One day you wake up and wonder where the tears went. You wonder when they stopped coming. When did the thought of them stop spilling from your soul. From the wounds you’ve patched over and over again only to feel them open at some familiar but forgotten sight. A smell. A sound of music you can still see them dancing to with all of the life they left behind.
It’s been 20 years since my father passed. To be honest I’m not sure I ever saw him dance. These days it’s difficult to distinguish between the memories I have and the ones I’ve created. The life I built for him after that December day in 1997. What stories have I written for him that never existed at all. Dinners we would’ve had. Weddings to attend. Walks to take on summer evenings while I asked him questions that burned so brightly in my young mind it would be years before they faded. And some days, still, I see the stunning supernova they’ve left behind. The light still reaching out towards me in a shattered silence made of Motown hits and the raucous laughter of uncle’s in my living room. I watched so many of them leave, never with time for a proper goodbye. A thank you for the looks and language they gave me to express myself. The strength and ability to offer myself to any stranger on the street if only for a moment.
For the last twenty years I’ve spent this day in quiet reflection trying to piece together what, if anything, it all means. “It” being not death, but the space it leaves behind. What do we fill it with? The tears I spoke of perhaps. Poetry. Anger. Hurt. All of the grief and it’s many names. How do we move through or within it? Do we walk. Is it a furious sprint. Are there walls to climb. Were they always there or did we build them ourselves. It’s wondering not just what we DO with it but how do we attach a purpose. I think of all the times I’ve felt it sitting on top of me. The unseen weight that has at once strengthened and exhausted my bones. I think of the times I’ve spoken to it. All of the hopeless words it swallowed without giving anything back. Or maybe it’s just that the lessons offered don’t have a shape I can recognize. A form I can touch.
I don’t remember his touch. I can’t feel his hands anymore. But his voice still finds the back of my neck. My shoulders. He had a kind of crushing presence that you felt could bury you or lift you up above any heights you’d imagined or been afraid to look down from. His was a balance that was difficult to live with mostly because it was, in fact, never a balance. It was simply an adventure between two extremes. Nights I wanted to hide beneath my covers, and days I couldn’t wait for him to pull out from under them. And so I often wonder, these days, have I given him too much weight. Have I spent these twenty years loving and mourning someone who never existed. Are there better angels who’s names I should hold closer than his. Have I lived too long in the space he left behind. And I think the answer is yes. And I think the answer is no.
The truth is I’ve been writing this essay all of my life and I’m not sure there’s an ending in sight. There are no better angels to choose from. My father was fallen and perhaps yours was too. Or your mother. Your brother. Your sister. There is no shame in it, there is only the hope that we’ll find their redemption in the eyes of the ones we love. In the eyes of passing time. And in our own eyes on nights we find the strength and peace to see them in ourselves. The nights when tears don’t come and there is no guilt to be felt for their absence. The nights where it finally feels okay to leave that space behind.
I may have never seen my father dance but it doesn’t matter. I know he did. And I know he does. And I know we’ll continue to share the music that was written just for us. And I’ll cherish every note.