each day. The agony would continue to build through the anniversary of his death in late July, culminating in all-out emotional meltdown on my birthday in August. This was especially frustrating in Portland, where the summer is THE BEST TIME OF YEAR. Afternoons in the park, house parties, and trips to the river abound. Everyone is committed to making the most of every last ray of sunlight before Rain and its bosom buddy Gloom return in October. The dark cloud hanging over my head was not invited to the litany of summer fun activities. Anger helped me get out of bed and pretend that I was happy. A steady ticker of FUCK RYAN IF HE LOVED ME HE WOULDN’T HAVE KILLED HIMSELF AND THE BEST REVENGE IS HAVING ALL THE FUN HE IS MISSING gave me the strength to play the role of Happy Go-Lucky Amanda.
These are not sustainable routines, if one hopes to ever be truly happy. I could see that I was existing in a lonely state of limbo. The act of moving forward and growing up required a different approach. There were several ideas that I had to accept. First (and this was the most difficult) I had to truly KNOW that Ryan was never coming back. I would never see him again and no amount of self-flagellation was going to change that. It was pointless to keep my distance from others “just in case” he reappeared. Because as silly as it seems, I definitely held out a tiny kernel of hope that we might be reunited. I frequently dreamed that he told me that the whole “death” thing was just a misunderstanding and he had just been taking some time to get himself together for all of those years. This bit of delusion prevented me from truly growing close to anyone. Every time I felt myself opening up to someone, I ran away. The sensation of falling in love with someone (which happened more times than I would have imagined) sent me into a panic that required a complete blackout in communication with the object of my affections.
Next, another ridiculous notion had to be abandoned: the idea that I would never love anyone like I had Ryan, and therefore, I would spend my life alone. It’s true that I will probably never love anyone in the same way, but only because my heart has grown and matured. There is a certain type of love that can only be experienced when one is 22 and afraid of nothing. It is the love that borders on worship and the belief that if one tries really, really hard then someday they *might* be as amazing as the person they love.
And lastly, I had to reunite myself with the motivating force that I had lost the day Ryan died: the belief that life was wide open, that anything could happen, that I could build any life I wanted. This idea was terrifying. As I mentioned, there was a comfort in my misery and isolation. Being resigned to a short life of pain was liberating. I didn’t have to ever take true risk. Sure, I was the first person to accept a dare if it involved binge drinking or climbing a tree, but I avoided any opportunity for real love or success. Grabbing life by the proverbial horns (or any other body part) requires a great deal of strength. And I realized that I had a lot of it buried in the deepest parts of me. Whenever I tried to picture its whereabouts, I saw it hiding in a nook below my stomach. It occupied the tiniest amount of space, but it expanded to gargantuan proportions when I truly summoned it. Maybe I had always possessed a little bit of it, but I gained a virtually exponential amount on the day that Ryan died. It was almost as if he had handed it off to me in his passing, knowing that while it was now useless to him, I would need so much to survive the next months and years and decades.
I would be lying if I said any of this is easy. Changing one’s entire way of thinking is not an overnight process. Just when I have felt that I was really figuring it all out, an unnamed force would pull the rug out from under me. A succession of painful and wasted summers lie behind me. But I have maintained that this is THE YEAR OF AMAZING CHANGE (and I can’t tell you exactly why I believe this, I just know it). Of course I’m skeptical of any belief that cannot be proven quantitatively. Yet, I’ve decided to take this leap of faith in myself and my ability to steer my own damn ship. Tiny bits of progress have become apparent. Last week, on a train bound for Los Angeles, I realized that it was June 27. Ryan’s birthday had come and gone and all that had happened was that I had an amazing day in San Francisco.
Thank you, RCS for giving me the strength that I needed to be the best version of myself.
*In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I have long maintained the fervent belief that there is a Fleetwood Mac song for any and every mortifying/devastating/amazing romantic situation one can experience.