On encountering familiar ghosts and facing that which I cannot outrun.

Shannon Leigh
Sep 5 · 7 min read

“I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead. ”
Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

Here I am, my first 24 hours in Mexico, staying at a resort in Playacar (which is a gated offshoot of the city of Playa Del Carmen, nestled in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, to be precise), and I can’t shake the feeling that my father is right here with me, but also, very far away.

Let me first explain that I lost my father on a hot day in July of last year, and I’m still in the process of trying to figure out how one might disentangle themselves from something like that. And I should add that my parents had once visited Mexico several years ago, though it is only after I arrive here that I learn they vacationed astonishingly close to the very resort in which I’m spending the week.

“It’s now called the Hilton, apparently,” says my mother, when I ask her where she and my father stayed all those years ago. But it was known as The Royal during the time in which they had visited, she clarifies.

I passed by The Hilton yesterday en route to my current resort. By my calculations, and based on my observations while being shuttled into this place, my parents were roughly a few minutes’ walk away from where I am currently standing. And in no way is this particular proximity planned or orchestrated; the fact is that it’s by complete happenstance that the photos I send my mother today remind her of the time she traveled to Mexico with my father some years ago.

The knowledge of this makes my mother and I both a little happier and a little sadder.

The scorching April heat here in Mexico is paired with a suffocating humidity that wraps itself around my skin the very moment I step off the airplane. Pothos and croton plants line outdoor planters, palms of all varieties adorn the lawns and entrances of each resort building, and snake plants welcome vacationers off the pathways and into the arches of their individual hotel units.

Though I have successfully staved off any trace of sunburn thus far by staying in the shade and applying copious amounts of SPF 50, when the sun gets to be too much, I dutifully return to the air-conditioned hotel room and curl up on the large white king bed to read Joan Didion and sip bottled water.

And despite, or maybe because of, this balmy weather, my father’s absence becomes so tangible it’s a presence in and of itself. It follows me back into the room and it sits in the chair right next to me, watching me as I read and re-hydrate. I wonder, did he, too, religiously apply sunscreen to avoid any notable sunburn as I have to this point, as it’s entirely from him that my skin has inherited its lifelong disdain for intense UV rays?

Did he eat at a restaurant such as the one I went to this evening, where I ordered a tomato salad and quesadillas? Did his stomach also disagree with the stark change in environment and subsequently, with food as well? How did he feel when he planted his feet in the white-hot sand for the very first time?

I also wonder what he’d say to the photos I took yesterday of the breathtaking beach, its waves cresting the shoreline and its palm trees too tall to capture within the frame. Would he reminisce as my mother currently does, of the time during which he visited this area, of the lush greenery and the turquoise water and the alabaster sand?

How would he feel about reflecting on bittersweet memories of an era in which he was still alive and happily married ? Would this all haunt him, like the way in which he’s haunting me now?

I am currently reading an essay by Joan Didion from her book The White Album where she discloses her affinity for water and the ability to control it. Being from California, access to water at one’s own whim was a privilege, and Didion reveals she has missed out on the one vocation for which, she claims, she has any affinity — that is, to drain large water reservoirs whenever one very well pleases.

This particular notion makes me think of two things, the first of which being that I can’t imagine living anywhere with such a hot climate, such as California (or Mexico), and not having easy access to water. The second thing is the fact that around the same era in which this essay was written — the 1970s — my father was out of University for the summer, and working at the Soo Locks, where, according to its main website, “freighters, barges, tugboats and more traverse the 21-foot drop between Lake Superior and Lake Huron every day and night.”

I remember him bringing to the Locks once when I was very young, long before I had the wisdom to understand that I should pay attention to these kinds of things because there would inevitably come a day, and this day would come sooner than I ever could anticipate, where I would not be able to ask him about the jobs he had or the things he did or the life he led before me.

Isn’t it funny the things we learn only after the fact, things we couldn’t possibly know otherwise, but that would’ve largely benefited us to know nonetheless? I could never have conceived that I’d lose my father before my 30th birthday and yet, now that life has imparted upon me this sobering wisdom, what can I even do with it?

I can’t go back in time and ask him how he enjoyed his work or have him write down his spaghetti recipe or prompt him for more stories of his childhood and adolescence. I can’t ask him what he aspired for his future or how he felt the moment he discovered he was to welcome a daughter into the world or what his thoughts were on his wedding day.

I can’t even send him photos of my trip and ask him if he remembers being in nearly the same location some years ago. And yet, I’d like to think — had I known our time together was so limited, I’d have posed some meaningful questions and taken better notes. Though I guess there’s no way to tell for sure.

“I know you miss him a lot,” says my mother, when I tell her that I really feel my father lately. What I take to mean by her acknowledgment is that by all accounts, all I’ve been doing is lacking him — a truth I can neither deny nor outrun.

I was thinking that a vacation from my everyday life and comfort level would perhaps distract me a little from everything that is him, but apparently, it only serves to help me run into him in a novel setting – in this case, an entirely new country.

As it turns out, every new experience I have from here on out is now reduced to being one in which he cannot partake, one in which he will not be there to receive the phone calls or text messages or coffee dates recapping the week’s events. One in which, like the thousands of moments that have yet to transpire, I wish for nothing more than to quite simply hear his voice.

It’s amazing how many times a day I run into the lack of him. I hadn’t realized before he died just how much I relied on his wisdom, or how often I sought his advice. No matter what topic, whether I needed to know how to weather-seal a door in the winter, or which car to purchase, or even how to best prepare a steak — my dad had the answers.

He was so meticulous with his things that my uncles used to joke if he bought a vehicle or stereo equipment and went to sell it some years later, you’d rush to get in line because they would surely be in better condition than they were when he first bought them.

The pain of losing someone you love so much is both hard to quantify and to qualify. The only word I can come up with that even skims the surface of how I felt and continue to feel in the wake of my father’s loss is gutted. Witnessing him slip into a coma after two days in the hospital gutted me. Spending the following three weeks praying for any sense of progress, no matter how big or small, gutted me.

Keeping a daily journal chronicling his progress in the intensicd care unit in hopes of eventually sharing it with him, only to discover that he wasn’t waking up, gutted me. Receiving news that my father had unexpectedly gone into cardiac arrest on a random Thursday night gutted me.

Having to walk into my father’s hospital room to say goodbye and being unable to breathe properly or steady my shaking hands, gutted me.

Having to leave the hospital and admit to myself every single day for the past year that he is truly gone, that continus to gut me. And the fact that he’s gone still takes some getting used to, and will continue to take some getting used to, even all the way out here in Quintana Roo.

Shannon Leigh

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I’m basically a house cat with a penchant for introspection | linktr.ee/shanleighwats

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