On a slow boat in the middle of the Mekong, I am as far away from comfort as I have ever been. Physically, this ride is uncomfortable, the way the hard right angles of the wooden bench have done unspeakably awkward things to my butt in the last two days. But it is a mental discomfort too. You may be shocked to learn that there is no Wi-Fi signal in the middle of a mile-wide river in remote Northern Laos, and without the typical distractions you are left only with books, conversation, and your own thoughts. Ah, here was the real issue: under no circumstances was I to be left alone with my own thoughts.
I gaze straight ahead and my eyes land on a family. A little girl is busy coloring and her father is handing her new markers as he is cued. She leans against him with the incontrovertible air of someone who knows they are safe. Her brown curls fall into her eyes as she focuses with the precision of a heart surgeon. She looks only at the coloring book, and he looks only at her. Before these long and solitary hours on the river I would have smiled warmly at them and moved on. But so many things have changed. I feel a bubble of panic rise in my chest. In my mind, the words appear like the chosen numbers in a lottery: one day she will lose him. I need to warn her that a loving father’s presence is impermanent and equivocal, just like everything beautiful in this world. That some day he will leave her and it will not be his choice.
I need to tell her that loss is universal. It isn’t contained. One day it will come into your life and try to destroy you. How much better would it be if only a few were afflicted by it, or products of it, and they could explain to everyone else what it feels like and how gritty it is and how there are many, many things you can’t unsee and maybe they don’t haunt you, but maybe they do. Those who have lost could brief us on what it feels like to hurt from the inside, how missing someone feels like drowning in a sea of fire but it can also feel like bleak emptiness and neither is preferable but you will feel one of them to some degree every day for the rest of your life. And we would all collectively sigh… not really getting it but getting it enough, as much as anybody can who hasn’t been dragged alive through hell, and we would go home and cook dinner for our families and look at each other with more intention and say ‘I love you’ and let it hang in the air. So we’d get it, sort of, and we’d all become the kindest, most patient versions of ourselves… without actually sacrificing the lost.
I would tell her that there are illimitable ways you can miss him, that maybe your list is short but your reason is huge, or maybe you have a trillion lists of tiny reasons but they both amount to the same dull ache. I would tell her that I have both. My short list is the unfathomable one, it is like I am watching my favorite TV show and then someone turns it off — the appropriate response is Why’d you do that? The TV show is bright and colorful and then without warning the screen is black. It will never play again, not this particular show. All of the plot points and events that may have theoretically unfolded can no longer be. It simply doesn’t exist anymore.
My longer list isn’t about senselessness, it’s just about him. I miss things he used to say like “Let me get out of this monkey suit” and “Caitlin, do you know what I love about you? Everything.” I miss the songs he would sing as he’d strum the guitar; the way he’d dance when he was dancing seriously and the way he’d dance when he was trying to make us laugh. I miss the way he cooked breakfast, never obligatory but excited, like cooking breakfast was a gift, this day was a gift, and we’d better get ready for it. I miss the way he loved my mom, not even in exceptionally affectionate circumstances. He loved her when he looked at her. I miss how he was such a geek about nature, and learning, and when those two things collided, well, he was a lost cause. I love the way he chased passion. I miss the way he could find adventure anywhere. Mostly, though, I miss things that haven’t happened yet. I miss the fact that he won’t be a grandfather the way I think you might miss someone you never knew. You can’t actually miss them because you never knew your life with them in it, but you can’t help but think about how great it would have been. I miss things like this on behalf of him, because I know he never missed them for himself.
I miss that he doesn’t know me now, that I have to write these thoughts and experiences down instead of calling him and telling him everything. If I could call him I’d tell him that I paid a sixteen year old who did not speak English to mark me with a traditional Thai tattoo. That the ink was made of charcoal and snake venom and it hurt like hell but now I wear a Buddhist blessing like a badge. I would tell him that when people ask why I came to Asia I respond that it was for the adventure but the truth is I came here for answers. I came here to forgive the world for what it had taken from me. Yet now I realize that the kind of loss I suffered is something you never recover from, and in it’s own way, that’s sort of like wearing a badge too. For both of our sakes, I hate that he knew the hot mess that was teenage Caitlin but not the one who wrote a book or rode an elephant because this one is far preferable, but I know he knows I’m fine. I know he always knew that.
I would tell this little girl that on the day that she will have to remember her father, decades and decades from now, her memories will be colored with emotion. She will be able to miss him happily and pull her shared experiences around her shoulders like a warm blanket. She will smile and tell one of his jokes, fumbling over the punch line and laughing through it and miss him in a warm way. But she will also miss him angrily. When she considers how suddenly he was taken. How permanent things are now.
The way you travel, I would tell her, will be different. You will always picture him there with you, what he’d be saying or what he’d be wearing; how intensely he would be listening to the travel guide. You will think of him in sunsets and beautiful scenery, and you will wonder if it’s in the same way, with the same grace, as he would have seen it. Years after he’s gone, you will still think you see him everywhere. Even though it challenges and slightly mocks your most basic sense of logic, some part of you will forever believe you might still see him. A quick glance or a familiar shadow, some sliver of a recognizable face as it disappears around a corner. You know that because he is no longer contained in one body, there are shards of him sprinkled everywhere. These shards will lure you to explore every dusty corner of the Earth for just one more glimpse of him. To hear his laugh one more time.
The hum of hellishly oversized mosquitoes has lulled me into a meditative trance and upon exiting it, I feel hot tears on my cheeks. My body slacks like a tightrope being loosened and I peer around, wondering if these curative Laotian waters have a hold on anyone else. A group of boys are playing cards in a circle; a couple is sharing a warm bottled soda with two straws. Gracious white birds tease the water with their toes. The father and daughter continue to color, her giggle puncturing the silence now and then. The world around me is unchanged.
I would tell her that, too. That your most profoundly destructive and restorative moments happen secretly, quietly, without the world taking notice. And one day when you take the slow boat down the Mekong and you observe another little girl coloring with her father, you might also find yourself in this position, the position I find myself in now. What would you do?, I ask her. Would you interrupt their paradise to say something or smile? Or do you simply let it be? An ephemeral memory of something shared between the whispers of the oars and the water, the creaky oak benches and the people who fill them. The sun sinks behind the river and reminds me that none of this belongs to us.
But love can outlive the elements. She will find that out someday.